Brian Mesinger, PhD, a psychologist at the Fort Collins Youth Clinic in Colorado, defines the term in the following way; “Self-esteem is the collection of beliefs or feelings that we have about ourselves. How we define ourselves hugely influences our motivations, attitudes and behaviours”.
Put simply, self-esteem is the value we place upon ourselves. It is our assessment of our worth as a human being, based on our approval or disapproval of our behaviour and ourselves. We could also describe it as the regard in which we hold ourselves, or our feelings about ourselves based on who and what we believe we are. It is more though, than just whether or not we think we are an OK person. Self-esteem is not a single quality or aspect; in its broader sense, self-esteem is our centre – the basis upon which we build our lives. And since we do not live in isolation from the rest of the world, the way we feel about ourselves affects how we relate to people around us and to every other aspect of our lives.
Aspects of self-esteem:
While everyone has self-esteem, only a small percentage of people have high self-esteem. What are the differences between high and low self-esteem? Between having a positive or negative opinion of ourselves? Here are the three main aspects of self-esteem, examined from the perspectives of both high and low self-esteem.
- OUR FEELINGS ABOUT OURSELVES:
With high self-esteem, we accept ourselves unconditionally exactly as we are; we appreciate our value as human beings.
When we have low self-esteem, we believe we have little intrinsic worth. We believe our personal value is in direct proportion to the value of our accomplishments.
- OUR FEELINGS ABOUT LIFE:
With high self-esteem, we accept responsibility for, and have a feeling of control over every part of our life.
When we have low self-esteem, our life and what goes on in it often seems out of control.
- OUR RELATIONSHIPS:
With high self-esteem, we have a tolerance of and respect for all people, along with the belief that they are entitled to the same rights we wish for ourselves.
When we have low self-esteem, we lack basic respect for others. We are intolerant of people and believe they should live the way we want them to.
Why is self-esteem so important?
A healthy self-esteem is a person’s armour against the challenges of the world. Children who feel good about themselves have an easier time handling conflicts and resisting negative pressures. They tend to smile more readily and enjoy life. These children are realistic and generally optimistic. In contrast to this, for children who have low self-esteem, challenges can become major sources of anxiety and frustration. Children who think poorly of themselves have a hard time finding solutions to problems. If they are plagued by self-critical thoughts, such as “I’m no good” or “I can’t do anything right,” they may become passive, withdrawn or depressed.
How does self-esteem develop?
Dr. Mesinger notes that patterns start very early in life. “At about the age of three or four, children are exploring many ideas and reaching conclusions about themselves that begin to crystallise”. But the process starts even before then, during infancy. When a baby or toddler reaches a milestone, she experiences a sense of accomplishment that boosts her developing self-esteem. Learning to roll over after dozens of unsuccessful attempts or finally mastering getting the spoon into her mouth every time she eats are experiences that teach a young child a “can do” attitude. The concept of success following persistence starts early.
As a child tries, fails, tries again, fails again and again, and then finally succeeds, she is developing ideas about her own capabilities. At the same time she is creating thoughts about her self based on her interactions with other people. This is why parental involvement is the key to helping a child form accurate and healthy self-perceptions.
Self-esteem can also be defined as the combination of feelings of capability with feelings of being loved. A child who is happy with her achievements but does not feel loved may eventually experience low self-esteem. Likewise, a child who feels loved but is hesitant about her own abilities can also end up feeling poorly about herself. Healthy self-esteem results when the right balance is obtained.
Self-esteem fluctuates as a child grows. It is frequently changed and fine-tuned, as it is affected by a child’s experiences and perceptions. It helps for parents to be aware of the signs of both healthy and unhealthy self-esteem.
How can I tell whether my child has a high self-esteem or a low self-esteem?
A child who has low self-esteem may not want to try new things. She frequently speaks negatively of herself, saying such things as, “I’m stupid”, “I’ll never learn how to do this”, or “What’s the point? Nobody cares about me anyway”. She exhibits a low tolerance for frustration, giving up easily or waiting for someone else to take over. Children with low self-esteem see temporary setbacks as permanent intolerable conditions. A sense of pessimism dominates.
A child who has healthy self-esteem tends to enjoy interacting with others. She’s comfortable in social surroundings and enjoys group activities as well as independent pursuits. She’s willing to pursue new interests. When challenges arise, she is able to work toward finding solutions. She voices discontent without belittling herself or others. She knows her strengths and weaknesses and accepts them. A sense of optimism prevails.
What role do parents play in developing their children’s self-esteem?
When we came into this world as babies, it was with a clean slate. We knew absolutely nothing about ourselves and we automatically had high self-esteem. Quickly our minds began to soak up information about ourselves from our parents and our environment. We soon began forming the self-image that would follow us into our adult life.
Children who are fortunate enough to have parents with high self-esteem learn to love and accept themselves without hesitation. By doing this, they establish a solid practical basis for their own high self esteem. Unfortunately, the majority of us were raised by people who did not have high self-esteem themselves, people who had learned unrealistic, impractical thought and behaviour patterns from their own parents. Unintentionally, they passed their incorrect beliefs, values and concepts onto us by way of their attitudes, feelings and actions.
We may feel tempted to blame those people who parented us for the state of our feelings of self worth, but this would be unfair. They did not intend to make us feel unworthy. In truth, people in the same position brought them up too. People who do not like themselves don’t know how to raise children who do like themselves; we cannot teach what we do not know. Our parents did the best job they could – with the resources available to them. It was not their fault that these resources were limited and inaccurate. But since they were, all our parents could do was pass on the unhealthy concepts and ideas that they had accepted in good faith. Like family traditions, the feelings of inadequacy, unworthiness and insecurity they had inherited were handed down to us.
Check out this related article on Boosting your child’s self-esteem.
Insecure people are unlikely to encourage genuine feelings of security in their children. They are more likely to encourage feelings of deficiency and inadequacy in those in their care. As a result, we learned we should be apprehensive about tomorrow and to expect the worst because that was what we would probably get. We were warned not to get our hopes up too high or to plan for the future because hardly anything works out the way we expected it to, unless we anticipate it working out badly. We acquired the belief that the world was not a pleasant place to live because pain and worry were to be our constant companions.