What Exactly Is Self-Esteem?

Signs of healthy and low self-esteem

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We all know that self-esteem sometimes referred to as self-worth or self-respect, can be an important part of success. Too little self-esteem can leave people feeling defeated or depressed. It can also lead people to make bad choices, fall into destructive relationships, or fail to live up to their full potential. Too much self-esteem, as exhibited in narcissistic personality disorder, can certainly be off-putting to others and can even damage personal relationships.

Self-esteem levels at the extreme high and low ends of the spectrum can be harmful, so ideally, it's best to strike a balance somewhere in the middle. A realistic yet positive view of yourself is generally considered the ideal. But what exactly is self-esteem? Where does it come from and what influence does it really have on our lives?

What Is Self-Esteem?

In psychology, the term self-esteem is used to describe a person's overall sense of self-worth or personal value. In other words, how much you appreciate and like yourself.

  • Self-esteem is often seen as a personality trait, which means that it tends to be stable and enduring.
  • Self-esteem can involve a variety of beliefs about yourself, such as the appraisal of your own appearance, beliefs, emotions, and behaviors. 

Why Self-Esteem Is Important

Self-esteem can play a significant role in your motivation and success throughout your life. Low self-esteem may hold you back from succeeding at school or work because you don't believe yourself to be capable of success.

By contrast, having a healthy self-esteem can help you achieve because you navigate life with a positive, assertive attitude and believe you can accomplish your goals.

Self-Esteem Theories

The need for self-esteem plays an important role in psychologist Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs, which depicts self-esteem as one of the basic human motivations.

Maslow suggested that people need both esteem from other people as well as inner self-respect. Both of these needs must be fulfilled in order for an individual to grow as a person and achieve self-actualization.

It is important to note that self-esteem is a concept distinct from self-efficacy, which involves how well you believe you'll handle future actions, performance, or abilities.

Factors That Can Influence Self-Esteem

As you might imagine, there are different factors that can influence self-esteem. Genetic factors that help shape overall personality can play a role, but it is often our experiences that form the basis for overall self-esteem. Those who consistently receive overly critical or negative assessments from caregivers, family members, and friends, for example, will likely experience problems with low self-esteem.

Additionally, your inner thinking, age, any potential illnesses, disabilities, or physical limitations, and your job can affect your self-esteem. 

Signs of Healthy Self-Esteem

You probably have a good sense of who you are if you exhibit the following signs: 

  • Confidence
  • Ability to say no
  • Positive outlook
  • Ability to see overall strengths and weaknesses and accept them
  • Negative experiences don't impact overall perspective
  • Ability to express your needs

Signs of Low Self-Esteem

You may need to work on how you perceive yourself if you exhibit any of these signs of poor self-esteem: 

  • Negative outlook
  • Lack of confidence
  • Inability to express your needs
  • Focus on your weaknesses
  • Feelings of shame, depression, or anxiety
  • Belief that others are better than you
  • Trouble accepting positive feedback
  • Fear of failure

Sources:

Maslow, AH. Motivation and Personality. 3rd ed. New York: Harper & Row; 1987.

Mayo Clinic. Self-esteem check: Too low or just right? July 12, 2017.

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