Let me guess.
You might be thinking:
"Self-esteem, isn't that something you're born with?"
Yes and no.
You probably know of some people who have it all: they give a mind-blowing presentation on the fly, derive pleasure from the fact that difficult questions come up afterward, and then ask a co-worker out for dinner in front of the whole group.
I'm exaggerating a bit.
But still: you know people who have very high self-esteem right? And you know some people with low(er) self-esteem as well...
In fact, having very low self-esteem can be devastating for your life.
Think about all the opportunities you've missed because you hesitated, think about all the times you've sabotaged yourself because you thought you were "not good enough", and think about how often you're plagued about thinking back of these moments.
I'm not preaching gloom and doom though.
My message is positive.
Even though having low self-esteem makes everything in life more difficult: social situations, becoming successful, creating the right body image, and experiencing happiness, you can change that situation.
Stay tuned to find out how...
So you might be thinking: "what's self-esteem anyway?"
I'll tell you:
With high self-esteem you're thus judging yourself to be of higher value.
Different types of self-esteem exist, which makes matters more difficult, unfortunately,
You've got a level of self-esteem that you automatically and subconsciously assume, and self-esteem that you allocate to yourself upon reflection - the latter is displayed in action.
Even though you can observe that someone seems to have very high self-esteem that person might thus still be troubled on the inside.
Additionally, self-esteem can be more stable - as in more unconditional - or more defensive instead - in which case you're more aggressive in protecting what others think about you.
I consider the defensive instantiation not being true self-esteem because it comes with issues of its own.
You'll engage in more black and white thinking, are more prone to put labels on yourself that doesn't help you get along, have more fear of failure, and you'll take your feelings more personally.
Please keep in mind that having low self-esteem does not mean that you're ethically or morally depraved.
In fact, some types of what is traditionally considered high self-esteem - such as defensiveness - are linked to unethical behavior such as aggression. Narcissists also score high in self-esteem and may act unethically.
Keep in mind that some types of self-esteem, such as stable self-esteem, should be maximized.
Several strategies to improve that self-esteem are described in this full blog post, such as (psychological) cognitive behavior therapy, happiness journaling, rejection therapy, and mindfulness meditation.
Read the full blog post to find out how to use these strategies...
At a very basic level, self-compassion entails being kind for yourself despite your shortcomings, failures - independent from any circumstances.
In a sense, self-compassion is superior to self-esteem because it does not depend on how you value yourself in comparison to others. Why? Well, having more compassion for yourself does not detract from the compassion you can give to others.
Self-compassion is the inner voice that
leads you to love yourself regardless of circumstance.
Self-compassion's benefits are independent of self-esteem, such as improving your well-being, increase self-control, help you take better care of yourself (avoiding substance abuse and helping managing disease), and lowering negative self-talk.
Almost all of us will do better in life with higher self-compassion levels.
In doing so, you'd want to avoid the negative types of high self-esteem, such as defensiveness or the type that only shows itself in your behavior (while you can still remain anxious on the inside).
It's also important to remember that this summary does no justice at all to this blog post.
The full 15,000-word blog post will cover all these topics in much more depth, and tell you exactly what you need to know to improve your situation for the better.
Because let's face it:
Almost everyone wants the benefits of the right types of self-esteem, such as lowered stress, better coping with disease, higher quality social relationships, self-control, assertiveness, and especially greater overall happiness.
Take your first step to a better life today:
Read this full blog post.
You deserve a better life...
Last updated: March 25 2019
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Low And High Self-Esteem
Self-Esteem Under Assault:
*Post can contain affiliate links. Read my affiliate, medical, and privacy disclosure for more information.
Author: Bart Wolbers. Bart finished degrees in Physical Therapy, Philosophy (BA and MA), Philosophy of Science and Technology (MSc - Cum Laude), and Clinical Health Science (MSc).
Let's first make sure you and I are talking about the same thing with the words "self-esteem". In fact, you may have heard many terms that are often assumed to have roughly the same meaning:
Self-esteem, (self-)confidence, (self-)compassion, (self-)respect, self-assurance, self-regard, and self-image.
These words do not have the same meaning.
I'll (mostly) be talking about self-esteem.
I'll also give you my own definition of the word "self-esteem". That definition is very simple:
Let me explain...
If you judge yourself to be of great value you're having "high self-esteem. If you judge that you're of lower value, on the contrary, you've got "low self-esteem".
I know what you're thinking:
"how do you define "worth" or "value" in turn?"
You value yourself by comparing how well you are doing compared to others. With high self-esteem, you're judging that you do well compared to other people in life (in general).
(you'll soon see that the full story is more complicated though)
High-self esteem - traditionally interpreted - is thus paired with the judgment that you are generally worthy and competent. Low self-esteem is thus necessarily characterized by a self-judgment of (some) inferiority.
(Nerd section: I know the sentence of "doing well compared to other people" can still be interpreted as semantically-vague. Nevertheless, I do assume that giving definitions lead to an infinite regress that cannot be solved - I consider absolute linguistic certainty an illusion.)
Under that theory, self-esteem becomes a "self-fulfilling prophecy". Why? This theory presupposes that having more self-esteem improves your life, which subsequently improves your self-esteem again.
The underlying assumption is that you need self-esteem first.
I do not completely agree with that assessment.
If self-esteem would be purely subjective, you could be a total failure in life and yet have extremely high self-esteem. While that situation does occur quite often, I do not think that self-esteem is fully a matter of subjective evaluation.
Instead, I think it's essential to understand that we build and lose self-esteem based on our interactions in the world. I thus assume that there's always at least a sufficient reason - or root cause - for having either low or high self-esteem.
Let's say you (try to) learn flying a plane.
If you succeed in your first plane flight, your self-esteem will improve somewhat (even though you may already have irrationally high self-esteem levels.) If I crash the plane instead, your self-esteem will probably take a hit, even if it's just for a while.
Success generally builds self-esteem, while failure does the opposite.
Self-esteem is thus based on 1) your interactions with the world; 2) your self-judgments.
How you judge yourself thereby becomes very important, as your self-judgments change how you interact with that world.
Under the definition I just gave, judging myself to lower than is deserved will create problems with my interactions with the world. Going back to the example of flying an airplane, low self-esteem may prevent me from flying at all even though I might be perfectly capable.
Let's talk about judgment some more:
Instead of stopping all self-judgment, in this blog post I'm claiming you need the correct self-judgments.
(In the past, I've written an epic guide on mindfulness, wherein you also develop an acceptance skill that helps you let go of some unproductive ways of judging yourself.)
Self-judgment can be productive or can be unproductive, and everything in between.
So when are self-judgments productive or unproductive anyway?
I'll tell you: remember the plane crash example I just talked about?
Let's say I crash that plane, and I judge that I'm an amazing pilot anyway. That judgment would be very unproductive for my future self. Why? That self-judgment would set me up for failure in the future.
Judging yourself correctly, however, can increase how well you're doing in life - and your health.
Let's say I'm anxious when going door to door in a sales job, but nevertheless, succeed in getting my first sales. If I correctly judge I'm capable in that instance, my anxiety will get lowered, and I set myself up for more success in the future.
Overall, self-esteem thus determines how you judge yourself.
Correct self-judgments create more balance.
The 20th-century psychologist Abraham Maslow described self-esteem one of the most important psychological needs of human beings - at least after your needs such as food, water, housing, security, and social relationships were met.
Even in modern research, the validity of Maslow's "hierarchy of needs" is still (partially) maintained.[1; 2]
Maslow was not the first psychologist to deal with self-esteem though: the concept was actually invented in the 19th century by the famous psychologist William James.
The Iliad - an ancient Greek epic poem - frequently considers the term "hubris". Hubris is an excessive form of pride and exaggerated self-opinion that ultimately leads to the downfall of a person.
Hubris is an over-valuation of oneself.
In ancient Greek thought, esteeming yourself too highly expressed as hubris would upset the world order.
Gods would punish those who were hubristic.
