Motivation and emotion/Book/2013/Self-esteem

What is it, is it good, and how to improve low self-esteem?

Overview edit

Figure 1. It isn't how others see you - it is how you see yourself

Bella is sitting in her bedroom trying to finish her maths assignment, when she begins to think ‘Why am I finding this assignment so hard? I can’t even understand a simple assignment like this’. Upset with her progress she thinks to herself ‘I don’t even know why I try, I’m never going to amount to anything’. Bella decides to get up from her desk and looks in the mirror, and thinks to herself ‘I wish I had nicer skin, and wasn’t so short’. Staring in the mirror she thinks ‘No guy is ever going to date me, I have nothing to offer’.

On the same night Shannon is trying to finish the same maths assignment. Finding the assignment equally as hard she thinks to herself ‘This assignment is so hard, maths really isn’t my subject. Luckily I’m doing really well in my favourite class - Psychology!’ Getting distracted, Shannon looks down at herself and begins to think about the way that she looks. Shannon happens to be much shorter than Bella, but has a different outlook on it. She thinks to herself ‘I really am quite short compared to other girls in my year, but I love being different to everyone else, I think it makes me much more appealing!’.

Two girls, with two very different outlooks on life! This all comes down to their self-esteem. Self-esteem is one of the four constructs that make up a persons perception of themself, along with self-concept, self-knowledge and social self. This chapter will look at what self-esteem is, and the psychological theories surrounding it. Furthermore this chapter will cover low-self esteem, and ways to improve it.

Self-esteem edit

Self-esteem is a construct within psychology that reveals a persons overall perception and value of their own self worth (Orth, Robins, & Widaman, 2012). The underlying basis of self-esteem is a persons beliefs, and associated emotions relating to themself. Beliefs about themself can include beliefs about their appearance, skills, personal characteristics and qualities, for example, the belief of ‘I am an attractive person’, or ‘I am not good at anything’. The mental picture that a person creates for themself, will begin to develop in early childhood and continue to expand throughout life. Through life experiences people will develop an image of how they see themself. Self esteem essentially encompasses three things: - the degree of acceptance and love a person believes they have from others - their feelings of worthiness and the ability to accept themself - confidence in the ability to use their skills and attributes in everyday situations (Bauemeister, Campbell, Krueger, & Vohs, 2003).

There is an on-going debate for what self-esteem actually means for a person. Some studies suggest that having high self-esteem compared to low self-esteem is a good predictor for a person having a successful life (Bauemeister, Campbell, Krueger, & Vohs, 2003). Some studies however, suggest that self-esteem has no impact at all and can not be used to predict how a persons life will play out (Bauemeister, Campbell, Krueger, & Vohs, 2003). Self-esteem has long been considered an integral concept within psychology for determining a persons psychological well-being (Ross, Liu, Tomfohr, & Miller, 2013). There is accumulative research showing the relationship between psychological disorders such as depression and those with low self-esteem (Krueger, Vohs & Bauemeister, 2008).

The study of self-esteem is not only important for the understanding of psychological disorders, but also on for understanding how it may have an impact on a persons development and overall outlook on life.

Development edit

A persons self-esteem is continuously developed throughout their entire life, through life experiences (Orth, Robins, & Widaman, 2012). The development of self-esteem starts as early as childhood. Children are largely influenced by their parents at a young age to determine what is right and wrong. If a parent is constantly giving positive reinforcement to a child, the child is more likely to respond and do well (Rudy & Grusec, 2006). However, if a child is continuously given negative feedback, or told they are naughty, the more likely that that they will begin to believe it (Rudy & Grusec, 2006). As people go through life they will constantly be faced with judgements from family, friends, or other people of influence, all of which will have an impact on how the person sees themself – their self-esteem (Pelham & Swann, 1989).

Multiple studies have shown the importance of the association between academic achievement and self-esteem (Bauemeister, Campbell, Krueger, & Vohs, 2003). Studies have shown that a child with high academic performance is much more likely to have high self-esteem, compared to someone with poor academic performance (Bauemeister, Campbell, Krueger, & Vohs, 2003). As people go through life they compare themself to one another. Another high determination of self-esteem is body image (Martijn et al., 2010). It has been shown that women with body and weight concerns are much more likely to have lowered self-esteem, compared to those that are satisfied with their body shape (Martijn et al., 2010).

