Self-Esteem, Part I: What is Self-Esteem?
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By: Will Schutz, Ph.D.

Self-esteem is the feeling I have about my self-concept.  When what I want for myself matches what I perceive myself to be, I have a positive self-concept, which in turn helps me feel as alive, self-determining, self-aware, significant, competent, and likable as I want to be.  Self-esteem comes from successfully choosing to be the type of person I want to be. 

Self-esteem is both conscious and unconscious. It begins in childhood, and it is developed as I create my self-concept through internalizing (or rejecting) messages about me that I receive from my parents and others, and from my own experiences of what I can and cannot do and what I am and am not. I compare myself to others, or to an idea of the type of person I want to be, or to others’ definitions of an ideal.

I am not aware of some parts of my self-concept. I choose them to be unconscious because I am uncomfortable with them, or I feel I cannot or do not want to deal with them. For example, I may have assumed that I was basically a bad boy, therefore not lovable by those who knew me well. I made this feeling of being unlovable unconscious; it was too painful to acknowledge. To hide this feeling from myself, or to defend myself against having to experience it, I may become arrogant; that is I exaggerate my own importance, or I brag about my accomplishments, or I act too ingratiating. This behavior arises out of unconscious low self-esteem and unconscious low self-respect. I demonstrate self-esteem by being flexible, able to express myself fully, in charge of myself, and having accurate perceptions, and learning to make all my perceptions conscious.

At the height of the McCarthy era in the late 1940s, I was a graduate student at the University of California at Los Angeles, supporting myself through the G.I. Bill and my salary as a teaching assistant. As a university employee I was required to sign a loyalty oath in order to retain my job. I took the position that I would not sign because I felt people should be judged on the basis of their performance, not their political beliefs.   I became very active in opposition to the oath. My father heard of what I was doing and flew out from the Midwest. He spent three days with me discussing the situation and the position I was taking. His attitude was, as always, very logical. “Of course you are right in principle, but you will jeopardize your future. You are an untested teaching assistant. No one knows you, and once you have your degree, others will be hired first. They are less risky for an employer.”

His arguments persuaded me. I went to lunch with my fellow nonsigners and told them I had decided to sign and “fight from within”—a euphemism we used for dropping the fight. When I left the restaurant and walked into the bright sunlight of Los Angeles, I felt as if I weighed three tons. My muscles were stiff and heavy, and I felt totally dark. At that point, a little voice whispered in my ear: “what kind of person do you want to be?”

“Be quiet,” I said. “Can’t you see I’m busy being miserable?” But the voice persisted, and I finally got the point: signing or not signing was not a matter of logic. Most people could think of many excellent reasons for taking either position. The decision depended on what kind of person I wanted to be. I decided not to sign the loyalty oath. My body lightened. I felt as if I weighed three ounces. I felt wonderful. My body was telling me what kind of person I wanted to be. When I followed that picture, I felt good. Looking back, I can see that this was my first experience of realizing that my self-esteem depends on how close I am to being the kind of person I want to be.

To the degree that I experience myself as being like my ideal, and as being unlike the self I want to avoid, I have positive self-esteem. Similarly, the more I fall short of my ideal, the more disappointed I am in myself, the more anger I feel toward myself. Feelings of disappointment in and anger with myself reduce my self-esteem. Why do I feel these inadequacies in my self-concept?  How can I heighten my self-esteem? The answer to these questions lies in the concept of choice: I assume I choose feelings and behavior because, ineffective as they may seem, they will lead to a payoff. When I choose low self-esteem, it is because I get a payoff for it.

For example, suppose I want to be funny but am not. I am dour and ponderous. What do I get out of being humorless? On reflection, I find that it feels safer to me. I suspect that people are laughing at me anyway, and I fear that if I take something as a joke when it is meant to be serious, I will be caught off guard and feel hurt. Therefore, I assume that everything is serious, so I can avoid painful surprises. My fear prevents me from being the humorous person I want to be, and that lowers my self-esteem.

When I am not feeling good about myself, compliments and support from other people are pleasant to hear, but do not make me feel better for very long, if at all. I dismiss compliments because I believe the complimenters do not know all my faults, all the thoughts and feelings I have, and all the things I have done. If they knew, they wouldn’t feel the same way about me. I may even perceive other people’s praise or liking for me as a threat. What if I do something to disappoint them? They may withdraw their liking, and so it is risky for me to feel good when they say good things about me. There are other payoffs for choosing not to like myself more: “It is arrogant to like myself. If I appear modest, people will like me better … People will not expect much of me if I appear unsure of myself … I will not be impertinent enough to think that I am better than my parents or siblings … I would be ridiculous to like myself if no one else did.”