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Understanding Self-Esteem - Part 1
Posted: 8/3/2011 | Personal Development Comments
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“Self-esteem” has been a popular buzz word for the last forty years or so. We know it’s important to have it and some of us are not sure what it means to be told that we have too much. Sure, we want to feel confident, but what is the difference between our personal sense of value and an unhealthy narcissism?

First, let’s understand what self-esteem means. Merriam-Webster gives us two definitions: a confidence and satisfaction in oneself, and an exaggerated opinion of one’s own abilities. It describes both self-respect and self-conceit. From a psychological perspective, healthy self-esteem is considered to be the act of honoring and valuing ourselves. Contrary to definition #2, when we deeply respect and value ourselves, we allow a greater space within us to respect, honor and love others. Overstating actually comes from insecurity. 
A healthy or high self-esteem is characterized by tolerance for others. We become people who are responsible for ourselves, have integrity, feel good about our accomplishments. We are self-motivated and directed, willing to take calculated risk, capable of handling criticism and see ourselves as lovable and loving. We seek the challenge and stimulation of worthwhile and challenging goals. 
Healthy self-esteem goes beyond having “good feelings” about ourselves. People can feel good about themselves but remain in illusion about who they are and what they can accomplish. When we have healthy self-esteem, we respect our personal limitations as well as recognize our gifts and talents.
Psychotherapist Nathaniel Braden, Ph.D, author of The Psychology of Self-esteem, tells us that self-esteem is “the experience of being competent to cope with the basic challenges of life and as being worthy of happiness.” He goes on to say the two basic elements of self-esteem are self-efficacy and self-respect. The first is a confidence in our ability to think, learn, choose, make appropriate decisions, master challenges and change. Self-respect is confidence in one’s right to be happy and that achievement, success, friendship, respect, love and fulfillment are possible. He also stresses the importance of self-responsibility, and I couldn’t agree more: 
“The abandonment of personal accountability makes self-esteem, as well as decent and benevolent social relationships impossible. In its worst manifestation, it becomes a license to kill. If you want a world that works, you need a culture of accountability.”
Real healthy self-esteem allows us to love ourselves and to love the world, because we aren’t threatened by others. We don’t need to compare ourselves and our lives to other people. In the context of self-esteem we both can be great. We can live from kindness and generosity without an agenda. It’s not codependence, but rather a healthy space to come from that allows for differences in philosophy, thought and deed. I don’t have to diminish you for me to feel good.
And self-esteem isn’t magic. Even those who’ve developed strong self-esteem will feel discouraged, fearful or sad at times. That is just part of being human. But when we know we’re innately worthy, we feel less pressure to prove ourselves to the world. Without this burden, it’s easier to meet more of our goals, develop greater compassion for others and to live abundant, fruitful lives. We can bounce back from life’s disappointments and try again.
In Part 2, we’ll discuss ways to develop healthy self-esteem. I look forward to reading your thoughts and experiences on this topic. Your comments make a difference for all of us.


Dewey G       Posted: 8/16/2011 7:43:34 PM

It´s important & valuable to understand what is a healthy self-esteem vs an unhealthy one. But it is also so valuable to know how to develop a healthy one that I am waiting the 2nd part of this amazing topic from now. God bless you ever dear Dr. Jennifer.

JAD       Posted: 8/4/2011 8:05:31 AM

Enjoyed reading your comments. My daughter holds back, in her daily life, because of poor self-esteem. I''m going to encourage her to follow and read your blogs. Thanks

Lisa       Posted: 8/6/2011 2:57:51 PM

This is an extremely useful and well written article. There are many of us who need to be reminded to take responsibility for our actions and be accountable for the choices we make. This is the only way we can learn to make better ones!Let''s stop blaming eachother for what goes on in the world and get constructive about making it a better place to be.

nobody       Posted: 8/16/2011 12:19:58 AM

It''s hard to have self esteem when you were raised to believe you are worthless. That carries over into adulthood. How do u reprogram yourself?

Peter M       Posted: 8/4/2011 3:17:02 PM

This is a nice clear explanation-- thank you!

Many moons ago, my (then) therapist and I got into some discussion of the issue of "compartmentalized" self-esteem. I''ve struggled (and continue to) with idea that that self-esteem is this cohesive across-the-board attribute equal in all situations we face. My self-esteem "feels stronger" in some situations than others... leading me to the belief that it is at least partially situational/experiential.

At the time of the discussion (a couple of decades ago) I had what appeared to be excellent self-esteem in "work" contexts, but horrible self-esteem in "relationship" contexts. And so, my response to the question "rate your level of self-esteem" was always another question: "What is the context?"

So I wonder what your opinion is, on the question of whether self-esteem is always a "total person" thing, or more situational?

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