What self-esteem is, and is not

On this page you will find a comparison between the characteristics of someone with a healthy, functional sense of self-worth vs. the characteristics of someone whose sense of worth, value, esteem, and deservingness is weak or low. See below for additional information.

HIGH or Healthy Self-Esteem*

LOW or Weak Self-Esteem

Belief in my basic worth as a person regardless of others’ opinions, or my achievements, accomplishments, appearance, or possessions.

Conditional belief in my basic worth, vulnerable to others’ opinions or reactions; vulnerable to my ability to achieve and succeed (or avoid failure), for example; OR, a belief in my basic unworthiness regardless of external factors including achievements, accomplishments, appearance, or possessions.

Belief in my own competence and capabilities, with an understanding and acceptance of the fact that I am better at certain things (and better at certain things at certain times) than I am at others.

Inflated sense of my abilities or my inabilities; all-or-nothing perception of my capabilities; shutting down or giving up in the presence of my inabilities, flaws, difficulties, or failures (being a victim).

Resistance to comparisons (and to defining myself in comparison to others); ability to maintain an internal and self-contained sense of my own value and capability.

Tendency to define self (and worth of self) in comparison to others, either better or more than, or less or worse than; difficulty appreciating or evaluating myself against internal standards.

Ability to enjoy and appreciate external appearance, status, possessions, acquisitions, without dependence on them in order to feel valuable, complete, worthwhile, or attractive.

Reliance on external appearance, status, possessions, and acquisitions to feel valuable, attractive, worthwhile, or complete. OR a sense that I would be OK if only I had these external variables in my life.

The ability to see myself realistically; the ability to acknowledge my current flaws, limitations, and imperfections without being paralyzed or defeated by them; the ability to see myself realistically and still perceive myself as worthwhile.

The tendency to deny or ignore my current flaws, limitations, and imperfections OR to overcompensate for them by bragging, showing off, throwing my weight around, or hurting others in some way.

The ability to enjoy and appreciate my relationships with others (a partner, my family, my friends, and professional associates), without depending on them in order to feel valuable, complete, worthwhile, or attractive.

Reliance on the existence and presence of these relationships in order to feel valuable, complete, worthwhile, or attractive.

The willingness to take risks, make mistakes, be wrong, and fail without compromising my sense of self-worth. Knowing the difference between making a mistake and being one.

Perfectionism, defensiveness, self-protection; resistance to promotions or additional responsibility; need for approval; need to be right; fear of failure. Difficulty distinguishing between making mistakes and being a failure.

The ability to say no and stick up for myself, the willingness to disagree and to maintain my integrity, even at the risk of abandonment or disapproval; the willingness to be alone.

Difficulty saying no; willingness to compromise my standards, limits, and goals to receive approval and acceptance from others; the fear of being alone; OR isolating to avoid rejection or disapproval.

The ability to recognize and value personal needs in relation to the needs of others (win-win); a willingness to give (service, compromise) without placing myself at risk (for harm, abuse, exhaustion, mental depletion, resentment, etc.)

Difficulty recognizing and valuing personal needs; self-sacrificing (lose-win); OR indifference to needs of others (win-lose).

The ability to accept myself as I am, while continually attempting to grow and get better; belief that growth is possible.

Inability to accept myself as I am; pessimistic (Why bother?); perceiving myself as unable to change.

The belief in my own power to change things I’m not comfortable with in my life or self; the ability to take positive action and make positive choices to improve things that I’m not happy with; high degree of persistence, even in the face of frustration, failure, or discouragement.

Self-perception as victim, helpless, disempowered; pessimistic (Why bother?); easily discouraged; high sensitivity to frustration, failure; tendency to give up or quickly adopt idea that success is improbable.

The belief in my own deservingness; comfort with my achievements, accomplishments, and acquisitions, as well as with compliments and gifts; the ability to receive; the ability to ask for what I want.

Difficulty receiving, especially compliments or gifts; tendency to be apologetic or feel guilty; lack of deservingness; OR a sense of entitlement; difficulty asking for what I want (assumptions I will be denied, victim thinking).

Willingness to associate and work with individuals of all races, creeds, and lifestyles.

Inability to fully accept those perceived as different; threatened by those with different opinions; desire to be associated with those who will give me status.

Ability to set goals and make long range plans, believing they can be achieved with effort and and persistence.

Reluctant to set goals or take on challenges of difficult tasks.

Self-esteem clearly goes beyond simply “feeling good about oneself,” and should not be confused with delusion, bravado, self-aggrandizement or narcissism. The term has gotten a bad rap in recent years, perhaps because the concept has been linked to excessive or unearned praise (or flattery), giving unconditional approval to unacceptable behavior, accepting below-standard work as acceptable (or even wonderful!) or attempting to protect children from challenges, mistakes, or failure. Parents and teachers who practice these behaviors in the name of self-esteem do a great disservice to the children involved.

However, doing the opposite— criticizing, knocking kids down or setting them up for failure— is equally destructive. Fortunately, there is a middle ground. If we’re truly committed to building self-esteem (or whatever term we can comfortably ascribe to the characteristics on the left-hand side of this chart), we need to hold children accountable for their behavior, challenge them to continue to grow, and accept and value them as people even when we are not accepting unacceptable behavior or sub-standard performance.

*Please note that some authors make a distinction between healthy and high self-esteem. Certainly, by more superficial (feel-good) definitions, “it is possible to have such high, unhealthy self-esteem that we live a life of delusion,” and likewise “possible to have low, healthy self-esteem and be living a life of humility,” as authors H. Stephen Glenn and Michael Brock point out (Seven Strategies for Developing Capable Students, Rocklin, Calif.: Prima Publishing, 1998, 173.) I understand their concern, however taking the full set of characteristics into account, high— or healthy— self-esteem precludes the possibility of delusion, and certainly leaves plenty of room for humility and any number of other desirable traits.

Excerpted from Creating Emotionally Safe Schools, by Dr. Jane Bluestein (Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, Inc, 2001). This chart includes several ideas graciously contributed by Robert Reasoner, past president of the International Association for Self-Esteem.

Click here to read the Rave Reviews for Creating Emotionally Safe Schools!

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Related resources:

Perfectionism vs. The Healthy Pursuit of Excellence
Children at Risk: Common characteristics and family patterns
Is Your School an Emotionally Safe Place? Survey
Picking up the Pieces: Reclaiming our Essence
The Power of Discouragement
The School as a Dysfunctional Family (Systems dysfunction)
Pretty and Popular: Bias and Discrimination in Schools

Podcast: Perfectionism: What’s Bad About Being Too Good with Dr. Miriam Adderholdt

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