HOW SELF-ESTEEM DEVELOPS
There are two essential components of healthy self-esteem; the sense of personal worth and a sense of personal competence or efficacy. These two components of self-esteem develop over a period of time with multiple experiences.
The first major component of self-esteem, the sense of personal worth or being worthy of respect, typically stems from being loved or valued by others, most often by parents in the home. For example, knowing that one's behavior and status really matter to others enough to cause them to have real emotion and to provoke action from them contributes to this feeling of self-worth.
The second component, a sense of competence or efficacy, stems from the extent to which one sees oneself as the cause of effects. The essence of self-esteem is the feeling of having an effect on things and being able to cause or affect events. Having quiet confidence in one's potential ability to cope with life's challenges contributes to feelings of competence.
Generally, self-esteem is viewed as the product of evaluating oneself against one or more criteria and reaching expected standards on these criteria. These criteria often vary between cultures and subcultures. In the United States, self-esteem is typically based on the evaluation of oneself in six major areas:
One's inherited endowments, including intelligence, physical characteristics, and natural abilities;
Feeling likable and lovable;
Being a unique human being, of value, and worthy of respect;
Feeling in control or responsible for one's life;
Moral virtue or integrity; and
What one has achieved--one's skills, possessions, and successes.
The relative significance of these areas changes with age and stages in life, thus a person's self-esteem is not static or constant throughout life. For example, children typically value feelings of being likable and lovable, valuing the feedback received from parents or other significant adults. As t hey approach adolescence their attention begins to shift from acceptance and feedback from adults to the feedback received from their
peers. For example, girls at this time typically value their appearance and their popularity with their peers, while boys typically value their athletic prowess and the recognition they receive from athletic competition.
As individuals approach adulthood, the significance of these factors begins to change and people become less dependent upon the feedback received from others. They begin developing their own values, standards, and expectations. They evaluate themselves against their own criteria and internalize the source of self-esteem. Generally the sense of integrity, the degree to which they feel in control of their lives, and the degree of
success they have achieved at the goals they set for themselves take on more significance.
There is normally a natural shift from dependence upon external sources of feedback from others to more internalized sources of self-esteem as one realistically evaluates oneself against one's values. When adults continue to depend primarily upon external sources of feedback from others, it has been termed "pseudo self-esteem," for healthy self-esteem of adults is based upon realistic evaluation of one's self in relation to
one's personal values.
The level of self-esteem is normally relatively stable at any particular stage in life, though it may be affected slightly as one takes on new challenges and experiences success or failure in the process. When one's self-esteem is largely based upon internal sources one is much more likely to have a stable level of self-esteem than those individuals who are highly dependent upon external sources and the feedback from others.
The level of one's self-esteem can also vary as one sets higher expectations for oneself or attempts to accomplish something of significance. In these instances one's level of self-esteem can be affected depending upon the outcome of one's behavior and the degree of success. In this way one's level of self-esteem can also influence perceptions about self competence and self-worth or self-respect.
Self-esteem also fluctuates as one goes through various stages of adulthood, as one seeks a career, as one's children grow up and leave, as one approaches also fluctuates as one goes through various stages of adulthood, as one seeks a career, as one's children grow up and leave, as one approaches the age of retirement, or as one retires. Each of these transitions can create major threats to one's self-esteem because one is changing
the primary basis upon which one's self-esteem has depended. This is why being laid off from work, or having one's children leave home can result in significant drops in one's level of self-esteem and can lead to depression.
Another cause of the fluctuations in one's self-esteem has to do with the personal evaluations that are made by comparing one's capabilities and attributes with appropriate peers. This has been termed the "social comparison" theory of self-esteem. This accounts for the fact that many intellectually gifted children demonstrate relatively low self-esteem when placed in programs with other gifted students. They may have
compared themselves quite favorably with others in a heterogenous classroom, but when placed with a select population of other gifted children their self-esteem may suffer.
Healthy self-esteem does not occur by accident or as a gift. It has to be cultivated, has to be earned. It cannot be attained by being showered with praise, nor by material acquisitions, nor by self-talk, nor by being given unrealistic input. What has been learned in recent years is that one person cannot give another self-esteem. Parents, teachers and mentors can be most effective by creating the conditions that enable young people
to grow in their abilities and learn how to use their self basis upon which one's self-esteem has depended. This is why being laid off also fluctuates as one goes through various stages of adulthood, as one seeks a career, as one's children grow up and leave, as one approaches the age of retirement, or as one retires. Each of these transitions can create major threats to one's self-esteem because one is changing the primary basis upon which one's self-esteem has depended. This is why being laid
off from work, or having one's children leave home can result in significant drops in one's level of self-esteem and can lead to depression.
1. Branden, N. (1994) Six Pillars of Self-Esteem . New York, N.Y.: Bantam Books.