Answering Misconceptions about Self-Esteem

 1.  Does self-esteem mean feeling good about yourself?

Self-esteem is an experience.   It is a particular way of experiencing the self.   It is a good deal more than a mere feeling.  It involves emotional, evaluative, and cognitive components.   It also entails certain action dispositions: to move toward life rather than away from it; to move toward consciousness rather than away from it; to treat facts with respect rather than denial; to operate self-responsibly rather than the opposite.

Self-esteem is the disposition to experience oneself as being competent to cope with the basic challenges of life and of being worthy of happiness. It is confidence in the efficacy of our mind, in our ability to think.   By extension, it is confidence in our ability to learn, make appropriate choices and decisions, and respond effectively to change. It is also the experience that success, achievement, fulfillment-happiness-are right and natural for us.

Self-esteem is not the euphoria or buoyancy that may be temporarily induced by a drug, a compliment, or a love affair.   It is not an illusion or hallucination.  Lots of things (some of them quite dubious) can make us “feel good”-for a while.  If self-esteem is not grounded in reality, if it is not built over time through the appropriate operation of mind-for example, through operating consciously, self-responsibly, and with integrity–it is not self-esteem.

2.  Doesn’t a teacher’s preoccupation with nurturing a student’s self-esteem get in the way of academic achievement?

That depends on the teacher’s understanding of self-esteem and what is required to nurture it.  

If a teacher treats students with respect, avoids ridicule and other belittling remarks, deals with everyone fairly and justly, and projects a strong, benevolent conviction about every student’s potential, then that teacher is supporting both self-esteem and the process of learning and mastering challenges.   For such a teacher, self-esteem is tied to reality, not to faking reality.  

In contrast, however, if a teacher tries to nurture self-esteem by empty praise that bears no relationship to the students’ actual accomplishments-dropping all objective standards-allowing young people to believe that the only passport to self-esteem they need is the recognition that they are “unique”-then self-esteem is undermined and so is academic achievement.  

We help people to grow by holding rational expectations up to them, not by expecting nothing of them; the latter is a message of contempt.


3.  Can anyone develop high self-esteem or is it the prerogative of a fortunate minority?  

People of average intelligence or better can, in principle, grow into psychologically healthy adults. Obviously parents, teachers, and other adults can do a great deal to make the road to self-esteem easier or harder.   Sometimes, where there are deep psychic wounds and traumas, left unresolved since childhood, a decent level of self-esteem can be very difficult to achieve.   In such cases, psychotherapy may be necessary.  

But I have never met anyone utterly devoid of self-esteem and I have never met anyone unable to grow in self-esteem, assuming appropriate opportunities for learning exist in their world-space.


4.  Doesn’t a focus on self-esteem encourage excessive and inappropriate self-absorption?  

Rationally, one does not focus on self-esteem per se; one focuses on the practices that support and nurture self-esteem-such as the practice of living consciously, of self-acceptance, of self-responsibility, of self-assertiveness, of purposefulness, and of integrity, as I discuss in The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem. 

Self-esteem demands a high reality-orientation; it is grounded in a reverent respect for facts and truth.   Excessive and inappropriate self-absorption is symptomatic of poor self-esteem, not high self-esteem.   If there is something we are confident about, we do not obsess about it-we get on with living.

5.  Can’t one have too much self-esteem?

No, not if one is talking about reality-based self-esteem rather than grandiosity.   It is no more possible to have too much self-esteem than it is to have too much physical or mental health.   But sometimes when people lack adequate self-esteem they fall into arrogance, boasting, and grandiosity as a defense mechanism-a compensatory strategy.   Their problem is not that they have too big an ego but that they have too small a one.

Further, let me say that high self-esteem is not egotism, as some people mistakenly imagine.  Egotism is an attitude of bragging, boasting, arrogating to oneself qualities one does not possess, throwing one’s weight around, seeking to prove one’s superiority to others-all evidences of insecurity and underdeveloped self-esteem.

6.  Isn’t self-esteem essentially a godless pursuit?

Is watching one’s diet and eating intelligently a “godless pursuit?”   Is exercising?   Is striving to learn and grow?   Is the pursuit of self-development and self-realization “godless?”   Why would one think in such terms?  

With regard to self-esteem, I do not see “God” as relevant, one way or the other-unless you believe in a malevolent God who wishes human beings to face the challenges of life in a state of terror and paralysis.  