(Side-joke: I guess my time for punishment has yet to come)
Excessive self-valuations - which is now commonly referred to as having extremely high self-esteem - have been met with skepticism throughout history.
In Roman times, for instance, victorious generals were paraded through the streets while a slave whispered in their ear that they are "just a man".
Self-judgment thus has a rich intellectual history, even though the specific term "self-esteem" has only been in use for over 100 years.
Hopefully, by seeing the two examples I've just given above, you're getting the hint that I do not think that more self-esteem is always better - more on that topic later. As you'll learn, moreover, very low self-esteem is also problematic in health (and life) as well.
Fortunately, you've got access to modern science to tackle that problem.
That debate has been going on for several decades.
Different types of self-esteem exist, such as your individually expressed self-esteem, that which is related to relationships, and the self-esteem of groups.
Simply put, you derive some self-esteem from your own "unique" qualities, some from your direct social relationships, and some from the groups which you belong to.
I'll only consider the first two options in this blog post.
Furthermore, your self-esteem also depends on the context in which you are situated.
Don't believe me?
Just look at a group of soccer hooligans: they're off the charts confident in a group setting - believing they can do anything - but might say "yes master" when their wife asks them to handle the garbage.
Okay, I'm exaggerating but you get the point...
In other words, there's no overly-simplistic dichotomy to be found here.
My self-esteem may be located on the extreme low end of the spectrum, may be average, somewhat high, extremely high, and irrationally high, and everything in between.
How do is your self-esteem scientifically measured?
We don't - at least, not fully reliable:
Self-esteem assessments are often subjective and measured by a self-reported scale that's filled out. As of this moment, there is no completely valid and reliable objective criterion available to assess your self-esteem levels.[315-318]
Probably scoring high in both the implicit
and secure variations of self-esteem. Still beware though...
In the West, self-esteem is more achievement-oriented, while in Eastern societies "being worthy" within a community matters more. Both conceptions of self-esteem have their upsides and downsides.
The upside of the Western conception is that you're more likely to achieve self-esteem on your own terms, but its downside is that you might end up with a lower self-image if you don't succeed in life.
The upside of the Eastern conception, on the contrary, is that there's less pressure on yourself as individual--the downside is that you'll have less freedom to achieve complete self-fulfillment by yourself.
Again, even in the West, however, self-esteem has not always been viewed positively. Besides the examples of ancient history I gave earlier, religious traditions often consider what is now known as "self-esteem" as an unwanted vice because it counters humility.
Excessive pride comes to mind as a vice that's closely related to self-esteem.
Now that I've given you the definition in this section, there's one remaining question:
Are you ready to roll?
One more thing first:
I'll always recommend you consider the low-hanging fruits of health first - which is true in the case of self-esteem as well.
Don't assume that working on your self-esteem alone makes you fundamentally healthy.
Instead, focus on making sure you get adequate sunlight every day, avoiding artificial light at night, conquering chronic stress, getting enough magnesium, and prioritize optimizing your sleep quality.
After you're doing these things, start "worrying" about your self-esteem. If you've got health problems, your self-esteem should not be prioritized in most instances.
Let's now dig into this fascinating topic of self-esteem.
Ready for a tour de force?
Before I tell you about whether changing self-esteem is possible, let's consider another classic question:
That question sounds kind of silly so hang on.
Let me give you some examples:
Did your alcoholic neighbor first start drinking and then develop low self-esteem, or did low self-esteem cause his problem?
Did you first successfully present to a big audience, and then gain greater self-esteem in presenting, or did you just act as if you had high self-esteem, and then develop that self-esteem internally?
Did you first accept mistreatment by your colleagues because you had low-self esteem, or low self-esteem precede the mistreatment?
Did growing up in poverty lower your self-esteem so that you're still having financial difficulties today, or does your self-esteem keep you in poverty for decades?
Why that question anyhow?
Let me explain:
In the past, I've written a blog post on how increasing your happiness levels grow your success. The scientific consensus thus tells us that happiness precedes and causes success, contrary to what many people believe.
The blog post has the fortunate message that you can (partially) influence your happiness levels through your actions. Even if you're (genetically) born with lower happiness levels, you're not doomed.
A same type of dynamic applies here: if you've got low self-esteem today, are you stuck with that outcome for a lifetime?
I've got good news:
The simple answer is "no".
In fact, your self-esteem even naturally changes over time, without any action on your part.
You can, of course, deviate from that path end up with lower (or higher) self-esteem due to events during your lifetime.
A traumatic experience, such as physical abuse when you were younger, can leave a lasting (negative) impact on your self-esteem. If your parents divorced or if you were neglected, problems can also ensue - depending on how such situations were handled.
Some other actions build self-esteem - such actions start early in life:
Telling your kid that you love them unconditionally gives them ammunition to combat negative moments in life.
Children's environment contributes immensely to their development of self-esteem. When children have a bad relationship with their parents, for example, closeness to their peers can partially make up for that deficit.
(Girls are more affected by their relationship with their mother than boys. There's thus lots of individual variation.)
Once you get older, high (or low) self-esteem is not guaranteed either.
A devastating illness or losing the love of your life can have a tremendous impact. You may end up with a sense that (your control over) life "is not up to you".
What builds self-esteem also changes throughout the years: as a kid, parental relationships are most important, as a young adult education becomes more essential, and as a senior the absence of illness is.
Overall, many situations can thus influence your self-esteem trajectory in life.
I get it: if you've won the "natural lottery" in the looks department that relationship is unfortunate instead.
You will nevertheless rate your own self-esteem higher when they're more physically attractive--the problem is that outside observers will not.
Self-esteem thus remains partially subjective.
Consider this argument why beauty does not necessarily build self-esteem:
Our self-esteem also increases massively during our 20s to 50s, even though most of us don't get any prettier during these years.
Being admired for your beauty:
a common source of delusion...
In other words, having self-esteem can work as a self-fulfilling prophecy. An absence of self-esteem, however, leads to the opposite direction: a downwards spiral - a destructive self-fulfilling prophecy.
But wait: "you've just told me that self-esteem does not necessarily work as a self-fulfilling prophecy?"
The point is that self-esteem can work as a self-fulfilling prophecy - that upward spiral is what we're after in this article.
The question then becomes: in what cases is increasing your self-esteem warranted, and in which cases are that increase unwarranted?
I'll get back to that question later...
Unfortunately, no large-scale studies have been conducted that have investigated whether it's really possible to change your implicit and secure self-esteem.[374; 375; 412]
Remember that your implicit self-esteem is your subconscious and automatic valuation of yourself, and your secure self-esteem depends more on your more unconditional self-evaluation instead of what other people think of you.
Nonetheless, your overall self-esteem can indeed change - I'll give you several strategies in section five to do so.
Regarding chicken and egg question: I don't think you need to worry about whether you first need to increase self-esteem to improve your behavior or whether to take the right actions to increase self-esteem.
The bottom-line is that self-esteem can be improved, and I'll tell you how to do so in the correct fashion.
First, however, I'll tell you everything you need to know about low self-esteem and its characteristics.
So, the million dollar question in your mind: "should having low self-esteem should keep me awake at night?"
While I'm not trying to cause panic or be an asshole, having self-esteem can be terrible. The upside is that by accepting that fact you may be able to change it.
And let me re-frame the problem even more:
What if I told you that low self-esteem is central to the human condition? In other words, we all have a voice inside our heads that's judgmental towards us in a bad way.
I do too...
In fact, I know negative self-talk very well. For example, my mind is sometimes telling me that:
And so forth.
Fortunately, that voice is absent most of the times.
The reason is in part because I had a good upbringing and never had any (big) issues in my early youth.
So thanks, mom and dad!
I've also achieved some good successes through my years, and learned who I am, which have benefited my self-esteem.
Additionally, starting a successful blog is harder than many people think - 99,5% of blogs out there fail big time. If you're functioning on the edge of your capacities, you're always going to have doubts (hopefully!).