Social experiences are also another important factor in developing self-esteem. Humans have a high need to feel that they belong (Denissen, Penke, Schmitt, & van Aken, 2008). The need to belong motivates people to seek out relationships with others, and success in satisfying this need tends to result in higher self-esteem (Denissen, Penke, Schmitt, & van Aken, 2008). There is also a high correlation between relationship quality and quantity and self-esteem (Denissen, Penke, Schmitt, & van Aken, 2008). Across cultures it has been found that high self-esteem is associated with quantity of social interactions (Denissen, Penke, Schmitt, & van Aken, 2008).

Even after childhood, and the schooling years, a persons self-esteem will continue to be developed. Everyone has an image of who, or what it is that they would like to be. People will admire different potential qualities that they would like to have, whether it be academic abilities, sporting skills or interpersonal skills. People who manage to match their ideal self, generally has higher self-esteem as they feel good about themself (Pelham & Swann, 1989). Those that do not manage to match their ideal self, are generally very dissatisfied with life, have a very negative outlook on life and therefore have low self-esteem. (Pelham & Swann, 1989) People with low self esteem may see themself as being unworthy or incompetent for not reaching their goals.

Psychological theories edit

Self-esteem plays an integral role in Abraham Maslow’s famous psychological theory called 'hierarchy of needs’ (Maslow, 1954). According to Maslow, our actions are motivated by achieving certain needs (Maslow, 1954). Maslow’s hierarchy of needs consists of five levels displayed on a pyramid, the lowest level being made up of the most basic human needs including factors such as food and sleep (Lester, Hvezda, Sullivan, & Plourde, 1983).
Maslows hierachy of needs.
Once lower levels are met successfully a person can move up the levels until reaching the top of the pyramid and reaching full self-actualization (Maslow, 1954). The fourth level of the pyramid includes esteem needs. Self-esteem is part of the esteem needs along with confidence, achievement, respect of others and respect by others (Maslow, 1954). People who are able to successfully satisfy the esteem needs, generally perpetuate feelings of confidence in their abilities. Those who are unable to fulfil this need tend to reflect characteristics of someone with low self-esteem, such as self-loathing. In order to progress to the next level of the pyramid, a person would need to achieve high feelings of self-esteem. Maslow believed that full psychological health was only possible when all needs of the pyramid were met and a person was able to reach full self-actualization (Lester, Hvezda, Sullivan, & Plourde, 1983). If basic needs were not met – the more likely a person would have psychological problems in life (Lester, Hvezda, Sullivan, & Plourde, 1983).

In Sigmund Freuds Psychoanalytic Theory, Freud believed that the Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt stage of psychosexual development, was when a child was to assert their independence from their parents (Lewis, 1988). If children were taught to be confident in their choices, they were likely to become confident. If children were overly controlled during this stage, they would begin to feel doubt for their ability to be independent. It was believed by Freud that for people that became ‘stuck’ in this stage, due to being overly controlled, that they would lack self-esteem (Lewis, 1988).

Measures of self-esteem edit

Self-esteem is generally measured through various self-report inventories that give a score revealing a persons degree of high or low self-esteem.
Probably the most widely recognized measure of explicit self-esteem is the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale. The Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale consists of ten questions on a four point Likert scale ranging from strongly agree to strongly disagree (Huang & Dong, 2012). The questions include five negatively worded items, and five positively worded items (Huang & Dong, 2012). This measurement of self-esteem is designed to measure the persons current state of mind, by asking questions that relate to their feelings at the time of completing the inventory (Huang & Dong, 2012). This scale has been found to have relatively high levels of reliability (Demo, 1985).

Click on the follow link to give the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale a go for yourself!

Another way to measure self-esteem is through tasks that measure implicit self-esteem (Greenwald & Farnham, 2000). The benefit of using implicit measures, rather than explicit measures that are generally survey based is that it reduces the possibility of social desirability, due to a reduction in awareness of how the assessment task works. One of the most commonly used measures of implicit self-esteem is the Implicit Association Test (Greenwald & Farnham, 2000). The purpose of this test is to measure an individuals self-esteem through measuring the tendency of someone to evaluate stimuli that is associated with themself more favourably (Greenwald & Farnham, 2000). The Implicit Assocation Test works by having people classify themself with positive and negative attributes. The test is measured through the speed of the associations by the participant, which will show a subconscious preference for associating different attributes with themself (Conner & Barrett, 2005). Conner and Barrett (2005) found through Implicit Association Tests measuring attitudes to the self, that there was a strong association of implicit attitudes to the self predicting negative feeling states.