The plain truth is, some people with good self-esteem believe in God and others with good self-esteem do not.

7.  Isn’t self-esteem determined by parental upbringing?

How some parents wish it were!   But the truth is, many factors influence our self-esteem.   Certainly parental upbringing is important; parents can make the road to self-esteem easier or harder-but they cannot determine the ultimate level of their child’s self-esteem.  

Neither can teachers or other adults.   Neither can biology–nor birth experiences.   Yet all these factors can play a role.   And among these factors, none is likely to be as important as the influence of parents, primarily through the values they instill, which can lead a child toward or away from growing self-esteem.

However, we must remember the role that each individual plays, through the choices and decisions we make every day.  

We are not merely clay on which external forces write.   We are active contestants in the drama.  

As adults, we carry primary responsibility for the level of self-esteem we develop.

8. Isn’t self-esteem the consequence of approval from “significant others?”

No.   If we live semi-consciously, non-self-responsibly, and without integrity, it will not matter who loves us-we will not love ourselves.   When people betray their mind and judgment  (“sell their souls”) to win the approval of their “significant others,” they may win that approval but their self-esteem suffers.

What shall it profit us to win the approval of the whole world and lose our own?

It is commonly held that among young people the approval of “significant others” does profoundly affect self-esteem, and to some extent this is doubtless true-but one has to wonder about the reality of a self-esteem that is so precarious that it crashes easily if that approval is withdrawn.

9. Don’t the possession of good looks, popularity, and wealth almost guarantee self-esteem?

People who lack self-esteem sometimes think so, but the truth is that in today’s world there are celebrities who have physical beauty, millions of adoring fans, and millions of dollars-and still they cannot get through a day without drugs.   They live with severe anxiety or depression or both.   Good looks, popularity, and wealth guarantee nothing-if one does not have the self-esteem to support them.  

Lacking such self-esteem, it is very easy to feel like an imposter, waiting to be “found out”–and waiting for all one’s advantages to be blown away.

Even among young people, where the assets mentioned above tend to be more important, the relation of these assets to self-esteem is fragile at best; long-term, they are far from an adequate foundation for the experience of competence and worth.

10. Does praising appropriate behavior nurture self-esteem?

That depends on what is meant by “praising.”

If we see a child acting consciously and responsibly, and we acknowledge this behavior with recognition and appreciation, we may increase the likelihood that such behavior will be repeated.   If we ridicule, punish, or ignore it, we may produce the opposite result.   Either way, we may indirectly influence the child’s self-esteem (although not necessarily).

But to be effective, “praise”-or, more exactly, recognition–should be reality-based, calibrated to the significance of the child’s actions (in other words, not extravagant or grandiose), and directed at the child’s behavior rather than his or her character.   Sweeping statements such as “You’re a perfect angel,” or “You’re always such a good girl,” or “You’re always so kind and loving,” are not helpful: rather than nurture self-esteem, they tend to evoke anxiety, since the child knows there are times when they are not true.

Even with these restrictions, praise or recognition needs to be administered cautiously, so as to avoid turning a child into an approval-addict.   We want a child to experience the intrinsic pleasure that flows from appropriate behavior.   We want the child to become the source of his or her own approval, not always waiting eagerly for ours.   So we need to avoid bombarding a child with our “evaluations.”

11.  Isn’t it true that if you have high self-esteem, nothing bothers you?

Some enthusiasts for self-esteem believe good self-esteem solves nearly all the important problems of life.  This is untrue.  Struggle is intrinsic to life.  Sooner or later everyone experiences anxiety and pain-and while self-esteem can make one less susceptible, it cannot make one impervious.   To offer a simple example: If someone you love dies, does having good self-esteem mean the loss won’t “bother” you?   Clearly not.

Think of self-esteem as the immune system of consciousness.   If you have a healthy immune system, you might become ill, but you are less likely to; if you do become ill, you will likely recover faster-your resilience is greater.  Similarly, if you have high self-esteem, you might still know times of emotional suffering, but less often and with a faster recovery-your resilience is greater.  

A well-developed sense of self is a necessary but not a sufficient condition of your well-being.  Its presence does not guarantee fulfillment, but its absence guarantees some measure of anxiety, frustration, and despair.

