by Nathaniel Branden, Ph.D. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
(Originally published in Excellence 5/14/94. Reprinted by permission.)
Of all the judgments we pass in life, none is more important than the judgment we pass on ourselves. That judgment impacts every moment and every aspect of our existence. Our self-evaluation is the basic context in which we act and react, choose our values, set our goals, meet the challenges that confront us. Our responses to events are shaped in part by whom and what we think we are -- our self-esteem.
Competent to Cope
Self-esteem is the experience of being competent to cope with the basic challenges of life and of being worthy of happiness. It consists of two components: 1) self-efficacy -- confidence in our ability to think, learn, choose, and make appropriate decisions; and 2) self-respect -- confidence in our right to be happy; and in the belief that achievement, success, friendship, respect, love and fulfillment are appropriate to us.
The basic challenges of life include such fundamentals as being able to earn a living and take independent care of oneself in the world; being competent in human relationships, so that our interactions with others are, more often than not, mutually satisfying; and having the resilience that allows one to bounce back from adversity and persevere in one's aspirations.
To say that self-esteem is a basic human need is to say that it is essential to normal and healthy development. It has survival value. Lacking positive self-esteem, psychological growth is stunted. Positive self-esteem operates, in effect, as providing resistance, strength, and a capacity for regeneration. When self-esteem is low, our resilience in the face of life's problems is diminished. We tend to be more influenced by the desire to avoid pain than to experience joy; negatives have more power over us than positives. If we do not believe in ourselves -- neither in our efficacy nor in our goodness (and lovability) -- the world is a frightening place.
To women who are throwing off traditional gender roles, fighting for emotional and intellectual autonomy, pouring in escalating numbers into the workplace, starting their own business, invading one formerly male bastion after another, challenging millennium-old prejudices -- self-esteem is indispensable. To be sure, it is not all that is needed for success, but without it the battle cannot be won.
For women and men alike, if we do have a realistic confidence in our mind and value, if we feel secure within ourselves, we tend to respond appropriately to challenges and opportunities. Self-esteem empowers, energizes, motivates. It inspires us to achieve and allows us to take pleasure and pride in our achievements.
High self-esteem seeks the challenge and stimulation of worthwhile and demanding goals. Reaching such goals nurtures good self-esteem. Low self-esteem seeks the safety of the familiar and undemanding. Confining oneself to the familiar and undemanding serves to weaken self-esteem.
The more solid our self-esteem, the better equipped we are to cope with troubles that arise in our careers or in our personal life; the quicker we are to pick ourselves up after a fall; the more energy we have to begin anew. Setbacks will not stop the most self-confident of the women who, in the millions, are now starting their own businesses or otherwise struggling to rise in their professions. Nor will a disappointing marriage or love affair so devastate a confident woman's ego that she will arm herself against intimacy to avoid the possibility of future hurt, at the cost of her vitality.
The higher our self-esteem, the more ambitious we tend to be, not necessarily in a career or financial sense, but in terms of what we hope to experience in life -- emotionally, romantically, intellectually, creatively, and spiritually. The lower our self-esteem, the less we aspire to, and the less we are likely to achieve. Either path tends to be self-reinforcing and self-perpetuating.
The higher our self-esteem, the stronger the drive to express ourselves, reflecting the sense of richness within. The lower our self-esteem, the more urgent the need to prove ourselves -- or to forget ourselves by living mechanically.
The higher our self-esteem, the more open, honest, and appropriate our communications are likely to be, because we believe our thoughts have value and therefore we welcome rather than fear the clarity. The lower our self-esteem, the more muddy, evasive, and inappropriate our communications are likely to be, because of uncertainty about our own thoughts and feelings and anxiety about the listener's response.
The higher our self-esteem, the more disposed we are to form nourishing rather than toxic relationships. Health is attracted to health. Vitality and expansiveness in others are naturally more appealing to persons of good self-esteem than are emptiness and dependency. Self-confident women and men are naturally drawn to one another. Alas, insecure women and men are also drawn to one another, and form destructive relationships.
