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The self-esteem movement has swept through Western culture over the past 50 years, with parents and teachers alike doubling down on the idea that improving children’s self-confidence will lead to improved performance, and a more successful life in general (Baskin, 2011).
This movement started with a book published in 1969, in which psychologist Nathaniel Branden argued that most mental or emotional problems people faced could be traced back to low self-esteem. Branden laid the foundation for the Self-Esteem Movement with his assertion that improving an individual’s self-esteem could not only result in better performance but could even cure pathology.
Since then, there have been thousands of papers published and studies conducted on the relationship between success and self-esteem. This is a popular idea not only in literature but in more mainstream mediums as well. Before we begin exploring the complexities of self-esteem it is essential to unpack the differences between the overlapping concepts of self-efficacy, self-confidence, and self-esteem.
“Once we believe in ourselves, we can risk curiosity, wonder, spontaneous delight, or any experience that reveals the human spirit.”
– E.E. Cummings
This Article Contains:
- Defining the Difference: Self-Efficacy, Self-Confidence, and Self-Esteem
- Popular Theories of Self-Confidence
- The Importance of Self-Confidence
- Too Much of Good Thing: The Unintended Consequences of Self-Esteem Education
- The Benefits of Fear: Practicing Courage and Building Confidence
- 9 Lessons for Practicing Self-Confidence
- Take Home Message: It’s a Process
Defining the Difference: Self-Efficacy, Self-Confidence, and Self-Esteem
While most people generally think of self-esteem and self-confidence as two names for the same thing, and probably rarely think about the term “self-efficacy,” these three terms hold slightly different meanings for the psychologists who study them (Druckman & Bjork, 1994; Oney, & Oksuzoglu-Guven, 2015).
What is Self-Efficacy?
Albert Bandura is arguably the most cited author on the subject of self-efficacy, and he defines self-efficacy as an individual’s beliefs about their capacity to influence the events in their own lives (Bandura, 1977).
This differs from self-esteem in an important way: the definition of self-esteem often rests on ideas about an individual’s worth or worthiness, while self-efficacy is rooted in beliefs about an individual’s capabilities to handle future situations. In this sense, self-esteem is more of a present-focused belief while self-efficacy is more of a forward-looking belief.
What is Self-Confidence?
This is likely the most used term for these related concepts outside of psychological research, but there is still some confusion about what exactly self-confidence is. One of the most cited sources about self-confidence refers to it as simply believing in oneself (Bénabou & Tirole, 2002). Another popular article defines self-confidence as an individual’s expectations of performance and self-evaluations of abilities and prior performance (Lenney, 1977).
Finally, Psychology Dictionary Online defines self-confidence as an individual’s trust in his or her own abilities, capacities, and judgments, or belief that he or she can successfully face day to day challenges and demands (Psychology Dictionary Online).
Self-confidence also brings about more happiness. Typically, when you are confident in your abilities you are happier due to your successes. When you are feeling better about your capabilities, the more energized and motivated you are to take action and achieve your goals.
Self-confidence, then, is similar to self-efficacy in that it tends to focus on the individual’s future performance; however, it seems to be based on prior performance, and so in a sense, it also focuses on the past.
Many psychologists tend to refer to self-efficacy when considering an individual’s beliefs about their abilities concerning a specific task or set of tasks, while self-confidence is more often referred to as a broader and more stable trait concerning an individual’s perceptions of overall capability.w222222222222q
What is Self-Esteem?
The most influential voices in self-esteem research were, arguably, Morris Rosenberg and Nathaniel Branden. In his 1965 book, Society and the Adolescent Self-Image, Rosenberg discussed his take on self-esteem and introduced his widely used accepted Self-Esteem Scale.
A Free PDF of the Rosenberg’s Self-Esteem Scale is available here.
His definition of self-esteem rested on the assumption that it was a relatively stable belief about one’s overall self-worth. This is a broad definition of self-esteem, defining it as a trait that is influenced by many different factors and is relatively difficult to change.
In contrast, Branden believes self-esteem is made up of two distinct components: self-efficacy, or the confidence we have in our ability to cope with life’s challenges, and self-respect, or the belief that we are deserving of happiness, love, and success (1969). The definitions are similar, but it is worth noting that Rosenberg’s definition relies on beliefs about self-worth, a belief which can have wildly different meanings to different people, while Branden is more specific about which beliefs are involved in self-esteem.
