The phrase “self-esteem” is thrown around frequently when discussing mental health. In the 70s, programs in public school systems encouraged children to think better of themselves. They thought having higher esteem would bolster confidence and fight off depression if it was nurtured from an early age. With less negativity surrounding oneself, a child would be able to succeed not only in education, but in life.

The definition of self-esteem is slippery. Some equate self esteem with narcissism or an ability to push one’s way to the top. Self-esteem, unlike true narcissism, includes a healthy amount of empathy. In the simplest of terms, self-esteem is how one person reflects on their own self-worth. This worth may include external success such as career, education, or finances, as well as internal worth, such as emotional states of mind and values. Do they see themselves as kind or anxious? Do they feel ashamed? These are just some of the complex feelings people may have about their own identity and self worth.

Author and psychologist Robert Firestone writes in his book, The Self Under Siege, “Vanity is a fantasized image of the self that is formed when parents substitute empty praise and false buildup for the real love and acknowledgement they have failed to provide to their child.” When parents praise their children for being the best at something when the child knows they are not, worth and effort are cheapened. Narcissism is an empty compliment that may encourage envy and arrogance. Esteem reflects humility and the ability to accept all different types of feedback.

Nathaniel Branden, a psychologist who encouraged the self-esteem movement, said, “I cannot think of a single psychological problem — from anxiety and depression, to fear of intimacy or of success, to spouse battery or child molestation — that is not traced back to the problem of low self-esteem.”

Measuring self-esteem is largely an individual process. The Rosenberg self-esteem scale is the most commonly used test. Each participant taking the test agrees or disagrees with each statement presented to them on a sliding scale. There are fifty questions that span a number of different topics. 

There is no such thing as biologically inheriting self-esteem. Each experience a person has can shape their esteem for better or worse. In childhood, even if a child experiences several negative external experiences, their parents can help mold their esteem by supporting them emotionally. Harsh criticism, physical abuse, neglect, and teasing all have the potential of damaging esteem.

If you have high esteem, you are more likely to:

  • Trust your judgement
  • Feel confident not guilty
  • Worry less
  • Trust in your ability to succeed
  • Consider yourself equal to others
  • Find yourself interesting
  • Solve problems without manipulation
  • Enjoy multiple different situations without feeling overly-anxious
  • Stand up for what you believe in

If you have low esteem, you are more likely to:

  • Fear being alone
  • Doubt your ability for success
  • Choose the wrong partners
  • Criticize others
  • Become rigid
  • Feel ashamed
  • Feel depressed
  • Put other people’s needs before your own
  • Experience anxiety

If your esteem is less than what it should be, one way to challenge self negativity is through new experiences. Being able to depend on one’s self is only the first step to exploring self worth.