Understanding Self Esteem: What it is, How it's Shaped and How We Can Raise it

What is self esteem?

Self esteem is a term that we use to describe our overall sense of worth or the value that we place upon ourselves as human beings. Self esteem has formally been defined as “how much somebody appreciates and likes themselves and perceives themselves to be a valuable person” (Rosenberg, 1965). This judgement of ourselves can have a significant impact on how we feel about ourselves as well as how we view ourselves. Researchers think that self-esteem can ebb and flow throughout our lives, depending on a variety of factors. Argyle (2008) put forward that self esteem may be influenced by 4 areas: the reaction of others to us, who we compare ourselves to, the social roles we find ourselves in as well as who we identify as. What we do know is that self esteem is a complex interaction of our own selves, our environment and our life experiences. Factors which may also influence our self esteem include:

- our overall confidence in ourselves
- who we identify as
- how competent we believe ourselves to be
- how secure we feel in our environment
- our thoughts about how others perceive us

Theories of Self Esteem

The concept of self-esteem plays a distinct role in Maslows famous ‘Hierarchy of Needs’. In Maslows pyramid our most basic needs are at the bottom, with more complex needs building along the way with the ultimate goal to ‘self actualise’ which really is the process of learning and development which leads us to achieve our own unique and individual potential. Maslow thought that the interaction between feeling appreciated by others, and developing inner respect helps to build self esteem. Rosenberg developed a self-esteem scale utilised in psychology, and has explored self-esteem as a concept in his research. There are different thoughts on self esteem, with some believing that there are actually 6 categories of self esteem. These vary from describing global self esteem or our overall opinion of ourselves,to our specific self esteem in a particular area - for example in work or in sport. This suggests that we may have an overall sense of ourselves which may dip in certain situations or may soar when we are feeling competent and accomplished. 

Image of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

What may affect self esteem?

There are a range of factors that can impact on how we view ourselves, or the worth we place upon ourselves. Life experiences, transitions, traumas, illnesses, abilities, loneliness, stress, relationship difficulties, social isolation, racism, discrimination may each or collectively negatively impact on our self-esteem. Often, our experiences in life will form the basis for our self esteem, though it can ebb and flow throughout life, these experiences may create a baseline from where our self esteem develops or diminishes. 

It is thought that two factors are important in the development of self esteem in children and adolescents. They are the perceived competence in areas that are deemed important to the individual and our experience of social support. High self esteem may lead us to feeling more confident, feeling able and self assured on our abilities. Low self esteem can impact on how much we engage with our environment, we may withdraw, lack self confidence and may experience low mood as a result. Experiencing greater self esteem allows us to have confidence in ourselves, to be self accepting and optimistic. High self esteem may lead us to use our voice or to speak in groups or to feel confident in ourselves. Again, different theories will put forward that we have a baseline self esteem, but that we may also experience differing levels of self esteem when they are context, environment or task specific. For example, you may have a general positive sense of self but when learning a new task such as a musical instrument or how to drive it may diminish as you challenge yourself and your abilities. 

We usually think about self-esteem as being high or low. But it is important to remember that it can increase or decrease depending on certain life events or situations. It’s really important to reiterate again that there are many different factors that lead into the development of self esteem. For example - relationships, school, the workplace - each can positively or negatively impact on our ideas of who we are. Additionally, we may experience lots of positive feedback in a variety of settings but have an underlying sense that we are not good enough, or that our efforts were shaped by luck rather than hard work or our efforts.

When low self esteem is a problem it may be hard to treat yourself with kindness, or to view the future positively. We may feel self conscious, experience low mood, experience self doubt or experience high levels of shame. As we know, there are many factors which may keep low self esteem going and it may present differently in each of us.

How can you help foster positive self esteem?

There are some therapeutic approaches such as Cognitive Behaviour Therapy which aim to increase awareness of our thoughts and their impact upon us. Here we may learn skills around understanding why we may feel a certain way at a certain time and how to tackle these thoughts.

Compassion Focused Therapy is an approach that aims to help us to generate a kinder, forgiving, compassionate approach to ourselves and all of our environmental demands.

Unlike mental health difficulties such as anxiety or depression, there is no one specific approach for enhancing self esteem and so you may find benefit from self help, psychoeducation, or a particular type of therapy itself such as those above. There are a wide range of therapies which may be helpful. Additionally low self esteem may be a contributing factor to difficulties with mental health and so seeking support for mental health difficulties may indeed have a positive effect on your overall self-esteem.

What is important with self esteem is to try to begin to understand the variety of factors that may have led to your own understanding of yourself, or your value of yourself and to begin to tease those out - particularly if it is impacting your quality of life.

Hope this has been helpful!

 Meet the author


Dr. Lynda Naughton, Clinical Psychologist
Clinical psychologist working in Ireland with a particular interest in psychoeducation, trauma and spreading the message around mental health and mental health promotion. 
Instagram:  @minutetomyself 

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