What about those who have too much self-esteem? Narcissism is the result of having too much self-esteem. A psychological definition would be an extreme amount of selfishness, with a grandiose view of one’s own talents and a craving for admiration.
Self-esteem at high and low levels can be damaging so it is important to strike a balance in the middle. A realistic but positive view of the self is often ideal.
Where does self-esteem come from? What influence does it have on our lives? Self-esteem is often seen as a personality trait, which means it tends to be stable and enduring.
There are typically three components which make up self-esteem:
- Self-esteem is an essential human need that is vital for survival and normal, healthy development
- Self-esteem arises automatically from within based on a person’s beliefs and consciousness
- Self-esteem occurs in conjunction with a person’s thoughts, behaviors, feelings, and actions.
Self-esteem is one of the basic human motivations in Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Maslow would suggest that individuals need both esteem from other people as well as inner self-respect. These needs must be fulfilled in order for an individual to grow and thrive.
These needs must be fulfilled in order for an individual to grow and achieve self-actualization. Self-confidence and self-esteem are two closely related psychological phenomena, both based on past experiences and both looking forward at future performance.
Going forward, in an effort to keep confusion to a minimum, we will consider self-confidence and self-esteem to be essentially the same concept.
We explore this further in The Science of Self-Acceptance Masterclass©
Popular Theories of Self-Confidence
With these definitions in hand, we can take a closer look at common beliefs and popular theories surrounding self-confidence and self-esteem.
As noted earlier, Branden’s theory of self-esteem became a widely referenced and understood theory, but there were also other theories and frameworks for understanding self-esteem in the psychological literature.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, an iconic although somewhat out-of-date framework in psychology, theorizes that there are several needs that humans must have met to be truly fulfilled, but, generally, the most basic needs must be met before more complex needs can be met (1943). In his pyramid, self-esteem is the second highest level of need, just under self-actualization.
According to Maslow, humans must have their needs of physiological stability, safety, love and belonging met before they can develop healthy self-esteem. He also noted that there are two kinds of self-esteem, a “higher” and a “lower,” the lower self-esteem derived from the respect of others, while the higher self-esteem comes from within.
In the years following his introduction of the hierarchy of needs, Maslow refined his theory to accommodate the instances of highly self-actualized people who are homeless or individuals who live in a dangerous area or war zone but are also high in self-esteem.
This hierarchy is no longer considered as a strict theory of unidirectional growth, but a more general explanation of how basic needs being met allow individuals the freedom and ability to achieve their more complex ones.
Terror Management Theory
A darker theory that delves a bit deeper into the human experience to explain self-confidence is the Terror Management Theory.
Terror Management Theory (TMT) is based on the idea that humans hold great potential for responding with terror to the awareness of their own mortality, and that worldviews that emphasize peoples’ beliefs in their own significance as humans protect them against this terror (Greenberg & Arndt, 2011).
TMT posits that self-esteem forms as a way to protect and buffer against anxiety, and subsequently people strive for self-confidence and react negatively to anyone or anything that could undermine their beliefs in their comforting worldview.
Mark Leary, a social psychologist who researches self-esteem in the context of evolutionary psychology, also contributed a theory of self-esteem to the literature.
The Sociometer Theory suggests that self-esteem is an internal gauge of the degree to which one is included vs. excluded by others (Leary, 2006). This theory rests on the conception of self-esteem as an internal individual perception of social acceptance and rejection.
There is some strong evidence for the accuracy and applicability of this theory. For example, studies have shown that the outcomes of events on people’s self-esteem generally match up with their assumptions about how the same events would cause other people to accept or reject them (Leary, Tambor, Terdal, & Downs, 1995).
Finally, evidence shows that social exclusion based on personal characteristics decreases self-esteem (Leary et al., 1995).
The Importance of Self-Confidence
“Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.”- Ralph Waldo Emerson
Regardless of which theory you may personally subscribe to, the outcomes of high self-confidence are generally agreed upon by researchers.
A broad review of the correlates of self-esteem found that high self-esteem is associated with better health, better social lives, protection against mental disorders and social problems, healthy coping, and mental well-being (Mann, Hosman, Schaalma, & de Vries, 2004).
