Self esteem and a Sense of Self

John M. Grohol, Psy.D.
March 17, 2003

What is a healthy sense of self? What is self-esteem and happiness? Where do we get it from and how can we lose it?

I think we get it from a variety of processes. Some of it is innate, but I believe that most of it comes from growing up and learning from our families and our friends and teachers and classmates, from the joy they bring us, and the achievements we have along the way. We get it from praise and criticism, but it's the praise that builds a healthy sense of self. The criticsm might appear to lead to the same results, but it will not be a healthy sense of self because it is built upon a false foundation.

It is this sense of self that you need to consider when thinking of self-esteem. What is self-esteem except a sense of self that is balanced and whole? Self-esteem isn't about thinking you're the best and that you can do anything (that might be better termed narcissism or egotistical). Instead, self esteem is fundamentally based upon knowing what you do well, and what you aren't as good at. It's about knowing how far you can go, but also about the boundaries of your competence, knowledge and skills.

Feeling like you're better than everyone else, that you have knowledge or skills that others lack will readily lead to eventual feelings of inferiority. A person who feels this way may not initially realize it, but they have low self esteem. They may not appreciate their own skills (within context) without having to put other people's skills and knowledge down. Supposedly "harmless" observations about life could be masking not only a low self esteem, but also poor social skills or the inability to make conversation that isn't value-based.

The issue of self esteem and a sense of self is further complicated by feelings of depression. Depression can mask poor self-esteem, and poor self-esteem can act as a mask for depression. It cannot be said which is which without knowing more about the person and their situation. Typically, though, low self esteem is something a person experiences early on in their life and it affects nearly every social interaction they have -- at school, at work, at home, and with friends. Depression tends to be more situationally-based in nature, that starts at a specific time in a person's life and often ends a few months or a year later.

To help one's self esteem, a person needs to look at themselves in a realistic and open manner. A person needs to understand that they are worth something in this world, that people are inherently good and try to do well by others. They cannot do it all, or meet everyone's expectations, nor is it reasonable or right for them to think they can. Solid self esteem starts with a solid understanding of one's strengths and weaknesses. Not good at small talk? That's fine, because you might be really good at playing games or cooking or even eating! For everything you can think of that you're horrible at, you can also imagine another hundred things you are good at.

Sometimes the trouble is that people put more value on the things they are not good at, and less value on the things they do well with. This is inherently unfair to ourselves. Why can't we give ourselves credit for our strengths? Because we don't spend enough time on ourselves and helping to ensure that we have a balanced sense of self. How can we help others in their lives if we can't first learn to help ourselves?

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 27 Jan 2007
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Let me listen to me and not to them.
-- Gertrude Stein