Self-Esteem and Psychology
Self-esteem has been an important construct in psychology, and is almost as old as psychology itself.
Sigmund Freud, considered the founding father of psychology by many, also had theories about self-esteem at the heart of his work.
What self-esteem is, how we develop it (or fail to) and what influences it has kept psychologists busy for a very long time, and the road to full discovery seems a long one.
However, as much as we have yet to learn about self-esteem, we have made grounds in distinguishing between self-esteem and other similar self-directed traits and attributes such as:
Purkey (1988, p.1) describes self-concept as “the totality of a complex, organised and dynamic system of learned beliefs, attitudes and opinions that each person holds to be true about his or her personal existence”.
Self-concept is an overarching idea we hold about who we are – in terms of our physical, emotional, social and spiritual aspects, and in terms of any other aspects that make up who we are (Neill, 2005).
Roy Baumeister (1999), the eminent self-efficacy researcher, defined self-concept as “The individual’s belief about himself or herself, including the person’s attributes and who and what the self is.”
Similarly Rosenberg states in his 1979 book that self-concept is, “the totality of an individual’s thoughts and feelings having reference to himself as an object” (Rosenberg, 1979).
So, self-concept is how we perceive ourselves, our answer to the question “Who am I?”
It is being conscious of one’s own tendencies, thoughts, feelings, preferences and habits, hobbies, skills, areas of weakness and competence (Ackerman, 2018).
It is the awareness of who we are and our concept of our self. We form and develop our self-concept as we grow, based on the information we have gathered about ourselves.
As a more comprehensive evaluation of the self based on how a person sees, values, thinks and feels about themselves, it is multifaceted and can be broken down into individual aspects: physical body, spirit or soul.
Related to self-concept, but less general, is self-image. Self-image, in its most basic form, is an internalised mental picture/idea an individual has of themselves.
It’s how one thinks and feels about him/herself based on her/his appearance, performance and relationships, that consistently impacts their outlook on life as well as their level of happiness and fulfillment.
Whenever we ask:
- ‘How do I look?’,
- ‘How am I doing?’ or
- ‘How important am I?’,
we are creating an internalised mental image/idea of ourselves that builds the foundations of our self-image.
Self-image can be compared to self-concept in the way it is all about how you see yourself (McLeod, 2008).
Our self-image is the impression we have of ourselves that represents a totality of our strengths and weaknesses, and these strengths and weaknesses can be observed through the labels that we give ourselves to describe us.
For instance, we might say:
‘I am a clever person so, I can…’
‘I am a loser, so I believe I can’t…’
‘I am a confident person, so I am able to…’
‘I am nervous person, so I am unable to…’
These are examples of only a handful of labels that someone may give themselves and the inevitable conclusions that they may reach. It is these conclusions that we make about ourselves that either form the foundations of a healthy self-image or an unhealthy one. In addition, these labels form the foundations of your belief systems (Sicinski, n.d.)
Self-image develops gradually through a lifetime of experience involving learning and societal influence. It is, however, something that is under constant change over time as we gain more life experience, as we think and reflect, as we learn and as we interact with other people (Sicinski, n.d.).
Self-image is how an individual sees him/herself, it does not necessarily have to represent reality and can be merely based on false and inaccurate thoughts about one’s self, or built upon one’s perception of reality influenced by how one believes him/herself to be viewed by society and other people. Our self-image may be close to reality or far from it, but it is usually not completely in line with objective and factual reality, or how others perceive us (Ackerman and Brown, 2018).
Self-worth is a similar concept to self-esteem with a small but important difference – self-esteem is what we think, feel, and believe about ourselves, whereas self-worth is the more general recognition that we are valuable human beings worthy of love (Hibbert, 2013).
The dictionary defines self-worth as “the sense of one’s own value or worth as a person”, “a favourable estimate or opinion of oneself; self-esteem.” Although, there are many ways for a person to value themselves and assess their worth as a human being, and according to (Annabelle, 2017), some of these are more psychologically beneficial than others.
Our self worth is a function of how we value ourselves – to build our self worth we must first discover our values and then make up our own definition of success. Our values are simply what we value in life (Little, n.d.).
Society places excessive value on the outward appearances of success through fame and approval (Yups, 2007), wealth, family life, career (pohnpei397, 2013) and so on, and in contrast, less must inevitably be afforded to more noble values of a person, such as love, kindness, empathy, integrity, emotional intelligence, forgiveness and inner peace, when defining an individual’s success.
This means that we have a warped definition of success based largely on outward appearances, which really results in a warped sense of self worth. Self-worth is better seen as a measure of our capacity to believe in ourselves, and it comes from an internal source from within (Hadeja, 2017). We create it through faith, by acting on the singular belief that we matter, and it is the foundation of our ability to believe in ourselves. Self-worth is the gateway through which self-esteem is received (Hadeja, 2017).
Further, (Hadeja, 2017) postulates that a valid sense of self-worth is required in order to attain love, peace, joy, power, success and a sound mind and that it precludes the possibility of committing suicide. She states that without self-worth, worries, doubts and fears about our very existence will persist until they invalidate our dreams and visions, and impair our greatest potentials.
Self-confidence relates to our trust in ourselves and in our ability to problem solve, deal with challenges in life and partake successfully in the world (Burton, 2015). Abraham Maslow and many others later have highlighted the requirement to distinguish between self-confidence as a generalised personality characteristic and self-confidence with relation to a specific task or challenge, or ability (i.e. self-efficacy).
The concept of self-confidence/self-assurance in one’s personal judgment, ability, power – a positive (Zellner, 1970) belief that in the future one can generally accomplish what one wishes to do. It is based more on external determinants of success, achievement and value than the internal measures that contribute to overall self-esteem. We can have high self-confidence, particularly in a certain area or field, but still not regard ourselves as being overall valuable and hence hold a healthy self-esteem (Ackerman and Brown, 2018).