Click on the following link for a practicle example of the Implicit Association Test measuring self-esteem -

Limitations edit

Self-report is the main way in which self esteem can be measured - considering most questions to measure self-esteem are only known by the person. The biggest limitation of measuring self-esteem, as with any other psychological construct that is measured through self-report, is the susceptibility to social desirability. Due to social desirability people are more likely to answer questions that do not necessarily reflect their true identity, and sometimes will answer questions about their self-esteem that reflect someone with a higher level of self-esteem.
Another potential problem with measuring self esteem is that empirical measurements of self-esteem are rare (Demo, 1985). A person may reflect on their self-esteem when having a bad day, or when having a particularly good day which may be out of the ordinary and therefore reveal unreliable results of their true self-esteem (Demo, 1985). To try to obtain a better understanding of a persons overall self-esteem, various measures should be taken across different situations of a persons life (Demo, 1985).

Types of self-esteem edit

High self-esteem edit

People with high self-esteem tend to be able to deal with life problems and experiences better than those with low self-esteem. Self-esteem is about how a person views themself, and those with high self-esteem generally have a high opinion of themself and their beliefs (Bauemeister, Campbell, Krueger, & Vohs, 2003). The benefits of having high self-esteem essentially fall into two categories: higher initiative and a feel good mentality (Bauemeister, Campbell, Krueger, & Vohs, 2003).

A person who has high self esteem will generally exhibit the following characteristics -

- Believe in their own values and opinions
- Are able to make their own decisions, without needing reassurance from others that they are making the right decision
- Are rarely manipulated
- Generally don’t need constant reassurance – (see positive and negative high self-esteem)
- Do not spend time worrying about past decisions, or what the future may hold
- Comfortable in their own skin
- Positive outlook on life
- Able to deal with criticism

Secure and defensive high self-esteem edit

Studies have shown that high self-esteem can take the form of both secure and defensive high self-esteem (Jordan, Spencer, Zanna, Hoshino-Browne, & Correll, 2003). Both forms of high-self esteem reflect a person with high opinions of themself, however a person with a defensive high self-esteem is vulnerable to criticism, and needs reassurance from others to maintain their positive view of themself (Jordan et al.,2003). A person with defensive high self-esteem may react very negatively if they are criticised and act out aggressively to anyone who does not agree with their opinions of themself. This is thought to be due to a person having high explicit self esteem, but low implicit self-esteem (Jordan et al.,2003). A study by Jordan et al. (2003) found that those with high explicit but low implicit self-esteem were more likely to have higher levels of narcissism and change their views to reduce cognitive dissonance. Those with secure high self-esteem, do not need reassurance of others for their self-worth (Jordan et al.,2003).

Low self-esteem edit

Individuals with low self-esteem generally take any sort of negative feedback very personally (Bernichon, Cook, & Brown, 2003). Any sort of criticism, whether it be relating to their friendships, goals in life or appearance – it can be very debilitating for some-one with low self-esteem (Bernichon, Cook, & Brown, 2003). A person with low self-esteem generally views their self-worth depending on how they think other people view them, and only see themself as worthy if they are succeeding at things in life (Bernichon, Cook, & Brown, 2003).

A person with low self-esteem may exhibit some of the following characteristics:
Maslows hierachy of needs.

- Inability to deal with criticism
- Perfectionism
- Negative outlook on life
- Constant negative self-talk, extremely critical of themself
- Envious of other people
- Unable to move on from past mistakes
- Inability to make decisions
- Always trying to please the people around them
- Unable to see past setbacks in life
- Thinks all of their achievements come from pure luck, and not their ability
- Disregard their positive attributes, and see themself as inferior to others

Results from numerous studies have also found a link between self-esteem and depression. Some studies consider low self-esteem to be a risk factor for depression, whilst others conceptualize it as being part of depression (Orth et al.,2009; Sowislo & Orth, 2013).

Improving low self-esteem edit

People with high self esteem tend to be happier, more self-satisfied and less likely to be depressed – so having high self-esteem is something that would be admired, and striven for amongst most of the population (Krueger, Vohs & Bauemeister, 2008). A common misconception about increasing self-esteem is people think that to improve someone else’s self-esteem it is simply a matter of praising them, and making them feel good about themself, however some theorists believe that this is not the case (Bauemeister, Campbell, Krueger, & Vohs, 2003).