Remember: even Elon Musk has daily doubts.
Some people, however, had negative experiences in early childhood or later in life that has sent their inner voice berserk.
Let's explore that inner voice in more detail...
In that case, your inner voice may be continually critical of yourself:
Overweight? No need for negative self-talk human!
Look at me, I fully accept my curves...
Again, the answer depends...
What if your parents have already called you fat from a young age, and other children in kindergarten and high-school peers did the same? Maybe a teacher made off-putting remarks as well.
Those moments affect you...
In that case, your inner voice may continually claim that you're not enough, fat, deprived, should do better and work harder. Your inner voice may even conclude your life is a tragedy, even though you're married and making a six-figure income.
Please observe that the self-talk displayed above has become completely irrational and out of touch with reality. That self-talk will negatively affect your behavior by continually draining the limited amount of energy that you have.
Even while being the number one bodybuilder in the world, Arnold Schwarzenegger still had a very negative self-image.
In fact, Schwarzenegger literally said that he'd throw up when looking in the mirror. Overall, he'd only make negative observations about himself, see errors, and never observe how good he was actually doing.
That low self-esteem is very out of place.
Well, most young men would give up a kidney (and perhaps two) to look like Schwarzenegger.
The lesson is that you can do really well in life and never develop high self-esteem. That's a bummer, as self-esteem has many advantages.
Your health is affected by self-esteem.
Let's say I have acne scars on my face (I do, actually), and I would continually judge myself as having an ugly face (I don't, actually).
In that case, my judging through negative self-talk makes me go through life as a different person.
There's a big difference between judging myself as having "gruesome scars" and "an ugly face" as opposed to having acne scars from my youth. Observe that first instance is more problematic while the second one is more neutral.
Low self-esteem expresses itself in many ways.
(Nerd section: unfortunately, there's very little medical research investigating the cause and effect relationships between self-esteem and the psychological phenomena described below. Nevertheless, I've tried to reconstruct the relationship between self-esteem and cognitive distortions as well as possible. The quality of evidence in psychological sciences - also regarding the subject of self-esteem - is notoriously low.[358-361] Multiple sources for each cognitive distortion have been cited to compensate for the weaker expected effect.)
Let's explore these six psychological attributes, besides negative self-talk of course.
Black and white thinking can also be understood as using lots of "categorical statements". Examples of categorical statements are "people never like me", or "every time I present I'm failing", or "nobody ever asks me on a date".
Categorical statements are often intertwined with negative self-talk.
Ask yourself this question:
Did other people really never like you, did you really fail every time you presented in front of a group and has not a single person ever asked you out on a date?
Of course not.
But that self-talk pattern makes it very difficult to get in the right mindset for whatever you're trying to accomplish:
It's hard to seize the day with negative self-talk.
Altering your self-talk takes effort though...
Let's look at another statement:
Categorical statements - exhibited as black and white thinking - does have health consequences.
Black and white thinking increases your chances of getting depressed and is increased in people who've previously experienced abuse. If you think black-and-white you also tend to have lower self-esteem, but it's not known whether it directly causes these self-esteem issues.
Black and white thinking, moreover, is also associated with having more (romantic) relationship issues.
Remember your "better half's" statement: "you're never spending any time with your family"?
That's black and white thinking right there.
To be 100% honest:
I'm actually very guilty of this type of thinking as well from time to time. I'm actually thinking "this blog is going to succeed whatever it takes" or "if this blog fails my life will have failed."
In doing so, I'm ignoring all the great things I've already achieved, such as completing three Master's degrees simultaneously (with great grades), creating a lean 220-pound body (even though I've given that sport up), being a good investor, and learning so much over the years.
Fortunately, I'm not dealing with black and white thinking most of the time. Usually, this type of thinking exists when I'm relaxing in my bed in the morning, ready to conquer the day.
The solution to black and white thinking is moving towards more fluid language. I'll tell you all about that option in section five where I consider many strategies to improve self-esteem.
The main problem with black and white thinking is that it's simply not true and completely illogical.
The antidote to black and white thinking:
being a boss cat with fur that's 50 shades of gray.
Black and white thinking is also exhibited in having many "musts" and "shoulds"
"I must lose 30 pounds of weight", "I should do the dishes tonight", "I must take actions x and y or else..."
In this regard, I stand guilty as charged yet again. I actually engage a lot in "musts" and "shoulds".
The absolute conditions entailed in musts and shoulds are not only illogical and irrational but also devastating for your well-being.
I can attest to that fact as well...
Let's consider the first example I've given: losing 30 pounds.
If you're currently working 70 hours a week trying to feed your children as a single mother while trying to move on from a failed romantic relationship, it might not be best to start a weight loss regimen.
In fact, even trying to lose 30 pounds in that instance will have negative consequences. "Shoulds" and "musts", in that instance, ensure more negative outcomes.
Please remember that you need to consider the viability of different actions depending on the unique circumstances - absolute values and demands of action (can) harm that flexibility.
"Shoulds" and "musts" often control your actions and actually set you up for more failure down the road. In the obesity example I gave before, the woman would do much better if she tried to lose 30 pounds once her circumstances in life had settled down.
You cannot do achieve all your goals at once.
"Catastrophization", or expecting the worst possible outcome in certain situations, is yet another troublesome self-talk pattern.[287; 288]
"If I stay 5 minutes longer with my friends, my wife will think I'm cheating"
"If I don't pay off debt this month I'll never retire"
"If I don't sleep well tonight I'll never do and get a disease"
Catastrophization is almost always a very specific form of black and white thinking.
If you're very prone to imagine the worst possible outcomes, for example, your body deals with pain differently. Catastrophizing also leads to higher frequencies of depressions.
Having (irrationally) gloomy expectations about the future is yet another example:
Someone may congratulate me on having 10,000 visitors to my website this year, and I may say "that's nothing, other websites have millions of visitors per month, so I'm still going to fail".
Another example of having irrationally bad future expectations would be foreseeing bad things to happen every time I exit the house, such as getting mugged.
That belief is totally irrational.
But let's move to the next topic:
Is taking the blame and not taking credit for achievements always wrong?
Of course not.
Taking responsibility can be a very effective communication (and life) strategy, as Jocko Willink has laid out in his excellent book "Extreme Ownership".
So I'll have to be very clear here: I'm not saying that you should avoid taking the blame for things you're personally responsible for - doing so would eventually come back to haunt you and undermine you.
What's I'm saying instead is that you shouldn't take the blame for anything you cannot control in the first place.
Phrased differently, the main question taking responsibility becomes "to whom or what do I attribute failure and success?"
If I'm studying really hard for an exam and still fail, I might attribute my failure to 1) a badly constructed test or 2) to my own poor studying method.
If I did study for the test incorrectly then blaming the test itself would be irrational and self-destructive in the long-term. Sure, my ego would get a quick boost by blaming the test, but in fact, I'd become more helpless over time if I dealt with my exam failures that way.
Let's say you're married and coming home from a long day of work. You've taken a couple of dozen oysters with you but upon entering the door your husband (or wife) blames you for not buying potatoes and beef.
Imagine you're still taking the blame for the accusation even though your partner never mentioned the wish potatoes and beef before. In that case, you'd be blaming yourself for an outcome you couldn't have affected.
Improper blame can actually be extremely toxic for any social relationship you have: you're losing autonomy because you're now responsible for things outside your control.
That blame-taking process can also be utterly destructive for your own self-esteem...
With lower self-esteem, you'll also be more likely to attribute successes that you've created to random luck. Low self-esteem then becomes more difficult to correct because you're less likely to accept positive feedback in the first place.
Observe how the vicious cycle keeps itself in place...
Please do not that it's not scientifically settled yet how often people attribute successes and failures wrongly to themselves or others - and what its effects are on self-esteem.
But let's move to the following topic:
Both options are problematic - and often interrelated.
Let's first consider fear of failure - or being afraid of making mistakes.
Mistakes are very seldom as personal than people think. In fact, most mistakes can teach you great lessons.
