Definitions of Self Esteem

self esteem definitionEarlier this week I read a blog post Building Self Esteem by personal development blogger Alex Shalman.  I've followed Alex for a while, taking part in his happiness project about 18 months ago.

Alex has just started dental school – good luck to him as dentistry is a total turnoff to me!  But he was reflecting on a class where his tutor defined self esteem as:-

…it’s a feeling that you are a valuable human being by possessing a quality that makes you such. This could be for a number of reasons, including but not exclusive to, having a skill, talent, job, relationship, helping people, being attractive, etc.

Do we have to possess some quality to make us valuable? If someone spends all day at home watching TV, with no interaction with others, does that mean they have no value? And by this definition, low self esteem?

If you do a search on Twitter for "self esteem", the main attributing reason people describe their self esteem as low is through how they look.  Unfortunately many deem themselves unattractive – thats why the Dove video looking at image manipulation was so effective.

But whether we agree with it or not "being attractive" is a measure people use to feel good (or not) about themselves. Likewise the other reasons listed in the definition are things people commonly draw on to feel they are worthy.

Other Definitions of Self Esteem

There are many definitions of self esteem. Nathaniel Brandon, one of the leading writers on self esteem says:-

"the disposition to experience oneself as competent to cope with the challenges of life and as deserving of happiness"

The California Task Force on Self Esteem came up with this definition:-

"Appreciating my own worth and importance and having the character to be accountable for myself and to act responsibly towards others."

English Oxford Dictionary is briefer

"a favourable appreciation or opinion of oneself."


I feel these also somewhat miss the point. To me what is fundamental is that we accept ourselves unconditionally.  Our self worth should not be dependent on superb looks, great achievement  or being highly skilled.  The opinions of others about us – whether critical or praising – should not affect our self esteem.

So my favourite definition of self esteem is:-

"unconditional appreciation of oneself."

This helps us stop being dependent on the judgement of others.  Unconditional appreciation involves accepting ourselves as we are – "warts and all" as the saying goes. We all have amazing abilities and potential as human beings.  We overlook the fact we have the capacity to think in complex ways – compared with other species. But rather than think we just worry about the appearance of a small spot on or other trivia!

The problem is, most people don't see self esteem this way. The definition at the start of this post  is probably closer to how most people measure  themselves.

Why are you Worth Feeding?

feed my self esteem

What origionally got my attention was this question posed by Alex's tutor to try and find your "qualities".  In a sense, this is a natural progression from his definition. To feel good about ourselves, we must have contributed in some way. Done something, have something, said something.

In a way this question reinforces the flaw of looking at self esteem in this way. Because for some it would be very easy to come up with no good reason to be worth feeding.  I have written before on the link between self esteem and depression – I've heard it argued that persistent low self esteem is little different to clinical depression.

What do you think? If my favoured definition unrealistic, do people automatically measure themselves by their qualities?  And should our aim be to ensure we are worth feeding, rather than change our thinking to unconditional appreciation?

Photos by meddygarnet and audreyjm529 on Flickr

David October 24, 2009 at 5:50 pm

I agree, but I think the danger is people get in the habit of only measuring themselves in tangible things – such as appearance. Its hard not to fall into that trap in Western societies with everything so achievement focussed. I know as a parent its very easy to praise children's achievements and reinforce that mindset.

David October 24, 2009 at 6:23 pm

Ironically the person selling crack may well have very high self esteem – which is another issue!
Since writing the post I read an article about Britain's fattest man (possibly the worlds) at 70 stone (980 lbs). He does sit at home on welfare (he can hardly move) being cared for (others have to prepare give him his food) watching TV (there is not much else he can do). The article suggests it was depression that led to the over eating. My point, which I think I argued in your posts comments, is those with low self esteem will get that reinforced trying to answer the question.

And sadly in the case of our “fat man”- some argue the state shouldn't be funding his care – £100,000 a year to keep him alive. In effect saying he is not “worth feeding”, which is getting into dodgy political territory…. Article:-

evanhadkins October 24, 2009 at 3:36 pm

I'm for unconditional acceptance. If self-esteem is about a particular quality then most people in the world (those who don't have most of that quality) are condemned to misery.

Alex Shalman October 24, 2009 at 4:12 pm

Thanks for interacting with what I said on my blog David. You ask a good question, what if people can't come up with a reason of why they're already valuable?

Is the guy sitting at home all day long, watching tv, and ordering pizza from his welfare checks a valuable member of society? Is the guy selling crack to kids and pregnant women a valuable person? Maybe if they did ask themselves if they're worth feeding, and came up with NO as the answer, they might consider changing for the better?… or not… 🙂

Alex Shalman October 24, 2009 at 4:13 pm

It's not about a defined quality, such as everyone having to think they look great. It's about being a valuable person in your own unique way, without comparing yourself to others, but with serving others in some way.

Bruce October 25, 2009 at 4:37 pm

I believe every person has intrinsic value and can increase their value through interactions with people. Even if you have no “talents” or special characteristics, you can interact in such a way to make the interaction a good one for the other person or not. You don't have to keep score to know you have a habit that adds to your interactions with others or detracts. I believe you gain value for yourself and to society by how you treat others. I think this raises self esteem or lowers it depending on your interactions and regular thoughts.

david365 October 26, 2009 at 2:29 am

Thanks for you comment Bruce

Amy LeForge October 28, 2009 at 4:56 pm

Given the dramatic (and in my opinion) less than stellar result of the Self Esteem Movement, I would want to add the word “realistic” to your definition somehow. I agree completely that unconditional love of self is important…however it's easy to slide into an overinflated opinion from there.

The 20-somethings that have just finished college and demand the corner office with 6-figure salaries are a bit, ummmm, offensive. I'm glad they feel good about themselves, however I don't really care to spend time with that attitude. Just sayin'.

david365 October 28, 2009 at 6:12 pm

I agree – I always try to emphasis healthy self esteem as a goal rather than “high”. Those with high self esteem are less likely to reflect on their behaviour and its consequence to others.

RickSmithAuthor November 3, 2009 at 3:12 pm

Great post. I know Silvia Lagnado well – she is the amazing woman who launched the Dove campaign for real beauty. In fact, I profile her in my new book, The Leap. She is an excellent example of someone kicking butt on her own terms, and leaving a positive benefit as well. The Dove message of self-esteem is so powerful, and so needed.

Rick Smith

dude November 11, 2009 at 6:15 pm

unconditional appreciation for ones self is the most comforting to read…

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