Various research has found positive correlations between self-esteem and academic performance, however it has been found that high self-esteem does not necessarily predict high academic performance (Bauemeister, Campbell, Krueger, & Vohs, 2003). Instead, it is thought that high self-esteem is the product of high achievement, not only in academia but in success through various other life experiences (Bauemeister, Campbell, Krueger, & Vohs, 2003). It has become more commonly considered that high self-esteem itself does not actually cause anything, but is instead the product of achievement throughout life (Bauemeister, Campbell, Krueger, & Vohs, 2003). Studies have instead found that the only causal link for someone with high self-esteem, on their behaviour, is that they will be less likely to give up, or except failure (Bauemeister, Campbell, Krueger, & Vohs, 2003).

The common goal now when trying to ‘improve someones self-esteem’, is not to improve someone’s self-esteem as such directly, but to help someone deal with their life experiences through skills that facilitate a more positive approach to life.

So, do any of the features of someone with low-self esteem sound familiar? If so, you may have low self-esteem. Your self-esteem revolves around how YOU view the world, how YOU view yourself and how YOU react to situations that may occur in your life. So what can you do to try to improve your approach to life? Start with some of these tips. Try and incorporate some or all of the following suggestions into your life, on a daily basis.

- Positive self-talk – be supportive, caring and understanding of yourself. Treat yourself the way you treat others. If you make a mistake, remember that you are only human and everyone makes mistakes.
- Challenge any negative self-talk – the next time you criticise yourself, make a point to see if there is any basis for what you are saying. More times than not, there will be no real basis for these negative comments.
- Appreciate the qualities that make you, YOU! - write a list of all the special qualities that make you unique, if you are having trouble doing this ask a friend or a family member what qualities they admire about you. This could include things that relate to the way you look, your personal characteristics such as ‘I am honest’, skills that you may have or things that you do such as ‘I volunteer for a charity’. Whenever you are feeling down, remind yourself about these positive qualities by reading the list.
- Stop comparing yourself to others – we all do it at some point, compare ourselves to others – its human nature! You may think somebody else’s life is perfect but you only ever see what is on the surface. Enjoy being you, for who you are, and what makes you special. ‘You were born an original, so don’t die a copy’.

- Take a compliment! – if someone compliments you on how you look today, or a skill that they admire about you – accept it! Don’t ignore your positive attributes, or dismiss the things you excel in as just ‘getting lucky’.
Maslows hierachy of needs.

- Don’t dwell on the past - do not rethink past experiences, or how you could of done things differently. Accept things for what they are, and remember that every experience good or bad has made you the person that you are today!
- Don’t worry, be happy – stop worrying about the future and what might happen. Take everyday as it comes and make the most of it!
- Positive affirmations – are positive statements, to develop a more positive perception of yourself, through our sub-conscious. Try reading a new one every morning, they may include statements such as 'I love and approve of myself'.
- Exercise and diet – you have probably heard this time and time again, but exercise does make you happy! Not only does exercise release endorphins, but by keeping fit and eating a healthy diet, you will most likely feel better about yourself.
- Be assertive – value yourself and others, and make sure your values and opinions are heard. This is not to say you need to be aggressive, just do not allow yourself to be walked all over.
- Keep good company – surround yourself with people that are supportive, and make you happy, simple as that. Nobody needs to make time for people that are only going to drag them down and make them upset.
- Enjoy yourself – take the time to take part in activities that you enjoy and make you happy.
- Seek professional help - if you are having trouble building up your self-esteem yourself, consider seeking professional advice from your general practitioner or seek help from a psychologist to help treat other potential problems such as depression and anxiety.

Summary edit

Self-esteem is a term used in psychology to define a persons overall perception of themself. People with high self-esteem tend to have a positive outlook on life and do not need the reassurance of others when making decisions. Within high self-esteem, there is also a difference across whether someone has a secure or defensive high self-esteem. A person with a defensive high self-esteem still requires positive reassurance of their beliefs about themself, where as a secure high self-esteem does not. People with low self-esteem, do not regard their opinions as being of importance and are constantly seeking reassurance from others, never thinking that they are good enough (Bernichon, Cook, & Brown, 2003). People with high self-esteem have been found to have higher initiative and a feel good mentality, so it would be fair to say high-self esteem is something that is well sort after(Bauemeister, Campbell, Krueger, & Vohs, 2003).

People trying to enhance their self-esteem should look to methods for how to deal with life experiences, rather then just simply trying to improve their self-esteem directly or relying on positive feedback from others.

