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Why Self-Esteem is Important and Its Dimensions

Angela Oswalt, MSW, edited by Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Why is Self-Esteem important?

Self-esteem refers to a person's beliefs about their own worth and value. It also has to do with the feelings people experience that follow from their sense of worthiness or unworthiness. Self-esteem is important because it heavily influences people's choices and decisions. In other words, self-esteem serves a motivational function by making it more or less likely that people will take care of themselves and explore their full potential. People with high self-esteem are also people who are motivated to take care of themselves and to persistently strive towards the fulfillment of personal goals and aspirations. People with lower self-esteem don't tend to regard themselves as worthy of happy outcomes or capable of achieving them and so tend to let important things slide and to be less persistent and resilient in terms of overcoming adversity. They may have the same kinds of goals as people with higher self-esteem, but they are generally less motivated to pursue them to their conclusion.

Self-esteem is a somewhat abstract concept; it's hard for someone who doesn't already have it to know what it would be like to have it. One way for people who have lower self-esteem to begin to appreciate what it would be like to have higher self-esteem is to consider how they may feel about things in their lives that they value. For instance, some people really like cars. Because cars are important to them, these people take really good care of their cars. They make good decisions about where to park the car, how often to get it serviced, and how they will drive it. They may decorate the car and then show it off to other people with pride. Self-esteem is like that, except it is yourself that you love, care for and feel proud of. When children believe they are valuable and important, they take good care of themselves. They make good decisions about themselves which enhance their value rather than break it down.

Dimensions of Self-Esteem

High vs. Low Self-esteem. Self-esteem is thought of as occurring on a continuum, meaning that it is thought to smoothly vary in amount or magnitude from low to high across different individuals. Some people have higher self-esteem, while other people have lower self-esteem. The differences between these people are not obvious, but instead are apparent only through comparison of their thoughts and feelings about their worth.

Proportionality of Self-Esteem. Self-esteem is also thought to vary in another way which we might describe as proportionality or reasonableness. It turns out that not all instances of high self-esteem are the same. Some people with high self-esteem have arrived at that place based on a series of real accomplishments. They give themselves credit for being able to meet new challenges because they have been able to meet previous challenges. Their good opinion of themselves is in proportion to the real challenges they have overcome in life.

In contrast, there are other people whose high self-esteem seems excessive and out of proportion to their actual accomplishments and actions. These people think well of themselves but cannot point to any substantive past accomplishments, actions or choices they have made which would justify that high self-opinion to a fair minded observer. Their higher self-esteem is based more on a sense of entitlement than on any accomplishment. This entitled version of high self-esteem is considered to be less psychologically healthy than the more proportional variety of self-esteem, mostly because of the selfish and self-centered behavior that tends to accompany the sense of entitlement. This variety of high self-esteem is sometimes described as "overly-inflated", indicating that it is excessive and out of proportion to actual accomplishments and actions. In adults, this type of self-esteem can be linked to Narcissism.

Just as self-esteem can be too high or "overly-inflated" in proportion to a person's accomplishments and actions, it can also be too low, or "under-inflated" as well. In many cases people who end up having poor self-esteem actually have met adversity and challenges and treated others well, and do have a basis for feeling good about themselves. However, for various reasons, including a tendency towards depression, anxiety or obsessive perfectionism , a habit of engaging in cognitive distortions, or because they have been abused or exploited they may not recognize these accomplishments and actions as meaningful. They perceive themselves as failing to meet an internalized and unreasonably high standard of goodness and thus display very low self-esteem and corresponding emotional distress when they cannot meet that internal standard. However, an outside observer would see them as worthy based on accomplishments and actions and have difficulty understanding why exactly they feel so badly about themselves.

Self-esteem is thus more complicated than a simple high vs. low dimension can describe. It varies both in terms of magnitude, and in terms of its reasonableness when compared against accomplishments and actions. Parents seeking to foster healthy self-esteem in their children need to nurture and cultivate both of these dimensions. The bulk of this document will go on to describe ways that parents can work to nurture their children's healthy self-esteem. Before describing these methods, however, we want to further clarify why a healthy self-esteem, proportional to actual accomplishment and behavior and neither over-inflated nor under-inflated, is desirable.