Almost every person has some understanding of what self-esteem is, as it is one of the oldest topics in psychology, but it’s one of the most difficult concepts to define. Ever since Psychologist William James introduced it, other fields like social psychology and humanistic psychology had a desire also to study and measure it.
Correlations between self-esteem and happiness, well-being, and optimal functioning (Diener & Diener, 1995) continues to amaze us as more research shows just how much self-esteem contributes to our wellbeing.
There are three general definitions of self-esteem that are popularly used and accepted in the community. The first is the ability to succeed in meaningful areas of life and to believe in your aspirations (Mruk, 2013). The second is an attitude that raises your sense of worthiness (Rosenberg, 1965). The third is by Branden (1992), and it is a mix of the first two definitions:
“Confidence in our ability to think and to cope with the challenges of life. Confidence in our right to be happy, the feeling of being worthy, deserving, entitled to assert our needs and wants and to enjoy the fruits of our efforts.” (p. 8)
There are certain characteristics that distinguish how high someone’s self-esteem is. Examples of these characteristics are being open to criticism, acknowledging mistakes, being comfortable with giving and receiving compliments, and displaying a harmony between what one says, does, looks, sounds, and moves. People with high self-esteem are unafraid to show their curiosity, discuss their experiences, ideas, and opportunities. They can also enjoy the humorous aspects of their lives and are comfortable with social or personal assertiveness (Branden, 1992).
Incorporating self-esteem in positive psychology
Dr. Martin Seligman has some concerns about openly accepting self-esteem as part of positive psychology. He worries that people live in the world where self-esteem is injected into a person’s identity, not caring in how it is done, as long as the image of “confidence” is obtained. He expressed the following in 2006:
I am not against self-esteem, but I believe that self-esteem is just a meter that reads out the state of the system. It is not an end in itself. When you are doing well in school or work, when you are doing well with the people you love, when you are doing well in play, the meter will register high. When you are doing badly, it will register low. (p. v)
Seligman makes a great point, as it is important to take his words into consideration when looking at self-esteem. Self-esteem and positive psychology may not marry quite yet, so it is important to look at what research tells us about self-esteem before we construct a rationale for it as positive psychology researcher, coach, or practitioner.
Self-esteem all over the world
Recent research found a correlation between self-esteem and optimism with university students from Brazil (Bastianello, Pacico & Hutz & 2014). One of the most interesting results came from a cross-cultural research on life satisfaction and self-esteem, which was conducted in 31 countries.
They found differences in self-esteem between collective and individualistic cultures with self-esteem being lower in collectivist cultures. Expressing personal emotions, attitudes, and cognitive thoughts are highly associated with self-esteem, collectivist cultures seem to have a drop in self-esteem because of a lack of those characteristics (Diener & Diener 1995).
China, a collectivist culture, found that self-esteem was a significant predictor of life satisfaction (Chen, Cheung, Bond & Leung, 2006). They found that similar to other collectivist cultures, self-esteem also had an effect on resilience with teenagers. Teenagers with low self-esteem had a higher sense of hopelessness and had low resilience (Karatas, 2011).
In more individualistic cultures, teenagers who were taught to depend on their beliefs, behaviors, and felt open to expressing their opinion had more resilience and higher self-esteem (Dumont & Provost, 1999).
These studies led to further dissection into self-esteem and ways to increase it. Nathaniel Branden analyzed components of self-esteem and created simple steps to raise it.
How to increase self-esteem
Below is a list of pillars that is also a practical step-by-step guide to enhancing your self-esteem.
The practice of living consciously
Be aware of your daily activities and relationship with others, insecure reflections, and also personal priorities.
The practice of self-acceptance
This includes becoming aware and accepting the best and the worst parts of you and also the disowned parts of ourselves.
The practice of self-responsibility
This implies realizing that you are responsible for your choices and actions.
The practice of self-assertiveness
Act through your real convictions and feelings as much as possible.
The practice of living purposefully
Achieve personal goals that energize your existence.
The practice of personal integrity
Don’t compensate your ideals, beliefs, and behaviors for a result that leads to incongruence. When your behaviors are congruent with your ideals, integrity will appear.
For more detail on each pillar, please visit Nathaniel Branden’s book here.
It is important to heed Martin Seligman’s word of caution. Self-esteem research should be studied vigorously before we move forward with creating self-esteem exercises and techniques and apply them to a clinical or coaching setting.
Bastianello, M., Pacico, J., & Hutz, C. (2014). Optimism, self-esteem and personality: Adaptation and validation of the Brazilian Version Of The Revised Life Orientation Test (LOT-R). Psico-USF, Bragança Paulista, 523-531. Retrieved October 17, 2015, from http://www.scielo.br/pdf/pusf/v19n3/15.pdf
Baumeister, R.F., Bushman, B.J., & Campbell, W.K. (2000). Self-esteem, narcissism, and aggression: Does violence result from low self-esteem or from threatened egotism? Current Directions in Psychological Science, 9, 26–29. Retrieved October 17, 2015, http://www-personal.umich.edu/~bbushman/bbc00.pdf
Baumeister, R.F., Smart, L., & Boden, J.M. (1996). Relation of threatened egotism to violence and aggression: The dark side of high self-esteem. Psychological Review, 103, 5–33. Retrieved October 17, 2015, http://www.emotionalcompetency.com/papers/baumeistersmartboden1996.pdf
Branden, N. (1992). The power of self-esteem. Deerfield Beach, Flo.: Health Communications.
Branden, N. (2013). What Self-Esteem Is and Is Not. Retrieved October 18, 2015, from http://www.nathanielbranden.com/what-self-esteem-is-and-is-not.
Chen, S. X., Cheung, F. M., Bond, M. H., & Leung, J. (2006). Going beyond self-esteem to predict life satisfaction: The Chinese case. Asian Journal of Social Psychology. 9, 24-35.
Diener, E. & Diener, M. (1995). Cross-cultural correlates of life satisfaction and self-esteem. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 68, 653–663.
Dumont, M. & Provost, M. A,. (1999). Resilience in Adolescents: Protective Role of Social Support, Coping Strategies, Self-Esteem, and Social Activities on Experience of Stress and Depression. Journal of Youth and Adolescence. 28.343-363. Retrieved October 18, 2015, http://link.springer.com/article/10.1023%2FA%3A1021637011732#page-1
Karatas (2011), Self-Esteem and Hopelessness, and Resiliency: An Exploratory Study of Adolescents in Turkey. International Education Studies. 4. Retrieved October 19, 2015, http://www.ccsenet.org/journal/index.php/ies/article/view/12881/9031
Mruk, C. (2013). Self-esteem and positive psychology research, theory, and practice (4th ed.). New York: Springer Publishing Company.
Rosenberg, M. (1965). Society and the adolescent self-image. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Seligman, M. (2006). Learned optimism: How to change your mind and your life. New York: Vintage Books.