Children with high self-confidence perform better at school and, later in life, have higher job satisfaction in middle age. Self-esteem is also strongly linked to happiness, with higher levels of self-esteem predicting higher levels of happiness. High self-confidence has even been found to increase the chances of survival after a serious surgical procedure (Mann et al., 2004).
As noted earlier, there have been thousands of papers published on self-confidence or self-esteem, and many of these papers connect self-confidence with success in life.
Some studies show a strong relationship between self-confidence and positive mental health (Atherton et al., 2016; Clark & Gakuru, 2014; Gloppen, David-Ferdon, & Bates, 2010; Skenderis, 2015; Stankov, 2013; Stankov & Lee, 2014). The success of individuals with high self-esteem lies in these six attributes:
- A greater sense of self-worth
- Greater enjoyment in life and in activities
- Freedom from self-doubt
- Freedom from fear and anxiety, freedom from social anxiety, and less stress
- More energy and motivation to act
- More enjoyable time interacting with other people at social gatherings. When you are relaxed and confident others will feel at ease around you.
In less hopeful news, some research has shown that increasing confidence does not always lead to enhanced positive outcomes (Brinkman, Tichelaar, van Agtmael, de Vries, & Richir, 2015; Forsyth, Lawrence, Burnette, & Baumeister, 2007).
Journalists in mainstream media have pointed out that there are also negative correlates with self-confidence. For example, self-confidence has steadily increased over the last 50 years, and with it, narcissism and unrealistic expectations have also increased (Kremer, 2013). Maybe there is such a thing as “too much a good thing,” when we are building our children’s self-esteem.
Too Much of Good Thing: The Consequences of Self-Esteem Education
Self-confidence or self-esteem has been praised in Western society for the past 25 years. During this time, it was believed that a positive self-image was the key to a happy and successful life, leading to the birth of the self-esteem era of education.
Children of this generation are taught in schools and at home to consider themselves to be special, to only focus on their positive traits, and to receive praise for very little accomplishment.
Recent research, however, suggests that these practices and beliefs, rather than protecting people from depression, may contribute to low motivation and a decrease in goal-directed behavior (Dweck, 2007).
If boosting self-confidence is better at increasing narcissism and ambition than achievement and success, what should we do? Do we ditch the idea of improving self-confidence?
Baumeister and colleagues have an answer. There are certain contexts where a boost of self-confidence can improve performance, and these opportunities should not be ignored.
They recommend continuing to boost self-esteem, but in a more measured and cautious manner (Baumeister et al., 2003). They encourage parents and teachers to give children praise in order to increase their self-confidence, but only as a reward for socially desirable behavior.
This method ensures that children receive some positive attention and have the opportunity to develop healthy self-esteem, and it does not run the risk of convincing children that they are exceedingly competent whether they work hard or not.
Steve Baskin (2011) lays out another positive move parents can take: letting their children fail. Recently parents have taken great care in shielding their children from pain and problems and forming a protective bubble of love and esteem-building around them. This often has the unintended consequence of not only protecting children from struggle but also from growth.
Baskin suggests taking a step back as parents, and letting children figure out how to deal with disappointment and pain, an undertaking that will likely result in the development of resilience and successful coping skills. If we want to encourage all children to not only feel their best but to also do their best, these seem like good solutions.
In his TED talk Dr. Ivan Joseph (2012), a former athletic director and soccer coach connects his dedication to building self-confidence with his subsequent career success and encourages the audience to follow some tips to build healthy self-confidence in their children.
The Benefits Of Fear: Practicing Courage and Building Confidence
Fear exists to protect us from physical danger; it is our instinct to prevent ourselves from being eaten by a predator. However, in the absence of such predators and with protection designed into our homes, cars and parenting styles- fear has adapted to respond instead to modern day stresses, which can trigger past negative feelings of shame, hurt or fear.
These experiences operate in the background of our psyche, taking up mental bandwidth and memory, just like mobile apps which run in the background of your phone using memory and battery power.
When we stay in our comfort zone protected from these experiences by the familiarity of routine activities, we live life unaware of our ability to grow and develop new strengths and skills. The less we experience opportunities for mistakes and failure the more scared we become of what could happen if we were to step outside of our comfort zone.
