In this informative blog, our Wellbeing Practitioner, Sam Havis, shares some information on Self-Esteem…

What is self-esteem?
The term ‘self-esteem’ is often confused and used to refer to three separate but connected aspects of what makes up our perception of ourselves:

  • Self-Worth – Temporary state of feeling good or bad about ourselves. How we feel when we get a good essay grade or a compliment or when we get divorced or lose our job.
  • Self-Evaluations – Our evaluation of our attributes and abilities. Are we a good parent? Are we good at our job? Are we a good friend? Are we intelligent/ funny/ tidy/ punctual?
  • Self-Esteem – The fundamental way we view ourselves. How much do we love ourselves? Are we worth more or less than other people? Do we deserve good things in life? Are we worthy of being loved?

Can you build Self-Esteem?
Until recently, psychologists believed self-esteem was built; that our feelings of self-worth influenced our self-evaluations which in turn affected our self-esteem. It is now widely held that self-esteem is set at an early age and it is our fundamental self-esteem which colours our self-evaluations. We then use our self-evaluations to restore and repair our feelings of self-worth.

Where is the evidence?
The most widely used measure of self-esteem is the Rosenberg scale (Rosenberg 1989), which many academics use to find participants with particularly high or low self-esteem for their research.

Many self-help books on the topic of self-esteem focus on positive affirmations, however research suggests that they don’t actually work! Wood (2009) showed that not only do they not improve self-esteem, but that people with low self-esteem actually felt worse after repeating positive affirmations, such as “I am a lovable person”. Both the low self-esteem (LSE) and high self-esteem (HSE) groups experienced negative, contradictory thoughts but the LSE group believed that they alone had these thoughts and therefore they must be true, whereas the HSE group assumed everyone had these thoughts, and so were able to dismiss them. Wood’s research therefore suggests that positive affirmations don’t equate to positive self-evaluations, and don’t build high self-esteem.

Self-esteem and perceived attractiveness are closely tied up together. It used to be believed that when people perceived themselves to be attractive, this increased their self-esteem, and those who didn’t like what they saw in the mirror had lower self-esteem, but this didn’t explain why some people perceived themselves to be attractive in the first place. Feingold (1992) showed that when people’s own perceptions of their attractiveness was compared to the ratings of independent observers, the personal perceptions proved to be highly inaccurate. The independent observers had a high degree of concurrence showing that attractiveness is reasonably objective, so if someone can’t tell how attractive they are, this suggests that their evaluation is influenced by a their basic level of self-esteem. Similarly John and Robbins (1993) showed that our evaluations of important traits such as likeability or intelligence tend to be inaccurate, while something minor like punctuality tends to be more accurate.

Brown (2001) tested this hypothesis further in a series of experiments using people of LSE and HSE. One experiment involved a made up trait, which he told half the HSE group and half the LSE group was important, and the rest that it was unimportant. He then asked the participants whether they believed they possessed the trait. The HSE group concluded that “‘if it’s an important trait to have, I have it”, and the LSE group concluded “if it’s an important trait to have, I don’t have it.” A second experiment again involved HSE and LSE participants. Some of these were told they had a fictitious trait, and some were told they didn’t have it. They were then asked how important they thought this trait was. The HSE group concluded “if I have it, it’s important to have”, and the LSE group concluded “if I have it, it’s not important to have”. Again, this suggests our self-evaluations are subjective and dependent on our fundamental self-esteem, as opposed to our self-esteem being altered by our self-evaluations.

Can Self-Esteem be too high?


“Persons of high self-esteem are not driven to make themselves superior to others, they do not seek to prove their value by measuring themselves against a
comparative standard. Their joy is in being who they are, not in being better than someone else.” (Branden 1994)


“There is such a thing as feeling too good about yourself, and it may be just as unhealthy as feeling inferior. It can lead to attention-seeking, a focus on appearance and status, and an inability to form real relationships. “Generation Me’s” focus on the needs of the individual is not necessarily self-absorbed or isolationist: instead, it’s a way of moving through the world beholden to few social rules and with the
unshakable belief that you’re important… We simply take it for granted that we should all feel good about ourselves, we are all special, and we all deserve to follow our dreams.”
(Twenge 2006)

Is there any hope for those with low self-esteem, or too high self-esteem?

  • Mindfulness – a technique with origins in Eastern Buddhist meditation practices, but which is now widely used in psychology as a cognitive behavioural technique. It encourages non-judgemental observation, and awareness of internal and external stimuli; the individual becomes aware of “perceptions, cognitions, emotions, or sensations, which are observed carefully but are not evaluated as good or bad, true or false, healthy or sick, or important or trivial” (Marlatt and Kristeller, 1999). When we bring non-judgemental awareness to the sound of our self-esteem, we are able to acknowledge it, have compassion for it and if necessary, challenge it.
  • Shifting goals – Crocker (2002) argues the case against seeking feelings of self-worth. Her research found that pursuing contingent self-worth results in damage to relationships, a lack of competency in our working lives, and negative impacts on our physical and mental health. This is concurrent with the idea that self-esteem is set at an early age, and that seeking superficial “feel good” moments can actually leave us feeling worse. The solution which she proposes (based on a limited amount of research) is that “we need to shift away from self-focused, self-centred ego-based goals of maintaining and protecting self-esteem, towards goals that connect the self to others or to something larger than the self. Goals focused on giving to others, or creating and contributing something larger than the self, facilitate keeping attention off the self and self-worth and on a larger purpose”.

What now?

Join our weekly Monday Mindfulness sessions to start your week in a space which encourages non-judgemental observation of how you feel and what’s going on with you. Over time, you’ll learn and practice tools and techniques which will support healthy self-esteem.

Find out more here.

Come to one of our events or communities where you’ll be encouraged to learn more about yourself and think about who’s around you.

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Crocker, J (2002) “The Costs of Seeking Self-Esteem”, Journal of Social Issues Vol 58 No 3 597-615.

Feingold, A. (1992). “Good-looking people are not what we think.” Psychological Bulletin, 111, 304-341O.

Rosenberg, M. (1989) “Society and the Adolescent Self-Image”. Revised edition. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press. Available at: http://www.wwnorton.com/college/psych/psychsci/media/rosenberg.htm.

Wood J V, Perunovic W.Q.E and Lee J W. (2009) “Positive Self-Statements. Power for Some, Peril for Others” Psychological Science vol. 20 no. 7 860-866.

Brown, J D, Dutton, K A and Cook K E (2001) “From the top down: Self-esteem and self-evaluation” Cognition and Emotion 15 (5), 615–631.

Branden, N (1994) “Six Pillars of Self Esteem” New York: Bantam.

Twenge, J (2006) “Generation Me” New York: Simon and Schuster.

Marlatt, G. A., & Kristeller, J. L. (1999). “Mindfulness and meditation.”

In W. R. Miller (Ed.), “Integrating spirituality into treatment” (pp. 67–84). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

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