Getting It Right About Self-Esteem

One of the most serious misconceptions about self-esteem is that you can never have too much of it.

One can hardly pick up a self-help psychology book without reading something about self-esteem. For far too long, however, there have been some serious misconceptions about the nature of this important aspect of a person’s psychological well-being.

The word “esteem” has its roots in Old French and Latin and literally means “to estimate.” Over time, self-esteem has come to mean the intuitive “estimate” people make about their worth as human beings. This intuitive estimate of self-worth generally derives from the things people know they have going for themselves in the way of talents, abilities, looks, intellect, etc. So, individuals who have much going for them and know it are likely to have a fair degree of self-esteem.

Now, one of the most serious misconceptions about self-esteem is that you can never have too much of it. Another very serious misconception is that whenever someone displays excessive or inflated self-esteem, it always represents a “compensation” for underlying feelings of insecurity or inferiority. Sometimes, that characterization is true, but not always. Disturbed characters, for instance, often engage in grandiose and unrealistic self-appraisal. They often think and act like they’re “all that” even when they’re not. And when they do, they’re usually not “compensating” for anything, either. They really think that way.

It’s very important to have a healthy and balanced sense of self-worth. That means one’s self-esteem should neither be inflated nor deficient. And there are things that can fairly dramatically affect one’s self-esteem. One way to inflate self-esteem is to heap praise and credit on people for things they can’t rightfully attribute to their own doing. So if a person receives a lot of validation for his or her appearance, intellect, talent, or any God-given (or nature-endowed) gift, they run the risk of thinking too much of themselves without much cause. On the other hand, individuals unfortunate enough to be the victims of emotional abuse or neglect while growing up, or who experience other types of trauma that cause them to question their worth can enter adult life with seriously deficient self-esteem.

I find it not only useful but important to distinguish between the concepts of self-esteem and self-respect. The word “respect” derives from Latin roots meaning to “look back.” So, self-respect has to do with a retrospective assessment we make about what we’ve done with the “gifts” we’ve been given. If we have a sense of indebtedness and gratitude about our talents and use them for the greater good, we have every reason to feel good about ourselves. Putting our resources to work in a responsible way is what meritorious conduct is all about. A healthy sense of self-respect is likely to be developed in individuals who are appropriately recognized for such conduct.

In a nutshell, self-esteem is mostly about what you are, and self-respect has to do with what you’ve done. Unfortunately, one of the main reasons character disturbance is on the rise in Western societies is because our cultures tend to heap too much recognition and praise on folks for their abilities as opposed to the way they conduct themselves. You see evidence of this all the time when very talented athletes, celebrities and other notables whom our culture idolizes reveal their deficient characters despite their massive egos.

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Modern societies (and most especially parents) need to do a much better job of directing attention and admiration not so much on the beautiful and talented among us but rather on those who humbly accept and honor the duty to use their gifts for the greater good. I first advocated this in my book, In Sheep’s Clothing. I urged parents to moderate the degree to which they tell their children how bright they are or what beautiful blue eyes they have. The child had absolutely nothing to do with these accidental attributes. Comments like that boost their self-esteem but don’t contribute to self-respect. And, if parents focus too much attention and praise of that kind on a child, it can help inflate their self-esteem. Instead, I urged parents to recognize and reward the the main things a person can really take credit for: effort and responsible action. It’s the noble things our kids do, especially when it’s tough, that we should really praise them for. A major elaboration on these issues is a big part of my forthcoming book, Character Disturbance, due out soon. Some excerpts from that book will be included in future posts.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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