WHAT IS SELF-ESTEEM?
There are a variety of ways to think about the self and many different interpretations of how to define self-esteem. Over one hundred different definitions of self-esteem have been used in the literature, and therein lies much of the controversy over self-esteem. There are at least fifteen different terms referring to the "self" found in the literature. "Self-esteem" and "self-concept", the two most common
terms, have been sometimes used interchangeably.
The older, more traditional view referred to the "general self-concept" as the more global view. However, in recent years self-esteem is being used to refer to the global, overarching view and evaluation of the self, and self-concept used to describe domain specific characteristics. Thus, it can be said that one has multiple self-concepts, including physical, academic, social, and transpersonal aspects. The physical aspect of
self-concept relates to what one looks like, one s sex, the clothes one wears, the home one lives in, etc. The academic self-concept relates to how well one does in school and in different subjects. The social self-concept describes how one relates to other people and the transpersonal self-concept describes how one relates to the world.
Baumeister, for example, published an article entitled "The Dark Side of High Self-Esteem," in which he used the term as synonymous with pride, egotism, arrogance, conceitedness, narcissism, and a sense of superiority. (Baumeister, 1996) However, few psychologists accept this definition of self-esteem and most see these characteristics as compensating behavior for low self-esteem. This is why we often use the term
"healthy" self-esteem to make the distinction between those who may exhibit signs of self-esteem but are compensating for feelings of inadequacy and those who truly possess those characteristics of self-esteem.
Susan Hales defines self-esteem as the evaluative function of the self-concept. Self-esteem, thus, is the affective, or emotional experience of the evaluations one makes with respect to one s personal worth. (Hales, 1989) With this definition, self-esteem might be defined as how one feels about one s perceptions of self or one s self-concepts.
The California State Task Force on Self-Esteem, which spent three years studying the topic, ended up defining self-esteem as "Appreciating my own worth and importance and having the character to be accountable for myself and to act responsibly towards others." (1990)
The most widely accepted definition is that of Nathaniel Branden who defines healthy self-esteem as "the disposition to experience oneself as competent to cope with life s challenges and being worthy of happiness."(1994) This definition thus implies not only being worthy of respect, but also as having the basic skills and competencies required to be successful in life.
Self-concept might be defined as a conscious, cognitive perception of how one sees oneself, whereas self-esteem is the evaluation of how one feels about that self-concept or those self-concepts. Thus, one way of thinking about self-esteem is as the evaluative function of the many self-concepts one has regarding all the various roles one plays and the relative value one places on these roles. Thus, one may see oneself as poor in
athletics, but if one doesn t value that quality it may not have an adverse effect on one s self-esteem.
There is no question about the close relationship between self-esteem and self-concept. Studies show that people with low self-esteem have more poorly defined self-concepts.(Baumeister, 1993) Thus, a critical element of healthy self-esteem is having realistic, clear self-concepts.
Because the relative value placed on the roles one plays changes from time to time, one s self-esteem is apt to fluctuate up or down. Franken believes "there is a great deal of research which shows that the self-concept is, perhaps, the basis for all motivated behavior. It is the self-concept that gives rise to possible selves, and it is possible selves that create the motivation for behavior. Through self-reflection people often
come to view themselves in a new, more powerful way, and it is through this new, more powerful way of viewing the self that people can change and develop possible selves." (1994)
Baumeister, R.F. (1993) Self-esteem: The puzzle of low self-regard. New York: Plenum Press.
Baumeister, R., Smart, L., Boden,J. (1996) "Relation of Threatened Egotism to Violence and Aggression: The Dark Side of High Self-Esteem." Psychological Review, February, 1996.
Branden, N. (1994) Six Pillars of Self-Esteem. New York, N.Y.:Bantam Books.
California Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility. (1990) Toward a State of Esteem. Sacramento, CA: California Dept. of Education,
Franken, R. (1994). Human Motivation. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks & Cole Publishing Co.
Hales, S. (1989) "Valuing the Self: Understanding the Nature and Dynamics of Self-Esteem." Perspectives: , Saybrook Institute, San Francisco, Dec. 1989.