Understanding self-esteem

What is self-esteem?

Self-esteem refers to your sense of self-worth, or self-respect. It is often confused with self-confidence, which is completely different. Self-confidence refers to your certainty about being able to achieve in a task.

Oftentimes people base their sense of self-esteem, or self-worth, on their achievements or the recognition of others. This is extremely unhelpful. Healthy self-esteem involves accepting yourself, without conditions or reservations. It should be based upon a sense of being worthy without achieving or contributing. Healthy self-esteem comes with recognizing your limitations alongside your strengths, whilst not basing your worth on either. If you have low self-esteem you may seek external positive experiences, or even just distractions, in an attempt to lessen your experience of negative feelings.

How does self-esteem develop?

Our self-esteem tends to develop and change throughout our lifespan, as we integrate information about ourselves through our experience of our environment (including how other people have responded to us). If you are spoken to and listened to with respect, given positive attention and had boundaries enforced appropriately, you are more likely to have developed healthy self-worth, compared to if you were neglected, abused, criticized, and rejected.

Do you engage in certain behaviours to avoid experiencing emotions associated with low self-esteem?

The behaviours I am referring are often pleasure-inducing (for example, drug and alcohol use, binge eating, excessive exercise, gambling). Nonetheless, individuals with low self-esteem can also engage in self-punishing behaviours (e.g. constantly criticizing yourself) and surround themselves with people who treat them poorly.

Do you try to achieve certain things in an attempt to prove your worth to yourself or others?

For example, striving to show your worth through obtaining a certain qualification or position at work, being predominantly motivated by earning a lot of money, having certain material possessions, or striving to look a certain way.

Our next blog post will introduce what you can do to improve your self-esteem. A psychologist can also assist you with acquiring such strategies.

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