If you hope to achieve a happy relationship with someone, no factor is more important than self-esteem -- in you and in the other person. There is no greater barrier to romantic success than the deep-seated feeling that one is unlovable. The first love affair we must consummate successfully in this world is with ourselves; only then are we ready for a relationship. Only then will we be fully able to love, and only then will we be able fully to let love in -- to accept that another person loves us. Without that confidence, another person's love will never be quite real or convincing to us; and in our anxiety we may find ways to undermine it.
Women who are struggling to build a more positive self-concept sometimes ask, Do men want high self-esteem in a female? I answer, Men who have a decent level of self-esteem do value it in a woman; they do not want a frightened child for a partner. And what would a woman of self-esteem want with a man so insecure that her confidence scared him?
Self-esteem is an intimate experience; it resides in the core of one's being. It is what I think and feel about myself, not what someone else thinks or feels about me. I can be loved by my family, my mate, and my friends, and yet not love myself. I can be admired by my associates and yet regard myself as worthless. I can project an image of assurance and poise that fools almost everyone and yet secretly tremble with a sense of my inadequacy. I can fulfill the expectations of others, and yet fail my own; I can win every honor, and yet feel I have accomplished nothing; I can be adored by millions, and yet wake up each morning with a sickening sense of fraudulence and emptiness.
To attain success without attaining positive self-esteem is to be condemned to feeling like an imposter anxiously awaiting exposure. The acclaim of others does not create our self-esteem. Neither does erudition, material possessions, marriage, parenthood, philanthropic endeavors, sexual conquests, or face-lifts. These things can sometimes make us feel better about our selves temporarily, or more comfortable in particular situations. But comfort is not self-esteem.
Six Pillars of Self-Esteem
Over three decades of study and of working with people have persuaded me that there are six pillars on which health self-esteem depends.
1. Living Consciously. To live consciously is to be present to what we are doing; to seek to understand whatever bears on our interests, values, and goals; to be aware both of the world external to self and also to the world within.
2. Self-acceptance. To be self-accepting is to own and experience, without denial or disowning, the reality of our thoughts, emotions and actions; to be respectful and compassionate toward ourselves even when we do not admire or enjoy some of our feelings or decisions; to refuse to be in an adversarial or rejecting relationship to ourselves.
3. Self-responsibility. To be self-responsible is to recognize that we are the author of our choices and actions; that we must be the ultimate source of our own fulfillment; that no one is coming to make our life right for us, or make us happy, or give us self-esteem.
4. Self-assertiveness. To be self-assertive is to honor our wants and needs and look for their appropriate forms of expression in reality; to live our values in the world; to be willing to be who we are and allow others to see it; to stand up for our convictions, values, and feelings.
5. Living Purposefully. To live purposefully is to take responsibility for identifying our goals; to perform the actions that allow us to achieve them; to keep on track and moving toward their fulfillment.
6. Personal integrity. To live with integrity is to have principles of behavior to which we remain loyal in action; to keep our promises and honor our commitments; to walk our talk.
Now an Urgent Need
Our need for self-esteem has acquired new urgency. It has always been an important psychological need, but today it is also an important economic need -- the attribute imperative for adaptiveness to an increasingly complex, challenging and competitive world.
We now live in a global economy characterized by rapid change, accelerating scientific and technological breakthroughs, and an unprecedented level of competitiveness. These developments create demands or higher levels of education and training. These developments also create new demands on our psychological resources. Specifically, these developments ask for a greater capacity for innovation, self-management, personal responsibility, and self-direction. This is not just asked at the top. It is asked at every level of a business enterprise.
Modern business can't be run by a few people who think and many people who do what they are told (the traditional, military command-and-control model). Today, organizations need not only an unprecedentedly high level of knowledge and skill among all those who participate, but also a higher level of independence, self-reliance, self-trust, and the capacity to exercise initiative -- in a word, self-esteem. Persons with high levels of self-esteem are now needed economically in large numbers. Historically, this is a new phenomenon, and so in a very real sense, self-esteem is an idea whose time has come.