However, when we do take that plunge, even without confidence in our abilities, courage takes over. In the realm of the known, confidence operates without any hindrance, but in the realm of fear of the unknown courage takes over.
Courage is typically a more noble attribute than confidence because it requires greater strength, and typically a courageous person is one without limits for growth and success.
We can be grateful for fear. We can learn to eagerly embrace it, understand its origin and use it as a signpost for what needs to be dealt with, a powerful tool to declutter the mental closets. And just like actually cleaning out our closets, we can sort through what we want to keep and what no longer fits us. And when it’s cleared out we can feel renewed and energized.
But fear can’t always be overcome just by crossing your fingers and hoping for the best.
We, humans, are strange creatures, we expect our fear to disappear in an instant, however, we accept that we cannot just pick up the violin and play Vivaldi in an instant.
“To build confidence, you have to practice confidence”
9 Lessons for Practicing Self-Confidence
Martin Seligman reminds us that positive self-image by itself does not produce anything. A sustainable sense of security in oneself arises from positive and productive behavior (Seligman, 1996).
This is not to say that feeling secure and trusting in yourself is not important for well-being. High self-confidence or self-efficacy has been linked to many positive physical and mental health outcomes (Pajares, 1996).
Many of us would like to have higher self-confidence but struggle to overcome insecurity, fear, and negative self-talk. With some reflection, hard work, and perhaps a shift in perception we can work towards a strong and stable belief in ourselves.
“Well-being cannot just exist in our own head. It is a combination of actually having meaning, good relationships, and accomplishment.” -Martin Seligman
1. Stand or Sit in a Posture of Confidence
Harvard psychologist Amy Cuddy and others have studied the positive effects of confident body postures on our hormones.
Look for the sensations of confidence and practice feeling them more in your body. Feel your feet on the ground, keep your body relaxed and open. Think regal.
Watch Ammy Cuddy’s Ted Talk about all about the effect of posture on self-confidence:
Her basic message in the video is that an individual’s posture does not just reflect the level of confidence or insecurity. Posture sends messages to the brain that can actually change the way you feel. So, if you want to feel more powerful, sit up straight, smile, or stand in a “power pose,” and that message will be sent to your brain.
2. Practice Presence
Mindfulness is proven to have significant benefits for your physical and psychological well-being. You can practice mindfulness anytime, anywhere. You can give try it right now by following these steps:
- Become aware of your awareness; that is, begin to observe yourself and your surroundings.
- Start with your body sensations, feeling your feet and legs, your belly and chest, your arms, neck, and head.
- Notice your breath flowing in and out, the many sensations that you are experiencing.
- Let your eyes notice what is in your visual field, your ears, what they are hearing. Perhaps sensations of smell and taste will come to awareness as well.
- Go beyond these simple sensations to feel the energy, the quiet, or the noises that surround you. Feel your presence.
3. Build Your Capacity for Energy
What does this mean? A bit of stress can be useful to keep us alert and give us the extra energy needed to perform. Try reframing your nervous jitters as excitement! Knowing how to engage with these feelings in your body will expand your presence rather than shrinking it down.
4. Exercise Regularly
Exercise has a powerful effect on confidence. Regular exercise releases endorphins which in turn interact with the opiate receptors in the brain, which produces a pleasurable state of mind and in turn, you’ll view yourself in a more positive light.
When you exercise regularly, you will not only get better physically but you will feel more motivated to act in ways that build your self-confidence.
5.Visualise: Imagine Confidence
Close your eyes and relax your body completely. Stay firmly connected to the sensation of relaxation and in your mind’s eye, see yourself speaking on camera or doing whatever activity for which you would like more confidence. Allow the feelings of comfortable presence to pervade your body and your mind.
6. Give Yourself Permission To Be In The Process, Take Risks and Make Mistakes
From the outside, we often think, “wow, everybody else is more happy, beautiful, creative, successful, active, etc. than me. I’m just not good enough to be like them.” What we don’t tend to consider is that failure is inherent in accomplishment and that in order to pursue our goals we have to work hard and face our weaknesses. Even those who are exceptional in some areas of life are likely struggling in others.
