What Exactly Is Self-Esteem?

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We all know that self-esteem 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. But what about too much self-esteem? Narcissism can certainly be off-putting and can even damage personal relationships.

Self-esteem levels at the extreme high and low ends of the spectrum can be damaging, so the ideal is to strike a balance somewhere in the middle.

A realistic yet positive view of the self is often considered the ideal. But what exactly is self-esteem? Where does it come from and what influence does it really have on our lives?

A Breakdown of Self-Esteem

In psychology, the term self-esteem is used to describe a person's overall sense of self-worth or personal value.

  • 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 the self, such as the appraisal of one's own appearance, beliefs, emotions, and behaviors.

Components of Self-Esteem

According to one definition (Branden, 1969), there are three key components of self-esteem:

  1. Self-esteem is an essential human need that is vital for survival and normal, healthy development.
  2. Self-esteem arises automatically from within, based on a person's beliefs and consciousness.
  3. Self-esteem occurs in conjunction with a person's thoughts, behaviors, feelings, and actions.

    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 the belief in 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.

    Self-Esteem Synonyms:

    • Self-worth
    • Self-respect
    • Self-value


    Branden, N.The psychology of self-esteem. New York: Bantam; 1969 (repub. 2001).

    ​Maslow A. H. Motivation and Personality (3rd ed.). New York: Harper & Row; 1987.

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