If you're afraid of failure, you're often not (sufficiently) aware that failures are part of the pathway to success. Failing more often moves you forward quicker towards success--only doing nothing makes sure that you fail in both the short-term and long-term.
If you interpret mistakes as a "personal failure" or "moral failure" then your interpretation of mistakes incapacitates your ability to take proper action.
You're thinking you're not good enough to be up for the task, or you're worried about what other people think of you if you do fail.
Fear of failure makes you unable to act properly in life. With fear of failure, you'll have more (psychological) stress, experience more shame if things do turn south, and have a higher risk of getting burnouts.
Of course, I'm not saying that every type of mistake should be seen as "part of the learning curve": lying, cheating or violence will (almost) always move you backward in life, especially in the long-term, and are never part of a learning curve.
Secondly, there's perfectionism.[262-265]
Perfectionism--far from an individual drive to be the best person possible--more often than not denotes a psychological drive to be admired.
Perfectionism is damaging if you're very concerned about the opinions of others and because you're you're afraid to make mistakes. It's precisely through the excessive pursuit of the opinions of others that fear of failure and perfectionism can be tightly interconnected.
Not all perfectionism is damaging though: the effects of perfectionism depend on the purpose of why you're engaging in it.
So what are signs of perfectionism's negative aspects?
Procrastination, fixing on your mistakes as opposed to your successes, not completing projects because you're always assuming they're not good enough (yet), and having extreme (and often impossible) standards.
A brain teaser:
Perfection as a result of perfectionism?
Or perfection due to the absence of perfectionism?
In fact, the negative aspects of perfectionism are associated with depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, heart disease, (chronic) stress, and more.
You'll have to realize that no-one can reach true perfection - perfection sets unattainable goals.
In a sense, perfectionism is a very illogical thinking pattern because it assures you always end up with lower quality rather than higher quality outcomes.
The suffering created by perfectionism drains your energy levels and thereby inhibits your ability to act effectively.
Perfectionism can be a force for good if the activity you're engaged in gives you pleasure and you don't suffer because of the high standards you set.
As a (semi-)joke, I've been guilty of perfectionism as well. In college, I often used to tell people that I'm not a perfectionist "because I'm already happy with a 9 out of 10 grade".
Perhaps that statement is the ultimate form of cognitive distortion, not only because it's the summum of perfectionist thinking, but also because I actively try to cover the perfectionism up.
Keeping the score: I thus end up with two characteristics of low self-esteem: black and white thinking and perfectionism.
The way you label yourself has enormous consequences.
Observe, for example, the following difference:
On the one hand, I could label myself as "a blogger who's eventually becoming very successful". On the other hand, I could see myself as "a blogger who will eventually be caught as a fraud".
Those two mutually exclusive labels will have very different effects on my behavior.
Making fun of yourself (in a way that's not self-deprecating) is one reflection of having lower self-esteem as well.
Labels also have consequences for your health.
For example, how you label yourself can influence how psychological issues develop over time. Just labeling yourself as someone with "mental health problems" can already cause social (and personal) stigma.
The course of chronic illnesses is also affected by the labels you put on yourself.
People who label themselves as having "dyslexia" or "having learning problems" (generally) have lower self-esteem than those who do not give themselves that label.
Labels are a double-edged sword.
If I label myself as "being obese", for example, I might be acknowledging that I've got a problem. But labeling myself as "obese" also cements my identity as being an obese person which is not necessarily what I want to do.
Labeling myself as a "drug addict" can be very dangerous as I might start living up to that term in the long-term.
Negative labels create a "confirmation bias", where people start to treat themselves and others according to their expectations of that label.
Don't believe me on the labels?
Let me give yet another example:
Teacher's expectations regarding the intelligence of their children can have a dramatic effect on where these children end up in school. Lower intelligence expectations lead to lower performance, and higher intelligence expectation lead to higher performance of children.
That's bad news...
If you often label yourself as a bad presenter, moreover, or as non-confident, as shy, anxious, depressed, unhappy, you may be damaging yourself unnecessarily.
Of course, if you're really anxious or depressed, you should not avoid labeling yourself like that either. You don't want to deny having problems.
My recommendation is to be aware of the label's effects instead.
It's also essential to choose labels that do not incapacitate you. Instead of yourself as a "bad presenter", it's better to label yourself as someone who "has 4 unsuccessful presentations, and 3 successful ones".
The latter label is even more in touch with reality and can set you up for more future success.
Labels are often black or white.
You either have self-confidence or you don't, and if you don't display great confidence then you're "low-confidence".
That thinking is illogical and damaging...
That black and white label does no justice for your ability to slowly increase your confidence levels over time - even if you currently have lower confidence.
If you did average in the confidence department instead, you're also not taking credit for that performance by unnecessarily considering yourself being "low" in the confidence department.
Disqualifying positive events in your life can thus be problematic.[275-280]
With lower self-esteem, you'll even automatically interpreting feedback about yourself as more negative. Even if others don't necessarily label you negatively, you will do so yourself.
"Don't label me as depressed human.
I'm just cold"
I hope you're seeing a pattern here: many types of low self-esteem thinking are actually irrational and untrue thinking patterns.
Ever heard of "emotional reasoning"?
In emotional reasoning, you're inferring consequences directly from an emotional state.
Let's say I'm having terrible social anxiety. In that case, I will infer from the presence of my anxiety that I must be in acute danger. I may also assume that people are going to laugh at my appearance when they see me, or that I'm going to be physically attacked.
Emotional reasoning is totally illogical...
There's an invalid logical inference from feeling anxiety to concluding that I must be in danger.
Just have a look at how dangerous emotional reasoning can be:
"people are laughing, and therefore they must be making fun of me"
"I'm depressed, I must thus have done something (morally) wrong."
"I feel lonely, and therefore other people would not like to talk to me"
"I feel fat, and therefore I am overweight"
Please remember that I'm not mounting a crusade against emotions here - I'm only warning of the dangers of drawing incorrect logical conclusions on the basis of emotions.
Emotions are great.
Making wrong conclusions on the basis of emotions is not so great...
Let's say you've got an anxiety disorder - which makes you more prone to engage in emotional reasoning in the first place. In that case, learning to engage less in emotional reasoning decreases your anxiety or fear you're having.
Fortunately, having high(er) self-esteem may protect against some of the forms of emotional reasoning.
You're less likely to be offended because of comments that other make, for example. Again, people with higher self-esteem realize they are not necessarily their emotions.
In fact, a single feeling proves nothing.
Everyone feels down sometimes, but feeling down does not make you a bad person.
The feeling that you're fat does not mean much in face of the observation that you've got a 12% bodyfat percentage and that all your friends tell you that you're lean.
The goal for people who engage in lots of emotional reasoning is not just to become logically convince themselves that their conclusions don't make sense--they also need to train themselves so that feelings (or emotions) eventually re-align with reality.
Yes, that's easier said than done: I'll handle that topic in section five.
With lower self-esteem you'll be more affected by criticism even if that criticism is incorrect.
Interestingly enough, people with lower self-esteem (and anxiety) are more prone to consider that self-esteem dependent on the approval of others. With lower self-esteem, you're also more prone to discard compliments given to you.
With lower self-esteem, you're literally feeling more social pain when you're excluded from a game (or social situations and group).
People with low self-esteem therefore feel more invalidated when they're rejected by others - rejection is more personal.
Once you've got low self esteem, you're also more prone to have psychological and social problems, which further cements that negative self-image. Having more conflicts additionally cause your self-esteem to develop more slowly from adolescence to adulthood.
So what's the point of laying all this information out?
If you don't express any of these six psychological attributes to any extent then you're simply not human.
Remember that I also match with two of these attributes listed above, such as black and white thinking and perfectionism...
So what's the catch?
Excessively taking irrational feelings seriously, excessively giving yourself negative labels, or excessively blaming yourself for events outside your control is damaging.
Low self-esteem becomes problematic when your life and health suffers under it. If you're frequently engaging in five out of six criteria, you may also have a problem...