Some people, when they face new challenges initially perceived as intimidating or overwhelming, may suffer a temporary dip in the level of their self-esteem.  Then, as they persevere and master the new challenges, self-esteem rises again.   Such fluctuations are normal.

12.  Once you’ve attained self-esteem, is it automatically maintained forever?

Every value pertaining to life requires action to maintain it.  If we do not continue to breathe, the breathing we did yesterday will not keep us alive today.   The same principle applies to self-esteem and the practices that support it.  

If–through the six practices mentioned above–we have succeeded in building good self-esteem, this does not mean that we now drop those practices without harm to ourselves.

If we do not choose to sustain these practices-if we elect to operative mindlessly, irresponsibly, without integrity-there is no way for self-esteem to avoid being adversely affected.

Neither a business, nor a marriage, nor a soul can be kept alive and healthy without continuous effort. Responsibility for appropriate action never ends.

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21 Comments on “Answering Misconceptions about Self-Esteem”

  1. dsonshine Says:

    As it pertains to self-esteem. the quote below from Rand’s article — “Bootleg Romanticism” — has always bothered me.

    “A sensitive, discriminating man, who has abosrbed that [malevolent] sense of life, but retained some vestige of self-esteem, will avoid so revealing a profession as art.”

    This seems to suggest that one’s self-esteem would be preserved by not “revealing” the truth (your sense of life through art) to others. Isn’t this an example of social metaphysics and/or some variant of pseudo-self-esteem?

  2. Ralf Wilmes Says:

    “10. Does praising (appropriate behavior) nurture self-esteem?” As I see it, your answer to this is applicable too, to popular motivational methods using ”affirmations” to repeat to yourself like ”I am a wonderful person”. It never worked for me , but would like to hear your opinion on this.

  3. haroldzoid Says:

    Dr. Branden,

    Thanks for sharing. I like your definition of self-esteem as experiencing oneself as being competent to cope among other things. For me it’s playing piano (2 months), going from viewing “mistakes” as an indictment of my ability to seeing them realistically as a part of the learning process. Having a high(er) self concept really does change everything.

  4. Hi, Harold,

    Good for you and more power to you.


  5. Dear Ralf,

    Like you, I am not impressed by affirmations. I have not seen them work for people.

    Good luck with the path you have chosen.


  6. dsonshine Says:

    As it pertains to self-esteem. the quote below from Rand’s article — “Bootleg Romanticism” — has always bothered me.

    “A sensitive, discriminating man, who has abosrbed that [malevolent] sense of life, but retained some vestige of self-esteem, will avoid so revealing a profession as art.”

    This seems to suggest that one’s self-esteem would be preserved by not “revealing” the truth (your sense of life through art) to others. Isn’t this an example of social metaphysics and/or some variant of pseudo-self-esteem?

  7. Dear dsonshine,

    Rand offers no evidence for her assertion and I doubt its validity. Rand was fond of offering “psychological? explanations that had very little to support them. See “My Years with Ayn Rand” in this connection.


  8. euinulm Says:

    One of my favorite parts in “My Years with Ayn Rand” is at the end of chapter 8 when your vague ideas on self esteem are coming together. As you think out loud with Rand, your excitement is catchy and jumps off the pages. I’m re-reading the book as I wait delivery of 2 of your books (The Psychology of Romantic Love & A Woman’s Self-Esteem) and the book’s energy does not decrease despite already knowing the story.

    Have you ever dealt with cases of low self esteem in relation to cultural adjustment of living outside one’s native country? If so-could you discuss an example?

  9. Euinulm,

    Sure, Euinulm,

    I work with clients via telephone from all over the world–people who have read one or more of my books, and the experience is very rewarding and stimulating for me.

    A common example is the young man or woman who feels constrained by the inhibiting “rules” he/she grew up with, but no longer sees value in them.

    I remind them that every great story of the hero’s journey begins with the hero leaving family as the first step in discovering his/her true (potential) identity. Saying “No!” to Father or to Aunt Sonia may not sound like much, but it may mark the
    beginning of embracing one’s higher, more lucid, self

  10. keylady Says:

    Dear Dr. Branden,

    I’ve read several of your books after learning about your work through Steve Chandler. Your definitions of self-esteem have helped me tremendously; my question is about the ego and its role in healthy self-esteem.

