What Exactly is Self-Esteem?

Source: Gergely Zsoinai/Shutterstock

Self-esteem is defined as a judgment of ourselves. Early research1 highlighted the differences between the ‘trait’ of self-esteem, (an individual’s inherent level of average self-esteem). As opposed to ‘state’ self-esteem, which is dependent on the current level of success or failure in a relevant and personal goal.

Having a high self-esteem is considered to be one of the most important factors in our mental health2 and a significant driver of behavior across a broad spectrum of human activities3. It relates powerfully to the way we emotionally experience life events. For example, it can increase or decrease our positive emotions when experiencing success or impact our negative emotions following a perceived failure4.

Self-esteem is also a highly structured and hierarchical self-concept, with specific self-esteem attributions given to certain areas within individual’s lives5. It can be measuredand is perceived as a highly valued asset, linked to enhanced initiative and positive feelings7.

Self-esteem maintenance can sometimes rely on specific goal achievement8 creating a contingency for self-worth within the individual. This goal achievement focus has become increasingly socialised into western cultures. It can promote volatile levels of self-esteem which in some cases leads to depression and poor health. This is more often seen when individuals lack the necessary self-affirmation resources9. Motivation to follow contingency-dependant goals can also create behaviour driven by ‘prove’ rather than ‘learn’10. This can ultimately stunt more healthy forms of behavioural and cognitive development and lead to a reduction in self-esteem levels11.

The positive feelings and lowering of anxiety associated with achievement of contingency goals can also become addictive. Research has shown that in some cases the narcissist stereotype might, in fact, be an individual driven by the “yielding to inner urges in a way that can prove destructive and costly over time”12. For individuals with chronically low self-esteem, feeling constantly at risk of exclusion from social groups is common and can promote contingency dependent behaviour13

The development of non-contingent self-esteem or what is called in layman’s terms
‘learning to love thyself’ is of great value to positive mental health and appears to rank
with respondents as a highly valued personal goal14. Research studies have shown that achievement of self-determination goals driven by non-contingent motivations are likely to have a more beneficial long-term effect on mental health.



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