(Again, I'm not fear mongering: I'll tell you how to solve these issues later.)
Of course, there can be many more reasons than the ones listed above. Surprisingly, social media use, such as Instagram and Facebook is mixed in terms of outcomes and depends on your popularity there.
(Nerd section: it's self-evident that no randomized controlled trials exist investigating the effects of trauma or bullying. Fortunately, some longitudinal cohort studies could be included in the subjects of bullying, sexual assault, drinking, and drug use (including marijuana), so cause and effect relationships can be posited in some instances.)
So that's it?
"Avoid low self-esteem at all cost?"
Hopefully, yes. But as often, it's not that simple:
Very high self-esteem - or excessive self-esteem - can be just as dangerous as its diminished variation. Yes, contrary to the perception that most people have, you can have too much self-esteem.
I'll treat excessive self-esteem in section seven.
Let's first consider the (many) advantages higher self-esteem can have.
Your eyes are weird human,
because they have the same color...
Finally, the section you've been waiting for:
Let's consider the benefits of (high) self-esteem...
The full list of self-esteem benefits...
Let's consider children, teenagers, and adolescents, for example. Adolescents:
Obesity, arthritis, or diabetes as a kid??
Lower self-esteem again...
Interestingly enough, in some instances of chronic disease children have higher rather than lower self-esteem. The reason for that higher self-esteem might be that these children have successfully dealt with lots of hardship.
Competence breeds confidence, even though that statement sounds rough.
Even in adults, most (but not all) diseases tend to lower your self-esteem, creating a potentially vicious cycle between self-esteem and disease.
With lower self-esteem you are more likely to be hopeless, and it may be the hopelessness that better explains worse disease outcomes in longer-term health developments than self-esteem.
The effects of self-esteem upon disease may thus partially be derived from the mindset you're upholding.
So, can you conclude that self-esteem is the greatest invention since sliced bread?
Not at all.
Sliced bread - or grains in general - made our ancestors lives much shorter and decreased their health.
Self-esteem (can) come with its own problems, just like sliced bread.
I'll nevertheless tell you all you need to know about the problems of self-esteem in the seventh section.
In the following section, you'll first learn about several strategies to build genuine self-esteem.
You'll change from a geek into a total Arnold Schwarzenegger... oh no, Schwarzenegger had low self-esteem in some ways.
(I know I'm not taking women into account with that statement. Women, pick your favorite high self-esteem hero - whether that's Catwoman, Dagny Taggart, or Daenerys Targaryen.)
Hubris, here we come...
Nowadays it's sometimes claimed that self-esteem is a cause rather than an effect of life's outcomes. The assumption is that you thus first need to increase your self-esteem so that you can only then reap the rewards in other areas of your life.
I do think that statement is overly simplistic.
Waiting for the right circumstances to improve self-esteem is nevertheless a devastating strategy.
What to do instead?
Realize that it does not always matter whether self-esteem causes competence or the other way around. What you'd want instead is to strategically tackle problem areas you might have, so that you at least don't have (very) low self-esteem - which always holds you back.
Follow (some of) the strategies listed below and you'll become your own action hero in no-time.
Well, maybe not an action hero but an improved you instead.
The first strategy to consider:
When you're looking in magazines and in psychology papers, you'd get the impression that self-esteem is purely in your head. The subsequent advice entails that by changing your mindset you can change your life.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
In fact, biological factors such as your hormones play a massive role in your self-esteem levels. Genetics can be vital as well.
Let's consider these biological factors - which you can fortunately influence:
Simply put, If you sleep well have higher self-esteem--with poor sleep the opposite effect is achieved.
As mentioned earlier, your general food choices also affect your levels of self-esteem--preventing (and reversing) disease accomplishes the same.
Although there are many studies demonstrating a link between the primarily male hormone "testosterone" and self-confidence, the self-esteem is not yet established beyond reasonable doubt.
The link between testosterone and self-esteem is really plausible though.
Overall I'll keep this first strategy relatively straightforward:
Improving your overall health is probably one of the greatest bets you can place to keep your self-esteem levels higher.
The happiness journal I'm referring to is often called a "gratitude journal".
I don't like the term "gratitude", however, because it often denotes an undeserved or indebted attitude. There's actual evidence to back up my claim: gratitude often signifies that you've received something you should pay back or something didn't really earn.
Nevertheless, your overall gratitude has a direct effect on your overall happiness levels and self-esteem. As a result, you'll be less likely depressed and fewer suicidal thoughts.
For even better results, I recommend journaling about what makes you happy rather than what makes you grateful.
You can buy an inexpensive happiness journal HERE.
If you're short on money, however, you don't even need to buy that happiness journal. Simply write the following things down on a piece of paper each and every morning:
During the evening, subsequently, write down the following:
If you're thinking: "that's deceptively simple" then you are fully correct.
This technique is extremely simple, and yet produces dramatic results. Just try writing a daily happiness journal for just two weeks.
At worst, you'll waste a few sheets of paper. At best, you'll start building a virtuous cycle of self-esteem improvement (and gain more happiness as a side-effect).
I love the drill...
I've previously written an ultimate guide on mindfulness meditation. I'll do a quick recap here though.
While the following statement might be somewhat counter-intuitive, mindfulness meditation can be used to increase your self-esteem.
By systematically detaching you from your states of mind. Examples of states of mind are desires, thoughts, intentions, beliefs, emotions, passions, etcetera.
Mindfulness teaches you to become aware of your current states of mind and accepting them as they come. You'll essentially learn to not hold onto positive states of mind or push away negative states of mind.
Let's say I'm feeling lonely.
What most people would do in that case is avoid feeling the loneliness as much as possible and thus resist the emotion. By resisting that emotion, however, the loneliness persists.
By being fully accepting of any state of mind that's currently in your consciousness you're able to let that state of mind go. Accepting your loneliness thus paradoxically leads to less loneliness.
Different states of mind associated with lower self-esteem, such as not being good enough, not being loved, feeling insecure, etcetera. These states of mind will all decrease in intensity (and even disappear) if you're fully accepting of them.
Mindfulness is 100% free and can be practiced anywhere.
Mindfulness can also help you deal with negative self-talk.
By focusing on what lies beyond such negative thoughts: the awareness of the thoughts.
In my ultimate guide about mindfulness, I've described the skill of presence. Presence denotes the ability to stay "in the moment".
With presence, you're not letting raging thoughts distract you and you're continually returning your focus towards an object in your environment. An example is continually returning to your breath.
The longer you practice the presence skill, the more you're going to observe patterns in your thought.
The same can be done for self-talk: you can become more aware of the patterns - aware of your mind operates. By seeing the pattern of negative self-talk you become aware that these thoughts are not always you, nor are they always in your best interest.
Overall, mindfulness increases your self-esteem and lowers (social) anxiety.
Remember that with lower self-esteem, you'll also have more problems in your social life--those problems can also be reduced through mindfulness.
That's a big potential win...
I'll tell you all you need to know about Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) in a moment.
Let's first consider another topic:
Remember the earlier section where I talked about the many characteristics of low self-esteem?
Labeling yourself, having certain negative expectations, always having to be right, categorical statements, overgeneralizing your failures, etcetera?
CBT helps you deal in all these instances.
CBT is a form of psychotherapy.
CBT assumes that your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors are all interconnected with each other and that behavioral and thinking becomes pathological once one of these dimensions becomes abnormal or unbalanced.
CBT that aims to alter both your behavior and your thinking patterns so that you're able to solve problems in your life.
By changing your behavior and thinking patterns, your emotions will eventually follow - your brain is thus re-programmed for the better.
Let's say I've got trouble building friendships.
In that case, I might have behavioral issues (e.g., I might not know how to start a conversation with a stranger) and I might have psychological issues in my thinking pattern (e.g., I may continually assume that others are looking down on me.)
By tackling these issues CBT can help me overcome problems I'm dealing with.
