Self-esteem is today one of the main and most important topics discussed in psychology. In our ego centered societies, reaching a high level of self-esteem for yourself is seen as a form of success, or even of completion. The importance of the concept of self-esteem sometimes shows through declarations made by the States themselves, as it was the case in California in 1990, with the California Task Force to promote self-esteem and responsibility: “the lack of self-esteem is central to most personal and social ills plaguing our state and nation”. The words that are being used here can seem unusually strong compared to the perceived importance of the issue by the general public.
To assess the real, accurate weight of the notion of self-esteem in our society, let us first try to define the concept. Self-esteem is actually a fundamental concept of the personality, encompassing three major components of the Self: behavioral, cognitive and emotional. First, the behavioral aspect of self-esteem can be found in how the latter has a power of influence on our capacity to take action and how it feeds itself and grows along with our successes. Then, the cognitive aspect is expressed through the fact that self-esteem is highly dependent on how we judge ourselves, and how this judgement can also influence our level of self-esteem. Finally, self-esteem is linked to emotions as it relies on our basic mood while also greatly influencing it. In a nutshell, a good level of self-esteem can help you be emotionally stable, perform a reliable and accurate evaluation of yourself and engage in action more easily.
In most cases, self-esteem is adjusted depending on the people present in our immediate environment. In reality, the concept of self-esteem cannot be conceived outside of a social group, a social environment. How would you judge yourself if you had nothing to compare yourself with? Many studies have shown that for most of us, it is very important to be “better than average effect”. In other words, our self-esteem is mainly based on how we perceive ourselves in comparison to the others, where we place ourselves in the ‘people living on this planet’ ranking table. It may be surprising, but the crushing majority of people actually do believe they are better than others. In that regards, 90% of businessmen think of themselves as superior to the average businessman, 70% of top university students think they are more intelligent than average and 90% of high-school teachers believe they are better than their colleagues. When it comes to friends, people still believe they are better than them, but they nevertheless consider them as being much better than the average person. It can seem nice at first sight, but this is actually related to our own self-esteem: if my friends are great people, and I happen to be even greater than them, I must be a really exceptional person!
For some academics, self-esteem can even be regarded as a “sociometer”. This means that we base our own self-esteem on whether people like or reject us, on where we feel we belong in the social scale of our environment. The more approbation one receives from his peers, the higher his self-esteem is likely to be. What is important here is to feel loved, but not so much to be dominant. Being appreciated is more important than being the best, and this is where self-esteem differs from the notion of leadership – leadership is more likely to trigger self-satisfaction. We can take the example of a school class to illustrate this example: the most popular kid in the class can have more self-esteem than the kid getting the best grades.
The roots of self-esteem go back to the childhood of a person, and more precisely to the relationship that person had with her parents. Indeed, to saw its seeds in the long term, self-esteem needs to be nurtured with the unconditional love of the parents, a form of love that is completely disconnected from performance – may it be good grades, sports performances or any other thing. If the child evolves in an environment suitable for him to identify that his value is not linked to his performance level, then he is more likely to have a high self-esteem later in his adult life because he will have no, or a very small, fear to fail. If failure does occur, a person with a higher level of self-esteem will also be less affected by it; while the latter will put the blame on external factors for his failure, the one with low levels of self-esteem will automatically blame himself (‘I’m not worth it’, ‘I suck’), thus lowering his self-esteem even more. It is possible to measure self-esteem in one given individual, and several methods are available for that. One of them has been developed in 1967 by Stanley Coopersmith and is still largely used today. Three main dimensions are present in his inventory: general self-esteem, family self-esteem and social self-esteem.
In our daily life, self-esteem has built a strong link with optimism. If you are optimistic about your chances to succeed in a project you need or would like to engage in, not only your final success will be more likely but it will also bring you a raise in your self-esteem level as you can be proud of yourself. Optimism itself will grow bigger as well, triggering the start of a virtuous circle. Resources and optimism used can be behavioral (if your behavior can influence the way the situation will turn out eventually) or emotional (if you have no control at all over the situation). Adaptability is thus influenced by self-esteem. This explains why people with a low self-esteem take less action than the others and, in the end, succeed less. If you think this is your case, you need to take action now!