Self-confidence and self-esteem are two terms that are often used interchangeably. Because of a general misunderstanding about what constitutes self-esteem, people can get caught up on a merry-go-round of constantly trying to become better at a particular task, climb the career ladder, or focus all their attention on their looks in the hope that it’ll increase their self-esteem. In fact, self-confidence and self-esteem bear only a passing relationship to each other.
What is self-esteem?
Self-esteem is how we regard ourselves. It’s how we rate ourselves as human beings, how worthy we feel we are of a place in the world, just as we are. Self-esteem refers to our acceptance of ourselves and the value we place on ourselves. The word "esteem" means to regard highly or favourably. When we apply that to ourselves—and it is high—we regard ourselves highly. When it’s low, we regard ourselves lowly. It’s our overall evaluation of ourselves as human beings.
What is self-confidence?
Self-confidence, on the other hand, refers to the confidence we have in particular areas of our lives. We may feel very confident about getting up on stage to perform. We might feel confident regarding our work skills. We may have won several baking prizes and feel confident about our cake-making skills.
Why the confusion?
People often confuse self-confidence with self-esteem. They put all their effort into being the best sportsperson in the world and they’re very confident about their sporting abilities, but even getting the Olympic gold doesn’t make them happy. Think of all the celebrities who are dissatisfied with their lives, despite receiving Oscars and Grammys. Through years of excelling in a particular area of life and receiving positive feedback for it, they may well be self-confident in that area but, if their self-esteem remains low, they still don’t feel happy in themselves.
The sense of confusion between self-confidence and self-esteem often sends people down the wrong road in order to become that person who is more settled in their own skin. They may feel that a boob job will make them love themselves more, only to find that they now want a nose job and skin tuck and—at the end of all the procedures—they still don’t fundamentally like themselves.
Chasing solutions in terms of becoming better and better at something, or more and more attractive, means that you’re operating from a point of fear. The fear of being unacceptable—to yourself and to others—drives you to continually improve yourself. This can become a never-ending cycle as the self-confidence goals move further and further away.
How you regard yourself is probably set in your childhood. Whether or not you were given unconditional love and acceptance as a child will influence whether you accept yourself unconditionally or not. If you felt that you had to be the best or the most attractive to be accepted by your parents, this will influence your connection between accepting yourself as being based on your achievements.
This isn’t to say that striving to be good at something you derive satisfaction from is a bad thing. And, whilst self-esteem is often established at an early age, it does fluctuate throughout a person’s life. Part of that fluctuation may be related to feeling high levels of self-confidence with regard to your career, role in the family, or creative pursuits.
In short, don’t assume that gaining high self-confidence in any particular area is going to automatically lead to feeling better about yourself. Improving your self-esteem involves working on self-acceptance and self-love as opposed to constantly trying to "fix" yourself by working on what you can do better.