    The reason I am asking is that I have several friends who are taking park in Oprah’s online course on Eckhart Tolle’s “An New Earth” and they have the idea that ego is a thing that must be defeated somehow. This sounds amiss to me–it seems a certain amount of ego is necessary for being in the world.


  11. Dear keylady,

    Yes, the ego is attacked by many sources today. What’s doubly confusing, is that rarely is any definition provided.

    For my own views on this subject read my “Honoring the Self” and “The Art of Living Consciously.” You will find a very different approach than that generally in use today.

  12. chrislipp Says:

    Reading #10 (praise by others), it made me think of a great book I started reading by Carol Dweck titled Mindset. She suggests the way in which a parent praises a child for their action noticably affects the child’s activity. If a parent praises a child’s good exam grade by saying “wow, you’re smart,” the child tries to protect the label by seeking less challenge in the future (fixed mindset). If the parent says “wow, you must have worked really hard!” the child’s focus becomes his/her action (growth mindset). People who have a growth mindset are more apt to seek challenge and able to cope with failure, vs fixed mindset.

    There is correlation here that praise negatively influences children when the praise given is dependent upon a label or interpretation; whereas, “praise” that simply recognizes the actions of a child (it’s really not praise, it’s only visibility), has positive impact. For many reasons, I find her work thoroughly compatible with the given definition of self-esteem.

  13. Dear chrislipp

    I find difficult to avoid thinking that this question is meant to be a joke. The definition alone would give you the answer you’re looking for, if you really are serious.

    Who is better equipped to deal with the challenges of life–a person who experiences a deep sense of his own efficacy, or a person lacking in this experience?

    Who feel worthy or deserving of any value he achives or gains–love, success, happiness–or a person who doesn’t?

    For more details, read the complete works of Nathaniel Branden…or even “Honoring the Self.”

  14. Dear chrislpp,

    In response to your second question…

    I completely agree with the point being made in the book you mention. Praise, however well-inentioned, can be dangerous–as the great child psychologist Haim Ginott wrote, many decades ago in “Parent & Child.”

    You will find an explanation in Ginott’s book or in my “Six Pillars.”


  15. chrislipp Says:

    Dear Nathaniel,

    I was very unclear regarding my question on the value of low self-esteem; let me try again: specifically in regards to praise, I was wondering why individuals choose to protect a self-label such as “intelligent” or “smart” even when the consequence of doing so can result in low self-esteem (because they attempt to protect the label by taking less challenges, etc.)

    It seems to me the individual might be attempting to protect such a label in order to experience a more efficacious self-image (conceptual), but in doing so the “actual” efficacious self-image (subconscious) is diminished. Any thoughts?

  16. Dear Chris,

    If I under you correctly, I think your comment is correct.

    The essence of “neurosis,” to use an old-fashioned term, is using a strategy aimed at protecting or enhancing self-esteem, but in fact achieves the exact opposite.

  17. javidreza Says:

    Dear chrislipp,

    In addition to reading the complete works of Nathaniel Branden, please re-read the article over.
    “Self-esteem demands a high reality-orientation; it is grounded in a reverent respect for facts and truth.”
    Please read the article especially numbers 1, and 8-10.


  18. Dear shoutdk,

    I don’t know that I can provide a conclusive answer to your question. Determining what is or is not “sense of life” is not easy. It may be impossible. I have seen instances of deep psychological or spiritual transformation from a dark sense of life to a bright sense of life–or vice versa. But can I be certain that what I am witnessing is
    “true” sense of life? I doubt it. However, since I have a sunny sense of life myself, I will say that of course it is possible for a human being to rise from a depressed state to a an exultant sense of things.

  19. Ralf Wilmes Says:

    Speaking of sunny things: does humor belong to self-esteem? I recall somebody famous-might have been Freud, I’m not sure- stating that humor is repressed anger which brings it closer to neurosis, which leads me to ask if any ‘serious’ psychological research ever has been done on the issue of humor.

  20. wfoddis Says:

    I would think humour and happiness would be strongly correlated. In a positive affective state, we are more likely to be creative and creativity is a key component of humour, I find myself in a more humourous state of mind when I am content and relaxed, with no pressing issues (e.g., worries) on my mind. So given that self-esteem mediates our level of happiness, I can see high SE being correlated with a sense of humour. There is research being done in humour, but not much is published.

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