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What is Self-Esteem?

Mary McMahon
Updated Feb 26, 2024
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Self-esteem is a concept in psychology which refers to someone's personal assessment of self worth. Someone with high self-esteem tends to be very confident, and he or she feels good and has a lot of personal pride. Individuals with low self-esteem, on the other hand, think that they are worthless, and they struggle with confidence and pride. From a very early age, people are establishing their self-esteem, and there are a number of factors which can influence someone's sense of self-worth.

Social and cultural factors play a huge role. For example, a child who is routinely praised by parents and teachers is more likely to feel confident and valuable, while a child who is frequently criticized or who lives in an unstable home may feel worthless. Approval of one's peers can also be an important factor in self-worth; people who are popular tend to feel better about themselves, while people who are marginalized and ignored by their peers feel less confident and proud of themselves.

Low self-esteem can contribute to the development of depression and antisocial behavior. It is also usually unmerited, because it is a reflection of personal opinion, not someone's actual worth and skills. Everyone has unique talents and abilities, including people with low self-worth, and people are sometimes surprised to learn that people who are lacking in self confidence may have hidden facets to their personalities, such as an astonishing talent for music, or excellent writing skills.

Because building self-worth is so dependent on social factors, parents and teachers are often encouraged to use praise and other positive techniques to build up confidence in the minds of their charges. When a child despairs because an art project isn't going right, for example, an instructor might point out that the use of colors is interesting, or ask if the child wants to work in another medium to explore other possibilities. By positively reinforcing children and reminding them that they are valuable, people can ensure that those children will feel good about themselves.

Adults can be influenced in the same way, and they can also work on self-esteem building exercises which are designed to increase confidence. A salary worker at the bottom of the totem pole might, for example, go home and make a list of his or her skills and positive traits, as a reminder that lackluster performance at work doesn't make someone worthless. Some people also find that their self-worth improves when they get active, involve themselves in community activities, or do something simple like getting a hair cut or buying a nice pair of shoes.

Low self-worth is difficult to quantify. When people seek assistance from a mental health professional because they feel bad about themselves, the professional may administer a self reporting test which is designed to gauge someone's feelings. By examining the answers to the questions on the test, as well as looking at how the patient interacts with people and behaves, the therapist can learn about the patient's level of confidence, and provide treatment accordingly.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By icecream17 — On May 24, 2011

@SurfNTurf - A belief in yourself is important because there will always be people that will tell you that you can’t do something. You have to prove that you can.

For example, when I feel like I can’t work out, I remember a story about a man that was hit by a truck and lost his legs that became a runner again. This man used to be a marathon runner before his accident and resumed running after a year after his accident although doctors told him that he would never run again.

Although he had two prosthetic legs he was able to run several 10K races. It is important to surround yourself with people like this or to read inspirational stories like this because it allows you to realize that everyone struggles from time to time and limitations are often self-imposed.

By surfNturf — On May 22, 2011

@Latte31 - That is a good idea. I think that learning something new also helps to improve your self esteem because you are learning something that you never knew that you could do.

If it is a hobby like painting and you develop a certain level of skill, people will also recognize your talent and tell you which will help you build your self esteem.

This can also grow into a business or you can even have an art show to display your work. I think that self esteem comes from believing that we are worthy of success because most successful people have failed many times before they actually became successful.

By latte31 — On May 20, 2011

@Sunshine31 - That is so true. I know every time I overcome something difficult I always feel better about myself. I also think that you can increase your self esteem by keeping a journal of all of the good things that you have done.

This is really important especially on those days when it seems that nothing goes right. When days like this happen we forget all of the fabulous things that we have done in the past and really don’t look at ourselves with a balanced view.

I used to do this when I was in sales because I would have great days and then I would have bad days in which nothing would go right. Being reminded of my successes like this helped me put my bad day in perspective which is something that you are unlikely to do when you depressed about your day. To me this was my self esteem therapy.

By sunshine31 — On May 19, 2011

I think that children's self esteem is also built up by early accomplishments in their lives. For example, learning to swim or being able to ride a bike make kids feel good about themselves because they were able to master a skill that they were not able to do previously.

I also think that when children face challenges it helps to develop their self confidence which helps to build their self esteem. I know that when my kids have a difficult test to study for, I always remind them that they can do it and have them visualize getting an A.

When they get their test back they are usually thrilled because their hard work really paid off.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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