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9-14-17     Self-Awareness    (click here to read)


(Christopher Ebbe, Ph.D.    copyright 2010)

Self-esteem is the feeling one has when one becomes aware of something about the self (perceives the self, reflects on the self, etc.).  Any time we become aware of something about ourselves, our associations will result in an emotional response to whatever we are aware of (seeing my hand, remembering a success, thinking of how someone dislikes me, etc.).  That emotion or feeling is an instance of our self-esteem.

Sometimes one aspect of ourselves looms much larger than any other and will color our response to a question about general self-esteem. If you have just failed an exam, that aspect of yourself would probably be more in the forefront of your awareness, but if you took time, even under the stress of that moment, to get a more general feeling about yourself, you might well come up with a more balanced report. A self-esteem feeling can result from a larger or a smaller aspect of yourself, and your self-esteem also varies over time.  For any given individual, certain areas of function (those that are more highly valued) will be more crucial for overall self-esteem than others. Some people could feel good about most things about themselves but still report overall negative self-esteem because of one really important area in which they felt bad about themselves.

The feeling of self-esteem is often confused with evaluations we make of ourselves.  When we are aware of something about ourselves, we may evaluate it as “good” or “bad, pleasing or not pleasing, adequate or inadequate.  This evaluation or judgment that we make is just that—an evaluation or judgment, and this is not self-esteem (which is the feeling that arises from our initial awareness of self or that arises in response to the judgment that we make.

It is also important to be clear on the fact that the external world does not cause our self-esteem feelings directly.  If my father says he hates me, I may immediately feel some painful emotions (guilt, shame, etc.) from the rejection, but these are not self-esteem pain. I only feel self-esteem pain if I think of myself as a person who is hated by my father and then feel bad about myself for that. “Feeling bad” is not always the same as “feeling bad about yourself.”

The terms used to further describe self-esteem (positive, negative, good, poor, neutral) are unfortunately vague, and they vary in meaning from person to person.  Self-esteem is “positive” or “negative” depending on the percentage of self-esteem feelings we have that are either pleasant or unpleasant. It appears that as many people have negative overall self-esteem as have positive overall self-esteem.  When we have more positive than negative self esteem, we will probably “feel good” about ourselves.

Total vs. Limited-Data Self-Esteem

When one’s self-esteem feeling is based on a total look at self (all of one’s experiences, abilities, etc.) the result can be called “total self-esteem” (TSE).  When one arrives at one’s general feeling about self from limited information (a grade on one test, or one’s overall academic record), we will call that result “limited-data self-esteem.”

In limited-data self-esteem, we make a generalization from a small bit of information about ourselves to a sense of our total selves, and this is often an inappropriate over-generalization. (Some people may be overwhelmed by the limited-data feelings of the moment and be unable to realize at the same time that there is more to them than the limited data being considered.) Limited-data self-esteem will obviously be much more variable over time, depending on immediate circumstances, than total self-esteem, although the accumulation of limited-data feelings in one direction (either positive or negative) will eventually lead to a change in total self-esteem in that same direction.

Evaluative (Limited-Test-Data) Self-Esteem

If we choose to use only certain information about the self to determine our self-esteem, we form a self-constructed test of whether it is “OK” to feel good about ourselves or whether or not we are “supposed to” feel good about ourselves.  We say “only if I feel good about these limited areas will I allow myself to feel good about myself overall (regardless of other, more positive data that I could also consider).”  An example would be the boy who will only allow himself to feel OK about himself if his mother is happy with him.  He might be doing fine in all other respects, but if his mother is unhappy with him, then he will insist on feeling generally bad about himself (until she is happy once again).

We will call this self-imposed test of self-esteem “evaluative” self-esteem (ESE) or “limited-test-data” self-esteem (limited data used as a test for self-esteem).  In this type of self-esteem, we make a judgment about whether we are meeting certain standards, and we react to that judgment with either positive or negative self-esteem.  (The extreme of this is perfectionism, in which all aspects of self must be positive in order for the person to meet his self-imposed standard of perfection.)   These tests of self represent aspects of who we believe we are “supposed to be.”  Examples include “popular,” “is loving,” “has lots of friends,” “gets good grades,” “is approved of by mother,” “does well at sports,” “has lots of money,” “is pretty,” “has control over others,” and so forth.  Some people have such difficult tests that their self-esteem is at risk of being low most of the time, particularly if the outcomes are under the control of someone else.  An example is the child who is of average intelligence who insists that she will only feel good about herself if she gets all “A’s” at school.  Since she is probably not capable of getting all “A’s” very often, no matter how hard she tries, she is likely to feel bad about herself much of the time.  To maintain our evaluative self-esteem, we have to keep proving ourselves relative to our standards day after day.  The fact that one got good grades today and can therefore feel good about oneself does not count for much when the next grades are issued.

Pre-Verbal Self-Esteem

As with other early learning, the self-esteem conditioning of our early years (birth through five) has stronger and more lasting influence on our self-esteem than our later learning.  This is probably because early learning is not as subject as later learning to rational evaluation when it is learned, and because the earliest learning (birth to one or two) is pre-verbal and therefore much more difficult to evaluate and change later, because it is difficult to put it into words later so that it can be carefully reconsidered.  It will be useful to call the self-esteem that results from this pre-verbal learning “pre-verbal self-esteem” (PVSE).

Biased vs. Objective Self-Esteem

Most people with poor self-esteem have biased and distorted views of themselves. Other people looking relatively objectively at such people would say that they put themselves down unnecessarily and that when they identify a shortcoming they feel unrealistically negatively about it.  Self-esteem that is derived from a relatively negatively biased attitude toward self will be called “negative-bias self-esteem” (NBSE) (or if the tendency is to distort in a positive direction-to pretend that one is better than one really feels—then it is “positive-bias self-esteem”) (PBSE). Non-biased self-esteem is “objective self-esteem” (OSE).

Socially Destructive and Unhealthy Self-Esteem

No one is inherently any better than anyone else, yet many people cite evaluative “reasons” why they are “better than” others in order to bolster their self-esteem, including religious membership, ethnicity, wealth, parentage, and appearance.  Being a member of your family may be wonderful, but it does not make you better than anyone else.  Similarly, being white or Black or Catholic or Jewish does not make you “better than” anyone else either, but many people cling to the fact that they are of a certain race or religion as “evidence” that they are OK or that they are “better than” someone else.  It is obvious that claiming that one is better than someone else to bolster one’s self-esteem will inevitably lead to hurt feelings, resentment, conflict, and struggle.

If self-esteem is based on feeling superior or viewing oneself as better than others, for whatever reason, that self-esteem will be called “socially destructive evaluative self-esteem”, since it will lead inevitably to social conflict and struggles over superiority. If a characteristic (appearance, race, intelligence, etc.) is used as a justification for self-esteem but not as a reason to feel superior to others, the self-esteem that results will be called “socially non-destructive evaluative self-esteem”.

Any self-esteem test or component that leads to more negative than positive self-esteem for the individual, such as using as a test that one get all “A’s” in school when one is not mentally equipped to do that, can be viewed as “personally destructive” (PDSE) or “unhealthy” self-esteem.  Any self-esteem test that leads one to do self-harming things in order to meet the test involved (harm one’s health by staying up all night studying, give up one’s friendships in order to please father, etc.) can be viewed as “unhealthy.”

(For a more comprehensive discussion of self-esteem, see How To Feel Good About Yourself:  12 Key Steps To Positive Self-Esteem, by Christopher Ebbe, Ph.D. (2003).