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April 2017
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Self-esteem is usually perceived as an important phenomenon which concerns everybody and which, in some way or another, influence our lives, although it is difficult to define and completely understand this. How can we define this aspect of our personalities then, and what are the elements which we can refer to to define it?

Nathaniel Branden, a scholar who, for more than forty years, has studied self-esteem, states that, contrarily to common opinion, interest in self-esteem is not just a fad.

In order to try to be more clear, let us start with the etymology of the verb ‘to value’ which has two meanings; to determine the value of something and have an opinion on. From this point of view, the concept of self-esteem encompasses:

  • how one sees oneself
  • how one judges and what type of value one attributes to things.

In this sense, self-esteem is characterised as a very suggestive experience related to more than just what we feel and think about ourselves, and not what others think about us. If we think about it, of all the judgements made about us during our lives, the most important, and sometimes the most critical, are our own. For example, a person could feel very loved by their family, partner and friends and be admired and valued by colleagues, however, this person may still not love him/herself or feel like he/she does not deserve the feelings felt towards him/her by others. A person could even match all the expectations others have of him/her but still not be satisfied with him/herself, have achieved significant goals yet feel that is not enough or that he/she has not achieved anything that he/she wanted to, or even be judged by others in a positive way yet feel totally inadequate. As can be seen in all these situations, rather than from objective evidence or from opinions from others, what makes a person unhappy or perplexed with regard to him/herself and what he/she has achieved, is the value that this person gives to him/herself. According to Branden, considering yourself to be good, that is, thinking of yourself in favourable terms, acts as a sort of immune system for your spirit and this helps you to effectively deal with what life throws at you and tap into your recovery skills when confronted with inevitable failure. Vice versa, negative thoughts about yourself can make you afraid of addressing problems and circumstances and be less able to recover after failures. Therefore, believing in your worth and feeling secure helps you to react appropriately to challenges and opportunities¸ just like by not believing in yourself and your abilities and that you are worth being loved and valued,  it is harder to deal with life’s difficulties. In fact, if we think about it, the higher our self-esteem, the more we tend to be ambitious, but not just as far as work or earnings are concerned, but also in general, regarding everything that we hope to achieve in life. Vice versa, the lower our self-esteem, the more limited our goals are and the more difficult it becomes to achieve them. Both these takes on life tend to reinforce and maintain themselves inside us: the more we value ourselves, the more we feel the need to express our internal wealth and compare ourselves to others, whilst the more we undervalue ourselves, the more difficult it becomes to fulfil our ideas, express our feelings and start relationships with other people. However, be careful because, as we have already underlined, the value we give ourselves does not depend on judgements or approvals made by other people. In fact, even the important aspects that can make us feel better about ourselves, or protect us from possible external negative feedback, or make us feel more comfortable in certain situations - for example, a good education, marriage, motherhood or fatherhood, material wealth, philanthropy, sexual conquests, cosmetic surgery and so on - are not constitutive aspects of self-esteem. These aspects can certainly influence self-esteem but they do not determine it. In fact, self-esteem is something which affects the deepest and most intimate parts of a person since it is related to how a person perceives him/herself as a competent individual, that is, someone who is capable of dealing with life, learning, choosing and making adequate decisions, and as a person who is worth being loved.

In this sense, as is well illustrated by Christophe André and François Lelord in their book L’Estime de soi, the ingredients which allow someone to feel competent and worth love are:

  • self-love
  • self-image
  • self-confidence.

According to these authors, a balanced dose of each of these three components is essential for a good level of self-esteem.

  • Self-love: this is what allows us to appreciate ourselves despite our limitations and weaknesses. This unconditional love for ourselves does not depend on our performances, even if it allows us to cope with adversities and recover after not fulfilling a goal that we had set. In times of difficulty, it does not prevent suffering, nor doubt, but it protects us from desperation. Self-love depends on the love that our family gave us as children and the affection that we received during life. Loving yourself is fundamental for self-esteem as it is its deepest and most intimate component. From this point of view, our first experience of loving somebody must be with ourselves. It is only then that we are ready for a relationship, to love someone fully and accept that the other person loves us.
  • Self-image: according to André and Lelord, this is the second foundation on which self-esteem is built. It is the look we give ourselves and how we assess our qualities and weaknesses, whether correctly or not. However, this is not just about knowing ourselves. What is important in this case is not what we are really like, rather the idea we have about our qualities and weaknesses and skills and limits, elements that others may not necessarily see in but which we see in ourselves. Positive self-image lets us feel that we can deal with anything life hands us but, vice versa, negative self-image exposes us to confusion and insecurity.
  • Self-confidence: this is the third part of self-esteem and it applies, above all, to our actions. Being confident means thinking that we are capable of acting appropriately in important situations. Although self-confidence can seem less important than self-love or self-image, of which it is a consequence, its role is fundamental because self-esteem needs actions to maintain and develop itself.

These three components are generally interdependent: self-love (respecting ourselves no matter what happens) facilitates positive self-image thus we believe we are capable of anything and we know how to protect ourselves in the future which, in turn, positively influences self-confidence, therefore we act without being too afraid of failure and judgement.

However, in some individuals, these aspects are dissociated, not always present at the same time or not present in a sufficiently stable manner, and all of this makes our self-esteem vulnerable.

In his book Six Pillars of Self-Esteem, Nathaniel Branden claims that the elements on which healthy self-esteem is based are living in a conscious way, knowing how to accept yourself, accepting your responsibilities, asserting yourself, having a goal in life and being coherent (personal integrity).

More specifically, this means that, in order to have good self-esteem, you need to have good self-awareness, therefore you have to be aware of your limits, strengths, desires, feelings, needs, even if we do not like them, the objectives we want to fulfil, successes and failures achieved and the way in which we act. 
Secondly, to have good self-esteem, you need to be able to accept yourself, that is, be respectful and supportive of yourself, even when you do not feel admiration or appreciation for your feelings or decisions. According to Branden, accepting your responsibilities and knowing how to assert yourself are the third and fourth aspects, respectively..

Put together, all of these aspects make you feel capable of having a goal in life which can be achieved through coherent actions that are an expression of who we are and the values that we have. The results of all of this, which are related to the unconditioned acceptance of ourselves, influence our sense of efficiency, perception of being competent and then, ultimately, the assumption we have of ourselves.

Without overlooking what differentiates them, André's, LeLord's and Branden's opinions reveal a similar point of view: self-esteem is a variable aspect of one’s personality, something which can be increased and that is not just a one-off which everybody receives once in their life
The debate about the existence of a single or multiple self-esteems has also added to the variability and complexity of this phenomenon, and it is thought that multiple self-esteems can work relatively independently from one another as each one is relative to a certain context.
From this point of view, some authors observe that, for example, it is possible to have good self-esteem in your professional life yet low self-esteem in your love life and from that it is deduced that, depending on the circumstances and the people involved, the idea of your self-worth can vary significantly, since success and failure in one aspect of your life affects all the others too.
Conversely, others authors find it impossible to subdivide self-esteem into categories because they believe it is unlikely that you have a good opinion of yourself in a certain area of your life but not others. Therefore, from this point of view, self-esteem should be understood solely as an overview about ourselves. If this opinion we have is kind and positive, it lets us minimise our faults and allows us to take advantage of our strengths. Conversely, if we do not value ourselves, we end up being too hard on ourselves and, at times, inhibiting ourselves from enjoying our successes.

In any case, apart from the various theories concerning this complex and varied aspect of our personalities, what is certain is that everybody is unique, special, deserving and worthy of love and, although it sometimes seems difficult to believe, remembering this can help us to deal with life’s challenges in the most efficient way.

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