Self-Esteem, Part One: What Self-Esteem Means and Why Yours Matters

Merriam-Webster® defines self-esteem as “a confidence and satisfaction in oneself: self-respect.”  This describes positive, healthy or high self-esteem.  This is a state of feeling good about who you are and your place in the world, feeling that you deserve quality, and creating that quality in your life without apology.  This does not imply that you are all you think about, but merely addresses the way in which you see yourself.

Negative or low self-esteem is, of course, the opposite: Feeling badly about yourself and your place in the world, not feeling deserving of quality, and accepting a life of mediocrity or even suffering, in accordance with your low expectations.

Some people are actually afraid to have good self-esteem, presuming it will make them selfish, insensitive, and neglectful or exploitive of others as they seek their own self-centered gratification.  This is a misplaced fear, as healthy self-esteem is not narcissistic or selfish.  Some examples may help to clarify how various senses of self play out in real life.

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Angela has healthy self-esteem.  She feels good about who she is and who she is becoming.  She’s made mistakes along the way -- some big ones in fact -- but she understands that she wasn’t born with all knowledge and could only do the best she could with what she knew at the time.  She focuses on getting better and growing as she moves forward.  She knows she’ll never be perfect, but embraces a lifelong process of fine-tuning, getting ever closer to her best self with time and experience. 

Angela takes good care of herself, incorporating good nutrition, rest, and exercise into most of her days.  She cares for others to the extent that she can without undermining her personal well-being (physically, emotionally, financially, etc.).  She understands that in order to be a strong support for others, she must remain strong in general.  She spends time at activities and with people she really enjoys, which gives her more energy for facing the challenges of her life when they come.  She steers clear of those who treat her with low regard, confident that she deserves better and that the world is full of other people from whom to choose.  Her mood is generally cheerful and optimistic, though life can certainly be tiring at times.  Life is good, and she’s happy to be here.

Barbara has low self-esteem.  She believes she is defective and inferior, and lives with constant shame.  She’s made horrendous mistakes that she believes no one else would ever make, and for which she can’t forgive herself.  She can’t believe how stupid and inept she is.  Unattractive, too.  She knows she has some strengths in life, but feels these are the exceptions to the rule of who she really is: a personal failure, a misfit, perhaps an alien dumped here from another planet.  She judges herself constantly for the things she doesn’t know, can’t do, or can’t get right.  She is her own worst critic, and she is relentless in this pursuit. 

Barbara practices little, if any, self-care because she’s not worth the effort and it wouldn’t help anyway.  Besides, there are so many more important ways that her time needs to be spent.  She cares for and gives to others whether or not she can afford to, and regardless of how they treat her in return.  She believes that to do less would be selfish and wrong, “not nice.”  As a result, Barbara is commonly overwhelmed, over-committed, and may even be in debt due to her generosity to others.  She tries to understand when others aren’t very nice to her; she can’t afford to lose anyone, because then she would be alone.  After all, who else would have her??  Barbara’s conversation tends to focus on problems and how hard life is.  She has little in the way of personal interests, but there’s no time for frivolous stuff like that anyway, so it’s a moot point.  Life is exhausting -- it seems to be just one disappointment or crisis after another.  Barbara’s mood is most often depressed, though glimmers of enjoyment occur now and then.  Life is hard, and it will be easier some day when it’s over.

Carla is selfish and narcissistic.  She believes that she should get whatever she wants, whenever she wants it; she acts as if she believes the world owes this to her.  She’s made mistakes but scarcely notices and doesn’t really care.  She has more important things to think about, primarily involving how she can get more of what she wants without having to make an effort for it.  Carla is awesome, and people who don’t see that are just idiots who don’t get it.  Carla’s not much into introspection as there’s no obvious payoff. 

Carla may or may not practice quality self-care, but she makes sure she gets really great nail jobs and keeps herself in the trendiest styles and toys.  Hey, she’s got a lot of credit available, so no problem.  Carla shows little sympathy or empathy for others, much less showing any interest in giving of herself to them.  She doesn’t have time to think about them, really.  She and her friends enjoy their shared awesomeness, and wonder how the world can be so full of losers.  Carla spends lots of time in enjoyable activities, and tends to find support systems that will do the work of her life for her so she can maximize her fun time.  She’s often unkind to others, seeing them not so much as fellow human beings as background props in her life.  Their value to her is based on how useful they can be in helping her to get what she wants, and she can become quite enraged when they don’t come through as she requires.  Life is great, but annoying. 

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Angela tries to be supportive of Barbara but has to keep some distance because of the negativity that travels with Barbara most of the time.  Angela is polite to Carla but tries to avoid her as much as possible. 

Barbara likes Angela tremendously and wishes she could be one of the lucky ones to have a life like that; she wonders why Angela sometimes has to go when the conversation turns to the most recent life difficulty.  Barbara finds her friendship with Carla kind of demanding.  She gives much more to Carla than she ever gets back; she complains to others about what a taker Carla is, while keeping up her part of the one-sided relationship.  It sometimes actually hurts to talk to Carla, but Barbara tries not to dwell on that.   

Carla thinks Barbara is kind of pathetic.  She’s a little surprised at how well Barbara tolerates being talked down to but finds her useful, so it works out.  Carla doesn’t notice Angela much either way.

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Perhaps it becomes more evident now why healthy self-esteem is important.  It affects your mood, your outlook, your daily experience, and your sense of meaning in life.  Because it determines whether and how you take care of yourself, it is directly responsible for your level of physical health, or lack thereof.  It determines who you have in your life and how they treat you.  Self-esteem is one of the foundation building blocks of your life, so it pays to strengthen it as much as you can.  See Part Four of this series, Building Stronger Self-Esteem, for ideas on how to do that.   

Copyright © 2011, Elizabeth Babcock, LCSW.  All rights reserved.


Related articles:  

Self-Esteem, Part Two: Challenges to Self-Esteem as You Grow Through Life

Self-Esteem, Part Three: Common Signs of Low Self-Esteem

Self-Esteem, Part Four: Building Stronger Self-Esteem



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