Self-esteem is not simply a matter of feeling good about yourself—though legions of motivational cheerleaders would have you believe so. The "feeling good" definition is far too simple—and largely unreliable. Too simple because it doesn't give you anything to work with. Unreliable because feelings are fleeting. The most unhappy, self-deprecating people feel good about themselves occasionally, but the feelings don't last. Feelings hardly ever last—they change in response to situations and events.
In his acclaimed book, The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem, psychologist Nathaniel Brandon offers a far more substantive and challenging guide to achieving healthy self-esteem. Here is a very brief interpretation of Brandon's six pillars. (If you read Brandon's book, you'll get a chapter on each one.)
1. Live Consciously. Stay alert and involved in the present moment. Make mindful choices. Try not to slip into unconscious patterns of behavior.
2. Accept Yourself. Be realistic about your flaws and imperfections. Some you can change, of course, but first you have to make peace with them. Conversely, recognize and accept (never discount) your skills, talents and personal strengths.
3. Take Responsibility. Look out for yourself. Be accountable. Fulfill your obligations, and don't blame others for your problems.
4. Be Assertive. Say what you think, feel and believe. Ask for what you need and want. Declare your individuality without apology.
5. Live Purposefully. Regardless of the details, strive to maximize your potential. And remember, the choices you make determine who you are—and who you are is much more important than what you have.
6. Maintain Your Integrity. Adopt a code of conduct and live by it. Know exactly what your principles are, and stick to them, no matter what others think, say or do.
As you can see, this approach requires considerably more effort than simply pasting affirmations to your mirror and repeating "I am loveable and capable" 20 times a day. Not that affirmations aren't helpful, but it should be obvious that if you don't believe a word you're saying, affirmations won't work.
Furthermore, healthy self-esteem is never based on how thin or attractive you are, the size of your house or bank account, or even the prestige of your job. It's not like a pretty piece of acrylic you glue atop a weak, stubby nail. Healthy self-esteem—a blend of self-confidence and self-respect—must be firmly grounded in good character and individual accomplishments, large and small.
Seven Ways to Build Self-Confidence
Self-confidence accumulates and strengthens over time. You can fake confidence, and you may need to at times, but real confidence comes from a history of small victories and accomplishments that add up to an inner conviction that you can handle yourself well in most situations. Here are some suggestions for building self-confidence:
1. Be careful about comparing yourself to others. It's fine to have heroes, or a mentor whose positive qualities you strive to emulate, but constantly measuring your status, possessions or looks against others is self-defeating.
2. Make a list of your past successes. Include skills you've mastered, jobs you've performed well, relationships you've nurtured, and milestones you've achieved. These don't have to be monumental accomplishments.
3. Inventory your positive qualities. What are the things you like about yourself? Are you conscientious, generous, funny, a good listener, a faithful friend?
4. Face a challenge and conquer it. Finish a task you've been avoiding, go a week without junk food, settle a dispute with a coworker. For best results, don't tackle too many challenges at one time.
5. Learn something new. If you favor fiction, occasionally read a biography or a science article. Try a new form of exercise. Take an offbeat class. Oscar-winning actor Daniel Day Lewis apprenticed with a cobbler to learn how shoes are made. The pair he ultimately created is proudly displayed in the cobbler's shop. Push back the boundaries and expand your comfort zone.
6. Pursue activities that you love. It's easy to excel at something you enjoy doing, so be sure to tap this natural wellspring of self-confidence and self-esteem. If you don't love your job, get passionate about a hobby or leisure activity. Or consider changing jobs.
7. Take action. You won't develop confidence sitting on the sidelines or backing away from challenges. Regardless of the outcome, taking action is better than succumbing to fear and anxiety. Just do it!
Seven Ways to Earn Self-Respect
The self-respect component of self-esteem is extremely important, and may be one reason why so many people who have attained success and wealth seem nevertheless troubled and unfulfilled. It's almost impossible to do end runs around your own conscience. As Michael Josephson, President of the Josephson Institute of Ethics (<www.jiethics.org>), reminds us, "The happiest people are those who find purpose, meaning and self-respect in pursuing a vision of a good life, guided and measured by enduring moral virtues." Here are some suggestions for building self-respect:
1. Clarify your values. Not life-style values like loving the movies or weekends in the country, but the moral values that guide your life and the decisions you make on a daily basis.
2. Be true to yourself. Don't be unduly swayed by the opinions of others. Protect your integrity by standing firm in your values, making your own decisions, and creating your own life.
3. Strive for self-efficacy: With self-efficacy, you possess a sense of mastery over the events in your life. Developing skills and competencies of any kind can strengthen your ability to stay in charge, making you more willing to take risks and cope with challenges.
4. Give more of yourself. Vow to put 100 percent effort into most endeavors. If you have a tendency to withhold parts of yourself from the people and events around you, work at becoming more fully engaged.
5. Every day, do one specific thing to make the world a kinder, gentler place. Being courteous and respectful to everyone around you is a good start.
6. Moderate perfectionist tendencies. Having extremely high standards for yourself, and feeling repeatedly let down when you don't meet them, can thoroughly undermine self-confidence, self-respect and self-esteem. The tyranny of perfectionism is that it starves self-acceptance. Be a little easier on yourself.
7. Persevere. Don't give up easily. View mistakes as learning opportunities and strive to do better next time. Weigh criticism as objectively as possible and be open to observations that ring true. Stay the course, but make appropriate adjustments.
Try This… Invite someone you trust to have a conversation with you about the dual effects of self-confidence and self-respect. Tell the person about a specific action you took within the past week that strengthened your self-confidence. Explain why you think it worked. Then describe something that increased your self-respect. These don't have to be big, weighty incidents. They can be very small moments that only you are aware of. Give the other person an opportunity to share similar experiences. If you don't have someone to talk with, write down your thoughts.
About the Author
Dianne Schilling is a writer, editor and instructional designer who specializes in the development of educational publications and customized training programs for business and industry. She holds a master's degree in counseling and is a founding partner in womensmedia.com. Send e-mail to