With my issue with friendships, CBT may ask me whether it's rational to think that all people look down on me, and to examine that thought. By correcting the thought, and then trying out behavior that will establish friendships, I may finally be able to turn that emotion around as well.
Anxiety around making friends that I may have had before is eventually reduced.
In fact, CBT can help with anxiety disorders, anger control, and overall stress, which are all issues related to self-esteem.
You humans have daily stress? Really? Better be a monkey instead...
If you've got Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (AHDH), a depression, obesity, or an eating disorder, CBT may also directly raises your self-esteem.
Interestingly enough, just as mindfulness-based practices have their roots in ancient Eastern intellectual development, CBT has strong affiliations with Greek Stoic philosophy.
The fundamental thought behind CBT is that cognitive distortions, such as irrational negative self-talk, can cause suffering and impede your ability to navigate the world.
Stoic philosophers also thought that irrational thoughts about the world created suffering and reduced the prospects of true happiness (although I'm grossly oversimplifying here.)
Let me give you another example:
I've mentioned emotional reasoning earlier: let's say that I'm feeling lonely and I (incorrectly) conclude on the basis of that loneliness that people must not like me.
At that moment, I'm abstracting a general conclusion about the world from my emotional state. That conclusion is not neutral in its effects, however. Why? Because once I start believing that people don't like me, I'm going to assume they really don't.
My behavior changes in turn...
I end up with even fewer opportunities to interact with other people, further strengthening my loneliness (and my belief that people don't like me).
Another example might be envisioning worst-case scenarios all the time. A belief that everyone will start laughing as soon as you begin your important presentation is clearly irrational - and yet, some people have such thoughts.
CBT systematically helps you remove such cognitive distortions about yourself and the world. That way you can solve self-esteem problems like social anxiety or extreme fear before presentations.
You may not always be able to change your emotions--at first at least--but in the end, by changing your thoughts and behaviors eventually your emotions will follow.
Let me explain:
Just be very, very honest to yourself here: do you engage in using labels that are overly negative, or black and white thinking, or think about worst-case scenarios most of the time?
Think about the consequences:
How many opportunities do you miss in life because you're talking to yourself or your abilities down?
People have wasted years and even decades of their lives by not taking action and not being their best.
You don't have to make that mistake.
Of course, I'm not saying you should "be your very best at all possible times". What I'm claiming instead is that if you're radically under performing compared to your capabilities you're doing yourself an injustice.
You could be a better caregiver, employee, boss, brother, sister, grandma, granddad, and so forth...
The earlier you correct a mistake, the better.
Low self-esteem can be turned around by focusing more on the ways in which you've succeeded in the past - which CBT also emphasizes.
Overall, CBT makes you more aware of negative self-talk.
Remember that negative self-talk is not going to give you better health outcomes.
Again, being very critical towards yourself is another characteristic of low(er) self-esteem people, which is exhibited in both perfectionism and negative self-labels.
Let's suppose I'm very, very critical of myself because I'm no longer exercising a lot due to starting this blog.
All the energy I'm spending on negative self-talk and the gloom and doom will not help me exercise more for one second. Only spending time actually exercising will help in that regard.
You're paying a disastrous price for negative self-talk by losing energy all the time.
Remember I talked about my acne scars?
If I'd focus on these scars every time I'd look in the mirror, and thought I'm having these "grotesque" and "horrid" scars, I'd be engaging irrational (and negative) self-talk.
Now, to be perfectly honest, there are actually things I'd like to change about myself. Almost everyone, in fact, would change something about themselves if they could.
Negative self-talk is like a swearing parrot
who won't stop talking...
Negative self-judgments need to be balanced, however.
The final goal of improving self-esteem is to use judgments that are neutral instead of negative. It's also important to consciously observe the positive judgments you do have, instead of just focusing on all the negative judgments you make.
If I'd engage in lots of negative self-talk I'd continually focus on just the negative aspects of my life--while ignoring positive achievements, actions, and personal properties.
Let's say I'm excessively worrying whether I'm going to make the company that I've started successful (which has happened at times). In that case, I'd focus 10% of my daily thoughts on the negative aspects of my self-image, while focusing maybe 3-5% of my thoughts on positive parts of myself.
Such negative self-talk becomes more dangerous once you're putting a very strong continual judgment on it.
A neutral observation, in my case, might be that "90% of businesses fail within the first 5 years". It's not a neutral, however, to tell myself that "I'm a loser in business and I'm never going to make it".
That statement is not just more neutral, but also trueer.
From a CBT perspective, I would be better off telling myself that "I've got no present business experience". CBT progressively helps you detach from such negative labels by looking at your thoughts critically.
Bottom line: the way you talk to yourself can massively affect your overall self-esteem. CBT helps there.
Yes, there's actually a thing called "rejection therapy".
I've used this strategy with great success in the past, although I've not practiced it for very long.
In rejection therapy, you're intentionally seeking out to be rejected by other people. How? By making outrageous proposals, for instance.
Examples of rejection therapy exercises I've done are trying to order a Big Mac at Burger King, or trying to give strangers a euro on the street.
Are you interested in this method? Watch the following amazing video about rejection therapy.
Please note, interestingly enough, that rejection therapy builds your implicit self-esteem instead of your explicit self-esteem. Why? Well, because explicit self-esteem is more based upon what other people think about you.
Implicit self-esteem, on the contrary, is grounded in your (subconscious) self.
With rejection therapy, you're always going to get disapproval from other people, and thus, you cannot rely on explicit self-esteem in those situations. You need to rely on your own validation during rejection therapy instead.
Unfortunately, I cannot find any studies investigating whether decreasing your sensitivity to rejection directly improves self-esteem. Nevertheless, rejection therapy has lots of commonalities with CBT in a sense.
Because you're gradually exposing yourself to the things you find scary or to situations in which you have low self-esteem. As a result, both your emotions and thinking pattern change over time.
You'll create an understanding that rejection is not the end of the world, which will further help your behavior.
Try rejection therapy - it's 100% free, just like mindfulness. Interestingly enough, mindfulness practice may also decrease your susceptibility to rejection.
Think about mistakes for a second:
If you avoided mistakes at all cost, you'd never learn to walk or ride the bicycle as a kid. You'd be stuck crawling on the floor forever, up until today.
And yet, you've learned to walk and ride the bicycle as a kid through lots of failures.
In fact, everyone is going to make mistakes when pushing their limits.
Put more strongly: making mistakes is an essential byproduct of challenging yourself. In other words, if you're not making mistakes you're not pushing yourself hard enough.
In fact, by never making mistakes the only outcome you'll ever get is never improving.
Of course, I don't mean that you should make mistakes on purpose. What I'm saying instead is that failures are not always the end of the world.
In perfectionism, for example, anything but the very best outcome in the world is often seen as a failure.
As you know right now, perfectionism is intertwined with a fear of failure. Re-framing how you see mistakes can lower your propensity for perfectionism.
Of course, perfectionism is not all bad.
The positive aspects of perfectionism can help you get a lot done in life. Perfectionism is thus not an exclusively negative trait or thinking-pattern to possess.
Nevertheless, the bad forms of perfectionism can do lots of damage. People with perfectionism are not only more prone to procrastinate but also have higher chances of being suicidal, for example.
It's specifically the negative types of perfectionism that make you procrastinate more. And remember: perfectionism increases suffering, allowing you to get less done overall.
Overall, seeing mistakes as an essential byproduct of success can re-frame many situations in your life where self-esteem plays a major role.
Mindfulness, again, can also reduce perfectionism - thereby further reducing your suffering.
If you're thinking: "that outcome is somewhat self-evident" then you're right.
No shocker here...
Let me explain:
The greater your perceived fitness levels, the higher people tend to rate their self-esteem. Interestingly enough, improving your exercise capacity also directly improves your self-esteem.
That positive effect of exercise on self-esteem are also observed in children and adolescents. Young girls are less dissatisfied with their body once they start exercising.
