Self-esteem is the measure of ‘worth’ or ‘value’ we have of ourselves. Self-esteem is fundamentally based on feeling… that is, how we feel about ourselves. This feeling is conveyed in how we experience and express ourselves through our thoughts, feelings, and behaviour.
Positive self-esteem can come from external sources: through achievement, success, or status; through receiving praise or compliments from others; or in being listened to, being understood, and being shown regard by others (and thereby, being shown acceptance and importance by others).
Positive self-esteem can also come from an internal source, through a robust and healthy sense of self (comprising well-developed self-knowledge, self-awareness, and self-understanding; a high capacity for self-expression; capacities for emotional regulation and self-reflection; and a strong sense of self-acceptance).
Both internal and external sources are relevant, but it is the balance between these two that is important.
Typically, someone with low self-esteem (i.e., feelings of low-worth) will be low on the internal source of self-esteem (involving negative feelings about him or herself). They will then depend on, and/or be more vulnerable to, external sources of self-esteem. They will seek ‘success’ (often materially), and will be achievement-driven. They may have a strong need to please others. They will be sensitive to criticism and to others opinions of them.
Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) can help to identify and change cognitive distortions, as individuals with low self-esteem will typically think negatively about themselves, and will put themselves down through self-criticism (particularly when they do something ‘wrong’).
However, given that self-esteem is very much ‘feeling’ based, it is my view that psychodynamic psychotherapy is a more pertinent and useful approach (and might ideally follow a course of CBT) for achieving more fundamental and substantial improvement with self-esteem.
Our sense of self (our internal source of self-esteem) develops very early in our childhood. We have emotional needs that we require to be responded to in certain ways for normal emotional development to proceed. If our emotional needs are responded to empathically, with acceptance and understanding (attunement)… this evokes “a positive emotional tone, a state of well-being” (Meares, 1993, p. 59)… and provides an experience of worthiness, and of one’s experience being of value (Meares, 2000, pp. 68-70).
But if our needs are not responded to empathically, if they are ignored, dismissed, or if our parent’s/caregiver’s needs are impinged onto us (misattunement), then a negative emotional tone is evoked… we experience an undervaluing or devaluing of our experience… we feel of little or no importance, of low worth… we can even feel shame (Meares, 2000, pp. 71-73).
Psychodynamic psychotherapy is about working through these early negative experiences and the difficult painful feelings (particularly about, and of, oneself), whilst concurrently building a robust and positive sense of oneself. The therapist endeavours to establish and maintain the much needed and required empathic and accepting relationship, whereupon the client experiences his or her emotional experience being understood and valued. See psychodynamic psychotherapy for more detail.
Meares, R. (1993). The metaphor of play: Disruption and restoration in the borderline experience. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson Inc.
Meares, R. (2000). Intimacy and alienation. Memory, trauma and personal being. London: Routledge.