Test yourself edit

Feeling confident? Give this short quiz a go to test your knowledge!

1 Which characteristic is not associated with high self-esteem?

Believe in their own values and opinions.
Need for reassurance.
Positive outlook on life.

2 On Abraham Maslow’s hierachy of needs, what level does self-esteem fall under?


3 Which of the following is not a form of high self-esteem?


See also edit

Internal links edit


External support organisations edit

Beyond Blue:

References edit

Baumeister, R. F., Campbell, J. D., Krueger, J. I., & Vohs, K. D. (2003). Does High Self-Esteem Cause Better Performance, Interpersonal Success, Happiness, or Healthier Lifestyles? Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 4(1), 1-44.

Bernichon, T., Cook, K. E., & Brown, J. D. (2003). Seeking self-evaulative feedback: The interactive role of global self-esteem and specific self-views. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 84(1), 194-204. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.84.1.194

Conner, T., & Barrett, L. (2005). Implicit Self-Attitudes Predict Spontaneous Affect in Daily Life. Emotion, 5(4), 476-488. doi:10.1037/1528-3542.5.4.476

Demo, D. H. (1985). The measurement of self-esteem: Refining our methods. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 48(6), 1490-1502. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.48.6.1490

Denissen, J. A., Penke, L., Schmitt, D. P., & van Aken, M. G. (2008). Self-esteem reactions to social interactions: Evidence for sociometer mechanisms across days, people, and nations. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 95(1), 181-196. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.95.1.181

Greenwald, A. G., & Farnham, S. D. (2000). Using the Implicit Association Test to measure self-esteem and self-concept. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 79(6), 1022-1038. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.79.6.1022

Huang, C., & Dong, N. (2012). Factor structures of the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale: A meta-analysis of pattern matrices. European Journal Of Psychological Assessment, 28(2), 132-138. doi:10.1027/1015-5759/a000101

Jordan, C. H., Spencer, S. J., Zanna, M. P., Hoshino-Browne, E., & Correll, J. (2003). Secure and Defensive High Self-Esteem. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 85(5), 969-978. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.85.5.969

Krueger, J. I., Vohs, K. D., & Baumeister, R. F. (2008). Is the allure of self-esteem a mirage after all?. American Psychologist, 63(1), 64-65. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.63.1.64

Lester, D., Hvezda, J., Sullivan, S., & Plourde, R. (1983). Maslow's hierarchy of needs and psychological health. Journal Of General Psychology, 109(1), 83-85. doi:10.1080/00221309.1983.9711513

Lewis, H. (1988). Freudian theory and new information in modern psychology. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 5(1), 7-22. doi:10.1037/h0085119

Martijn, C., Vanderlinden, M., Roefs, A., Huijding, J., & Jansen, A. (2010). Increasing body satisfaction of body concerned women through evaluative conditioning using social stimuli. Health Psychology, 29(5), 514-520. doi:10.1037/a0020770

Maslow, A. H. (Ed.). (1954). Motivation and personality. New York: Harper

Orth, U., Robins, R. W., Trzesniewski, K. H., Maes, J., & Schmitt, M. (2009). Low self-esteem is a risk factor for depressive symptoms from young adulthood to old age. Journal Of Abnormal Psychology, 118(3), 472-478. doi:10.1037/a0015922

Orth, U., Robins, R. W., & Widaman, K. F. (2012). Life-span development of self-esteem and its effects on important life outcomes. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 102(6), 1271-1288. doi:10.1037/a0025558

Pelham, B. W., & Swann, W. B. (1989). From self-conceptions to self-worth: On the sources and structure of global self-esteem. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 57(4), 672-680. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.57.4.672

Ross, K. M., Liu, S., Tomfohr, L. M., & Miller, G. E. (2013). Self-esteem variability predicts arterial stiffness trajectories in healthy adolescent females. Health Psychology, 32(8), 869-876. doi:10.1037/a0031458

Rudy, D., & Grusec, J. E. (2006). Authoritarian parenting in individualist and collectivist groups: Associations with maternal emotion and cognition and children's self-esteem. Journal of Family Psychology, 20(1), 68-78. doi:10.1037/0893-3200.20.1.68

Sowislo, J., & Orth, U. (2013). Does low self-esteem predict depression and anxiety? A meta-analysis of longitudinal studies. Psychological Bulletin, 139(1), 213-240. doi:10.1037/a0028931