The same connection is also found in adults: exercise can improve your self-image, especially if you're overweight or obese. Your self-image may regress back to its baseline once you stop exercising.
Habits rule the day, as always.
Overall, there's thus a direct causal relationship between engaging in exercise and improving self-esteem.
Are there more benefits?
Exercise also leads to overall mood improvements. And while more research is needed, combining exercise, nature, and social activities seem to produce the best results.
Building self-esteem together in nature...
This strategy is recommended for everyone: even healthy people who have a meaning in life will increase your self-esteem. If you've got anxiety, for example, you'll increase your self-esteem once you choose to find more meaning in your life.
The natural question to ask in turn is how to find your life's purpose.
Naturally, I can't give you that answer.
I can only tell you what won't work: having a purpose that directly contradicts the tendencies of personality. Find out more about the relationship between personality, health, and your life's purpose in my 100% free Health Foundations Introduction course.
Make lists of your achievements and read them every day. For some people with low self-esteem, looking at what they previously achieved can massively help.
If you've got low(er) self-esteem, you'll often exclusively focus on what's going wrong in your life--without seeing the bigger picture.
If you have a long list of achievements tied to your name, however, and still experience low self-esteem, it's time to move into the other direction: you'll have to realize that achievement alone can never make you fundamentally secure.
Always pursuing more achievements to build self-esteem is thus especially dangerous.
If your self-esteem is nevertheless too low, focusing more on your achievements can be a very simple strategy. Revel in three past achievements by adding them daily to your happiness journal - described in tip two of this section.
Remember I talked about all kinds of different cognitive distortions that low self-esteem people engage in, such as black and white thinking, labeling themselves negatively, and taking responsibility for something they could not control?
Having what is called a "growth mindset" is a (partial) antidote to such habits.
The growth mindset assumes that your mind can change over time.
Who you were two years ago will thus not determine who you can be today. And who you are today does not have to determine who you will be in two years from now.
The "fixed mindset" is the opposite of the "growth mindset". The fixed mindset assumes that you're the same person you were five years ago and will be the same person in five years as well.
A fixed mindset torpedoes your ability to change because you'll never assume that change is possible in the first place.
The growth mindset, on the contrary, will also counter the thought that there's something intrinsically wrong with yourself.
Because that mindset does not assume that your behavior is set in stone - even if you're poorly off today you can be a different person in one year from now.
Can you change everything about yourself then?
Some parts of your personality are more or less set in stone - such as whether you're an extrovert or introvert. The upside is that you can always change and grow as a person, no matter who you are.
Introverts can thus become better introverts, and extroverts can be better extroverts.
It's very important to remember that changing your self-esteem takes time.
Some people are in therapy for years sometimes because of self-esteem issues. Of course, some people taking long to re-program their brains does not mean you have to.
You can have results today. It's always best to start sooner than later. In other words, the more quickly deal with the issue, if you have problematic self-esteem levels, the better.
Also make sure you're not moving towards an excess.
Yes, really, I'll tell you everything you need to know about self-esteem excesses in the next section.
You might be thinking: "so let's build my self-esteem up as high as humanly possible."
Not so quick...
There's no scientific consensus that more self-esteem is always better. In fact, higher levels of self-esteem may be associated with a greater ability of human beings to deceive themselves.
High self-esteem is a protection mechanism against excessive anxiety and fear, helping you cope with the many events that can wrong in life. More self-esteem simply equals thinking more highly of yourself, which is emotionally soothing.
The pursuit of greater self-esteem may also be costly.
Well, excessive self-esteem can be associated with narcissism.[157-163; 230]
Narcissism entails that someone attributes an excessively and disproportional high value to themselves.
You can have high self-esteem without being a narcissist, for instance.
Interestingly enough, narcissists are consciously aware that they value themselves more highly than other people do. Narcissists also know that their initially powerful impression often fades with time.
There's a catch though:
Remember I talked about different types of self-esteem? One distinction that could be made was between "explicit" self-esteem and "implicit" self-esteem.
The first "explicit" type signified that's mostly expressed upon conscious reflection and behaviorally - in your actions--the second "implicit" kind of self-esteem entailed that you don't just act as if you have high self-esteem, but you're also (subconsciously) convinced that you've got high value.
Narcissists score lower on the implicit self-esteem, although that point is scientifically controversial. Narcissists' self-esteem is certainly more defensive and they thus score lower on secure self-esteem.
Remember it's precisely the secure self-esteem you're after, if you really want the full health benefits - the defensive type of self-esteem has side-effects.
The flip-side is that you can thus be a narcissist and have (secure) self-esteem.
Different types of narcissism do exist, such as narcissistic grandiosity or narcissistic vulnerability.
Vulnerable narcissism is linked even stronger to having lower self-esteem. People with vulnerable narcissism often have a victim mentality in which they want validation for their bad circumstances.
Nevertheless, the interactions of vulnerable narcissists still all revolve around them, just as is the case with grandiose narcissists.
Narcissistic people are more prone to be cruel, entitled, and have illusions of grandiosity, while people with high (secure) self-esteem are more likely to derive self-worth from equal social relationships.
Narcissism is frequently related to feelings of shame and not living up to one's standards. Narcissists continually need validation from outside themselves.
If you've got high self-esteem, on the contrary, you're more prone to cooperate with others, be open to (rational) feedback, and perceive all human beings as being equally worthy of value.
But let's nonetheless return to the shocking statement that even self-esteem may not all be what it is wound up to be.[168; 169; 240; 300]
What's promoted instead is a fake or illusory self-esteem that depends on your achievements or material possessions. Society in developed countries systematically distorts what it means to have high self-esteem.
If you're a man living in the US, for example, you may think that you should only have self-esteem once you reach a 7-figure income, have a sports car, look like Adonis, and have a playboy model as your wife.
As a woman, you're only "entitled" to self-esteem if you have over 100,000 Instagram followers, a great career, and have a derriere like Kim Kardashian.
The danger of self-esteem is people start to assume they can only have it once they reach certain goals in life.
That's a big mistake...
True self-esteem: helping others does not
bring you down.
If you have low self-esteem, you're more prone to be non-accepting towards negative emotions, have problems regulating these emotions, engage in greater expressions of hostility, and you'll more frequently attribute problems as originating outside your responsibility.
People who score high in self-esteem and high in narcissism, however, are even more aggressive.
Keep in mind that for narcissists, (verbal) aggression is often a response to an ego that's being threatened.
Having good social support may reduce your propensity for aggression (in men) - a social life wins once again.
Women don't need aggression, and generally have other methods of getting "back at you", such as causing reputation damage...
There's more trouble though:
You'll be more prone to favor people in your group, for example, than people who do not belong to your social community.
Self-esteem that's too high in relation to your capabilities even lowers your overall performance - increasing your satisfaction at a job but not affecting how well you're doing career-wise, for example.
Higher self-esteem also makes you rate your own intelligence higher than it really is.[114; 340-343] Importantly, self-esteem is sometimes also seen as the end result of good academic performance, not its cause.
Again, self-esteem simply makes you persist longer without giving up. But: higher self-esteem is not always necessarily better.
With higher self-esteem you'll rate your popularity, your social skills, and quality of your friendships higher--but these results tend not to be confirmed by others such as your friends.
High self-esteem can be deceptive in leadership positions - you'll not do your job any better.
Becoming more assertive, however, is one counterexample wherein you do have enormous benefits from having higher self-esteem.
With lower self-esteem, on the contrary, you're also more prone to be jealous, have less social support, and lower quality social relations with others. You'll also read more into problems and create (unnecessary) distance from others.
Tough choice right?
You're damned either way...
So what's the solution?
Self-compassion might be a superior way of looking at yourself compared to most types of self-esteem (except the secure kind).
Self-compassion is fundamentally unconditional, and hence, not dependent on circumstances. Instead, self-compassion assumes more of a third-person awareness of yourself that tells you to treat yourself kindly in all circumstances, even difficult ones.
In other words, you're always still worthy of love despite your shortcomings or failures. In a sense, self-compassion is thus the opposite of negative self-talk.
