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Improving Self Esteem

What Is Self Esteem?

Self esteem (or self worth) is a measure of how valuable a person considers him/herself to be. If we have high self esteem we feel good about ourselves, and tend to live life positively. However, many people suffer from low self esteem, believing themselves to be of low, or no worth.

Self esteem is a judgment of oneself as well as an attitude toward the self. Self esteem encompasses beliefs (for example, “I am competent,” “I am worthy”) and emotions such as triumph, despair, pride and shame.[1] Smith and Mackie define it by saying “The self-concept is what we think about the self; self-esteem, is the positive or negative evaluations of the self, as in how we feel about it.”[2]

Self Esteem = Self Confidence + Self Respect

In 1969 Nathaniel Branden defined self esteem as “the experience of being competent to cope with the basic challenges of life and being worthy of happiness.” According to Branden, self esteem is the sum of self confidence (a feeling of personal capacity) and self respect (a feeling of personal worth). It exists as a consequence of the implicit judgment that every person has of their ability to face life’s challenges, to understand and solve problems, and their right to achieve happiness, and be given respect.[3]

Carl Rogers, a founder of humanistic psychology, believed many people’s problems originate from their self-loathing and self-view of being unvaluable and unworthy of being loved.

Self Esteem and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

American psychologist Abraham Maslow included self esteem in his influential 1943 theory of hierarchy of needs.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
Image by User:Factoryjoe

Maslow described two different forms of esteem: the need for respect from others, and the need for self-respect, or inner self esteem.[4] Respect from others entails recognition, acceptance, status, and appreciation, and was believed to be more fragile and easily lost than inner self esteem. According to Maslow, without the fulfillment of the self esteem need, individuals will be driven to seek it and unable to grow and obtain self-actualization.

Causes of Low Self Esteem

To some extent we are born with a particular set of psychological characteristics that, amongst other things, provide a initial level of self esteem.

However, in addition to our innate psychological profile, our life experiences have a major influence on the development of our self esteem. This is particularly true of the experiences of childhood and adolescence, with later experiences having less capacity to make a difference. Initially our most significant experiences come from our parents/guardians, hence the huge importance of parenting upon children’s later quality of life.

The experiences of school life also have a major influence on the development of self esteem, both in terms of academic success and the ability to socialize and be accepted by one’s peers.

Thus, supportive parenting can help those born with naturally low self esteem to overcome this trait. Similarly, those with a naturally high innate self esteem will be more resilient to the effects of unsupportive parenting.

Characteristics of High and Low Self Esteem

Bonet [6] describes the following indicators of self esteem

People with positive self esteem:

Typical characteristics of low self esteem:

Although individuals are generally instinctively aware of their level of self esteem, a number of assessment instruments have been developed. A free online self esteem test is available at based on the Rosenberg 10- item scale, one of the most widely used evaluations.

Self Esteem, Locus of Control, and the Self-serving Bias

Our locus of control is the extent to which we feel able to influence our destiny.

Those with low self esteem frequently exhibit an external locus of control, ie they believe they have very little power to change what happens to them. This tends to create a feedback loop in which those lacking perceived power cease to try, as a result they experience sub-optimal outcomes (compared to what might have been achieved with effort), thus their poor self-image and resultant perceived helplessness is reinforced.

A related concept is that of self-serving bias, defined by Smith [7] as “a tendency to attribute our positive outcomes to internal causes and our negative outcomes to external causes”. Poor self esteem causes this bias to be reversed with positive events attributed to luck and the self blamed for negative occurrences.

How to Raise Self Esteem

Although our current level of self esteem is determined largely by the combination of our innate psychology and (early) life experiences it is possible to increase low self esteem.

The first step in raising self esteem is recognizing its lack as a problem. The very fact you are reading this indicates an awareness of the issue.

In order to change something you need an idea of what you’d like to change it to. This comes from both knowledge of your current strengths and weaknesses, and a vision of what you’re ideal self and life would be like. The process of identifying your strengths in itself should help raise self esteem by highlighting reasons to feel good about yourself.

Determine to make the best of what you are. Take time to list your (many) positive qualities. Emphasize your strengths and, unless you have real good reason, play down your less-strong attributes. Don’t try to be what you’re not, that’s impossible, and the realization of that impossibility is only likely to be a further blow to a limited self esteem.

Create an action plan to get from where you are now to where you want to be. Take time to monitor your progress and revise your plan appropriately.

Become aware of negative thoughts about yourself. When you are faced with a desirable opportunity but find yourself thinking “I can’t, I’m not clever enough, they wouldn’t like me etc.” Stop. If you’re not sure whether you can do something, pretend you can. Give yourself positive affirmations, eg: “I am good enough, I can do this etc.” Remind yourself of all the positive things you have accomplished.

More help with raising self esteem


  1. Hewitt, John P. (2009). Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology. Oxford University Press. pp. 217–224.
  2. E. R. Smith/D. M. Mackie, Social Psychology (2007)p. 107
  3. Nathaniel Branden. Cómo mejorar su autoestima. 1987. Versión traducida: 1990. 1ª edición en formato electrónico: enero de 2010. Ediciones Paidós Ibérica. ISBN 978-84-493-2347-8.
  4. Maslow A. H. (1987). Motivation and Personality (3rd ed.). New York: Harper & Row.
  5. Welch, I. D., & Rodwick, J. R. (1978). Communicating the sciences: A humanistic viewpoint. In I. D. Welch, G. A. Tate, & F. Richards (Eds.), Humanistic psychology: A source book (pp. 335-42). Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books.
  6. José-Vicente Bonet. Sé amigo de ti mismo: manual de autoestima. 1997. Ed. Sal Terrae. Maliaño (Cantabria, España). ISBN 978-84-293-1133-4.
  7. Smith, R. A. (2005). The classroom as a social psychology laboratory. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 24(1), 62-71.

This article uses material from the Wikipedia article Self-esteem, which is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.

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