Allow yourself to be a learner, to be a novice. Trust that it’s okay not to be perfect; in fact, you’ll likely provide inspiration to others in similar situations.
When breaking out of your comfort zone and starting something new, you are expanding your own limitations. When you successfully complete something that is out of your confidence zone, you are building confidence in yourself.
7. Clarify Your Goals
Making progress towards personally meaningful goals is the scaffolding upon which healthy self-confidence is built. In his book, Flourish Seligman proposes PERMA, a five-factor framework for well-being in which the “A” stands for accomplishment.
The S.M.A.R.T goals system offers a guideline for goal-setting in which goals are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound. This system is based on research that suggests that these types of goals lead to greater and more consistent achievement (Locke, 1968).
When considering what goals you’d like to set for yourself, it may be helpful to start big considering your core values and life goals. Then you can come up with actionable steps to work toward these. Writing a personal mission statement is a great way to give yourself some direction.
“Happiness does not simply happen to us. It’s something that we make happen and it comes from doing our best.”
8. Speak Well to Yourself
It’s always delightful to get good feedback from others. However, always seeking approval from outside yourself is an easy trap.
“Approve of yourself; be the one that says the words of encouragement you long to hear.”
Speak to yourself with self-compassion, kindness, and encouragement. After all, the most important relationship you have in your life is with yourself- make it a good one!
9. Ask For Help and Offer Your Help to Others
Many of us struggle to ask for help due to fear of rejection or being seen as incompetent. In Western cultures, the high value placed on self-reliance gets in the way of reaching out to others even though this is a necessary part of working toward our goals. However, conversely, a core feature of self-confidence also lies in being valued by others. A sense of belonging within our social system is fundamental to personal well-being (Baumeister & Leary, 1995).
In a recent review of contemporary literature, Stephen Post, head of Case Western Reserve University Medical School, found a profound connection between giving, altruism, and happiness (2008). When we play a positive role in our families, friendships, and communities we rightly feel good about ourselves. We feel that we are fulfilling a greater more meaningful purpose in our lives.
A study by Frank Flynn, professor of organizational behavior at Stanford, revealed that people tend to grossly underestimate the willingness of others to help (2008). Flynn says “our research should encourage people to ask for help and not to assume that others are disinclined to comply” (2008).
Collaboration among people creates the most powerful results. When we reach out to others we can see our efforts flourish in ways that we could never achieve on our own.
“Doing a kindness produces the single most reliable increase in momentary well-being than any other exercise we have tested.”
A Take-Home Message: It’s a Process
The bottom line is that a healthy sense of self-confidence is not something that we achieve once and then just have for the rest of our lives. If you are a parent, teacher, or someone else who interacts with children frequently, notice whether you are trying to build children’s self-esteem through protecting and praising them.
Consider what you are encouraging the child to learn from their actions, provide them with enough opportunities to safely learn through failure and offer them space to build their courage and express their self-efficacy.
No matter how confident they are, there will be a moment when they will need to draw from a deep well of self-esteem, resilience, and problem-solving to successfully navigate a complex and challenging world.
Self-confidence waxes and wanes and takes work to build, develop and maintain. We all experience moments which challenge our confidence, however, when we understand the sources of healthy self-confidence we can always work on cultivating it within ourselves.
What do you think about the challenge of building self-confidence? How do you feel about building self-confidence in education? What is your greatest confidence maker or breaker? Let us know in the comments box below.
We explore this further in The Science of Self-Acceptance Masterclass©
About the Authors
This piece is possible because of the stellar work of some of our contributing authors.
Courtney Ackerman is a graduate of the positive organizational psychology and evaluation program at Claremont Graduate University. She is currently working as a researcher for the State of California and her professional interests include survey research, well-being in the workplace, and compassion. When she’s not gleefully crafting survey reminders, she loves spending time with her dogs, visiting wine country, and curling up in front of the fireplace with a good book or video game.
Linda Ugelow is a business and mindset mentor, dancer/performer. She helps people transform worry and struggle into inspiration and ease in work and life. Her focus is on helping shy entrepreneurs find confidence and joy connecting with their audiences whether on camera or stage. A Master in Expressive Therapies with extensive experience as a movement specialist, Linda’s work is grounded in body-centered awareness. Her writing has been featured on Positively Positive.
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