‘Someone’s self-confidence increases through experiences of having mastered particular activities’ (Snyder, Lopez, Shane 2009).
Psychologists have long noted that a person can possess the self-confidence to complete a specific task (self-efficacy), e.g. to do a triathlon or write a book, even though they may lack general self-confidence; or they can have self-confidence but lack the self-efficacy to achieve a particular task, e.g. do a triathlon (Bauer and Raymond, 1964).
These two types of self-confidence are, however, correlated with one another and for this reason can be conflated quite easily (Bauer and Raymond, 1964).
Albert Bandura defines self-efficacy as a personal judgement of:
‘The belief in one’s capabilities to organize and execute courses of action required to manage prospective situations’ (Bandura, 1982, p.2)
Self-efficacy is related to self-esteem but not a substitute for it. It refers to the belief a person holds in their ability to succeed at certain tasks (Neill, 2005). Someone could have high self-efficacy when it comes to playing the guitar, but low self-efficacy when it comes to playing football, for example.
Self-efficacy is an individual’s belief in his or her innate ability to achieve goals.
Kathy Kolbe adds:
‘Belief in innate abilities means valuing one’s particular set of conative strengths. It also involves determination and perseverance to overcome obstacles that would interfere with utilizing those innate abilities to achieve goals.’ (Kolbe, 2009, p.1)
Psychologists have adopted different perspectives regarding self-efficacy, noting various trajectories:
- Dynamics of self-efficacy, and lack thereof, in many different settings
- Interactions between self-efficacy and self-concept
- Habits of attribution that contribute to, or detract from, self-efficacy
(Stajkovic and Luthans, 1998) concluded that expectations of self-efficacy determine whether an individual will be able to exhibit coping behaviour and also determine how long effort will be applied in the face of obstacles.
According to (Stajkovic and Luthans, 1998), individuals with high self-efficacy will exert sufficient effort that, if well performed, leads to the desired outcomes, whereas those with low self-efficacy are likely to cease effort early and be unsuccessful.
Self-efficacy has an effect on each area of human endeavour. Through the way it determines the beliefs a person will hold regarding his or her personal ability and power to affect situations, it has a significant influence on both the power a person actually has to face obstacles and the choices a person is most likely to make (Luszczynska and Schwarzer, 2005).
These effects are particularly apparent with regard to behaviours that affect health (Luszczynska and Schwarzer, 2005).
Unlike self-esteem, self-efficacy is more specific rather than global, and it is based on external success rather than internal worth. All measures of self-efficacy are area specific by virtue of the nature of the construct, which means assessing individuals’ sense of capability in specific areas.
(Rodin and McAvay, 1992; Seeman, Rodin and Albert, 1993) developed and validated a self-efficacy measure designed to be distinctly relevant to older adults that includes the area of health and taps into:
- Interpersonal efficacy – dealing with friends and family
- Instrumental efficacy – finances, safety, productivity and has a total of eight items
Froman and Owen (1991) published a health self-efficacy measure meant for use with high school students. The 43 item scale has two subscales, physical and mental health, and has acceptable reliability and validity (Froman and Owen, 1991).
Participants are asked to indicate their confidence in their ability to perform 43 behaviours, such things as “eating a balanced diet” “maintaining friendships” and “telling the truth”.
Finally, self-compassion is based on how we relate to ourselves rather than how we judge or perceive ourselves (Neff, n.d.).
Kristin Neff has defined self-compassion as being composed of three main components: self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness (Neff, 2003).
Self-compassion has been considered to resemble:
- Carl Rogers’ concept of “unconditional positive regard”, applied both towards clients and oneself
- Albert Ellis’ “unconditional self-acceptance”
- Maryhelen Snyder’s notion of an “internal empathizer” that explores one’s own experience with “curiosity and compassion”
- Ann Weiser Cornell’s idea of a gentle, allowing relationship with all parts of one’s being
- Judith Jordan’s concept of self-empathy, which implies acceptance, care and empathy towards the self
Being self-compassionate means we are kind and forgiving to ourselves, and that we avoid being harsh or overly critical of ourselves (Ackerman and Brown, 2018). (Neff, n.d.) states that having compassion for yourself is really no different than having compassion for others.
Self-compassion is extending compassion to ourselves at times when we feel inadequate, like a failure or are suffering more generally. It can lead us to a healthy sense of self-esteem, but it is not quite self-esteem.
Self-kindness/self-compassion is about treating yourself with kindness when coming across challenges and pain in life, rather than treating yourself with criticism and hostility.
Self-compassion is also about the acknowledgement of failure and suffering as part of a learning process and as part of growing as a person, and not exaggerating or bottling up negative emotions. Instead, to exhibit self-compassion is to observe these emotions and to feel them without judgement using mindful awareness.
Research indicates that self-compassion is positively associated with life satisfaction, wisdom, happiness, optimism, curiosity, learning goals, social connectedness, personal responsibility and emotional resilience, with self-compassionate individuals experiencing greater psychological health than individuals who lack self-compassion (see for example Yang, Zhang and Kou, 2016).
Many studies also suggest that self-compassion is associated with a lower tendency for self-criticism, depression, anxiety, rumination, thought suppression, perfectionism and disordered eating attitudes (see for example Neff, Kirkpatrick, Rude, 2007).
Self-compassion is thus different to self-esteem, having different consequences.
Self-pity is a rather different emotional reaction, where a person feels victimised and lacks belief in themselves to deal with and employ suitable skills to overcome adversity.