Be as compassionate to yourself
as you are towards those who you love.
Fortunately, by becoming more compassionate towards yourself you'll also become compassionate towards others.
Self-compassion thus avoids a problem of most types of high self-esteem: you increase self-esteem at the cost of your valuation of others--self-compassion, on the contrary, helps everyone.
Sounds great right?
If you're thinking: "give me ten tips to improve my self-compassion" then I'll have to disappoint you.
Unfortunately, there's not that much research on improving self-compassion.
(Nerd section: problematically, most of the studies on self-compassion are still associative and cross-sectional studies, making it very hard to posit valid cause and effect relationships. What's fascinating is that many self-compassion authors claim that the pursuit of self-compassion can replace that of self-esteem--I do not agree. I assume that studies will eventually demonstrate that very high self-compassion levels are equally as destructive as very low self-compassion levels. Why? Because you'll become too nice to yourself and never take action when you should. Some will make the counterargument that I don't understand self-compassion, because taking assertive action can also be compassionate. I've not taken a final position on this subject (nor on any subject.))
One reason for that effect is probably because you wind up less in possibly destructive states of mind, such as fear, rumination, or anxiety. You'll also be able to let these states of mind go, further increasing the chances that you'll act in the real best interest of yourself.
What is called "heart rate variability training", secondly, can also directly increase your self-compassion levels. That's an interesting finding.
Assuming a growth mindset, happiness journaling, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and forgiving yourself for past mistakes have also been suggested as means to improve self-compassion.
Sadly enough, I can currently only recommend these therapies based upon anecdotal evidence as of right now.
I'll be closely watching the research that's coming out in the area of self-compassion in the coming years and updating this article in turn.
While self-compassion should be limitless, there's a golden mean to most types of self-esteem.
I hereby assume that self-esteem is created as a reflection of how successfully your actions are carried out within the world.
For that reason, most types of self-esteem must be earned, such as those relating to your competence in certain actions. Self-esteem should thus track your general ability in a given skill.
In terms of secure self-esteem, however, I do assume that a more limitless approach is better. Everyone deserves that security in life.
If I'm a very bad driver, for example, I should not have enormous self-esteem in my ability to drive a car - that's extremely destructive.
If I'm a bad student, I should not have extremely high self-esteem levels - again, that self-esteem is undeserved and detrimental.
Let's say I do indeed have very high self-esteem levels while I'm writing a paper on an academic subject. What will the final outcome of that paper be?
A bloody disaster...
Let me give you another reason:
Children develop what is called a "theory of mind" at a very early age. That theory of mind entails that children learn that the world does not revolve just around them, but that other humans in their consciousness have thoughts, feelings, desires, and intentions of their own.
A theory of mind is integral for developing an adequate account of consciousness of yourself and others.
Without attributing thoughts and emotions to other human beings, you can never be successful (in the world).
What's my point?
Decades of brainwashing in developed societies have created the destructive illusion that more self-esteem is always better--it's not. Excessive self-esteem can lead to entitlement and misery - two states of mind that are over-represented in modern societies.
Having entitlement - through excessive self-esteem - means that you're no longer acting out that theory of mind in any proper fashion. The end result of that entitlement is less compassion and fewer win-win outcomes in social situations.
On another note:
Remember the self-deception I just talked about earlier?
If you've got very high self-esteem, you're more prone express what is called the "Dunning-Kruger" effect - a belief in false superiority.[238; 239]
Translated to the theory of mind I talked about earlier, that false superiority makes you esteem yourself higher than others even though there's no logical basis to do so in the first place.
Society's conception of self-esteem is thus very dangerous.
An example of a result of that development?
So why does that dynamic occur?
Well, since the 1970s and 1980s, many self-help programs have emphasized the importance of self-esteem. The assumption of many of such programs was that most people had low self-esteem issues.
The assumption was that society would progress by fixing those issues.
That program of building the self-esteem levels of the general population may not be warranted.
Again, in part, because self-esteem programs exacerbate all kinds of biases that are positive towards yourself but negative towards other. Through such biases, you'll start to value yourself as better than you truly are.[310-313]
College students, for instance, have seen decreases in their performance in the last few decades but have had increases in their self-esteem. Interestingly enough, the less contextual implicit self-esteem is going down instead of up.
Let's say I have to give a presentation and I'm feeling somewhat anxious for that big moment.
I've done very well giving presentations in the past, but my anxiety is holding me back from performing at my best that day.
I decide to drink a few glasses of wine 2 hours before the final presentation and end up doing pretty well, in part, because my anxiety is dramatically lowered.
Due to the alcohol, my self-esteem temporarily assumes the levels I needed to perform optimally in that situation. Of course, you can question whether dealing with my anxiety issues through drinking is a good coping strategy - but in this specific case, the drinking did the job.
(Please keep in mind that drinking is never a long-term solution.)
Now imagine this:
Instead of drinking two glasses of wine, I'm becoming very confident and decide to finish the full bottle. An hour later, I'm expecting to give a mind-blowing presentation while my self-esteem is off the charts.
I even start to think that everyone likes me and I'm smiling from ear to ear.
The sad part of the story is that I completely blow the presentation. Making matters worse, I get reprimanded for smelling like alcohol.
Moral of the story?
To be sure, I'm not saying that if you're a janitor (or a broke blogger like me) that you should have low self-esteem.
Not at all...
Even as a janitor or broke blogger you can learn to properly predict how other people respond to your actions, and change your behavior accordingly.
Qua competence, you need self-esteem should match your ability to interact with the world. Qua secure self-esteem, you need unconditional love.
Let's look at which situations very high self-esteem in terms of competence is indeed warranted:
If you've done thousands or presentations in front of different audiences, then you deserve to have very high self-esteem levels in that situation.
Your self-esteem in presenting is high because you've earned it. You've earned that self-esteem because you're actually really good - you're not just thinking you're good.
In summary: it's always best to have high stable self-esteem levels regardless of your circumstances. But your self-esteem regarding certain actions, abilities, and habits should track your capability.
As you've seen by now, having low self-esteem can be devastating. Nevertheless, low self-esteem is almost never your fault.
Most people just ended up that way without knowing how to change their situation.
As always, practice makes perfect.
Interestingly enough, your conception of self-esteem may have ended up very differently than you'd initially expect after starting to read this article.
You may have thought the self-esteem is hubristic, narcissistic, self-indulgent, and combative--but instead, it ended up being calm and peaceful:
It's not a coincidence that self-esteem mostly has benefits in the social domain and stress management.
If you've been reading my blog for a while, however, you do know that I consider your social life and stress as keys to improving health.
You now understand that self-esteem is fundamentally important for your happiness levels, getting high-quality friendships, helping you deal with disease, and lowering your stress levels.
On a very fundamental level, everyone deserves self-esteem.
Of course, some types of self-esteem such as those related to competence should match reality. There's no need to assume you can:
present in front of 20,000 people if you've never presented in front of 20 people before.
run a marathon if you never ran 2 miles before.
put others down and come off as "likable" in social settings.
On the other hand, there's no reason to assume you cannot do those things either in the long-run.
Just make sure you don't have the confidence you can without actually being through the experience...
Even though there's not much evidence on how to increase self-compassion, self-compassion does work wonders for your life and health.
Mindfulness, happiness journaling, and assuming a growth mindset can possibly help with achieving that greater self-compassion.
Over time I'm even assuming that (self)-compassion eclipses self-esteem in importance. In a few decades, I'll probably write a "Self-Compassion Revolution" blog post.
Be compassionate and build stable self-esteem that's not based on how others see you.
Take the first step.
You deserve it...
Not next year...
You can do it!
*Post can contain affiliate links. Read my affiliate, medical, and privacy disclosure for more information.
Author: Bart Wolbers. Bart finished degrees in Physical Therapy, Philosophy (BA and MA), Philosophy of Science and Technology (MSc - Cum Laude), and Clinical Health Science (MSc).
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