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On the Road to Healthy Self-Esteem

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When self-esteem first became a byword, it was defined by psychotherapist Nathaniel Branden as “the integrated sum of self-confidence and self-respect”—taking responsibility for yourself, feeling self-sufficient, and believing you have personal worth. In later years, psychologist equated healthy self-esteem more closely with the attitude a person has toward themself.

You have high self-esteem if you:

  • See yourself as capable and able to make (and hold to) your own decisions.
  • Know your values, likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses, feelings, and habits; you are willing to be open about them to other people.
  • Accept other people and appreciate them as they are; believe you are all equal to them, not superior or inferior.
  • Try to help others.
  • Have a growth mindset, and enjoy the process of growing.
  • Have a self-image that aligns with reality.
  • Trust yourself to be able to function in the world and solve problems.
  • Do not blame yourself or dwell on blame, but seek solutions.
  • They are able to stand up to manipulation, handle criticism, and form healthy relationships.

You can have high self-esteem and still want others to hold you in esteem and respect; they are not mutually exclusive attitudes, and both are important. Your self-esteem may rise and fall regardless of how others see you, depending on how much you praise or berate yourself.

Setting Out toward Healthy Self-Esteem

The journey toward healthy self-esteem begins with a realistic assessment of where you are now, at this moment. What are your greatest strengths and weaknesses? What are your values and goals? What do you appreciate in other people?

Your answers to those questions will give you a firm base to build upon. Self-esteem reveals itself by how you use your strengths, address your weaknesses, defend your values, strive for your goals, and realistically accept the strengths and weaknesses in other people.

If you find yourself unable to answer any of those questions, you may need to review the SMaRT techniques for habit formation, assertiveness, goal setting, and emotional intelligence, among others.

TIP: Want to take a self-esteem test? Try this Psychology Today test.


Arriving at Healthy Self-Esteem While Avoiding Stress

To achieve healthy self-esteem while avoiding stress, you need to stop comparing yourself to others, accept that perfection is unattainable, stop internalizing failure, and help others to help themselves while taking responsibility for your own well-being. Here’s why:

  • Avoiding comparisons: When you realize that everyone has strengths and weaknesses, we are all human, and we all share in that humanity, you allow your self-esteem to flourish. Your self-esteem takes a blow when you compare yourself negatively to others. Unhealthy self-esteem and stress join together, for example, when you compare yourself to models and celebrities and try to reach an unrealistic weight or an unrealistic standard of living. Role models are different, and you should strive to surround yourself with others who have a healthy self-esteem.
  • Avoiding perfectionism: Healthy self-esteem pursues self-improvement, looks for ways to change circumstances, switches goals when necessary, and learns from failure. When you demand perfection of yourself, you believe that you are a failure. Unhealthy self-esteem convinces you that nothing you can do or say would change the fact that you are imperfect and therefore bound to fail. That is a recipe for stress. If instead, you visualize yourself as successful, remind yourself of past successes, and prepare yourself based on what you have learned from the past, you have a recipe for healthy self-esteem.
  • Accepting other people: When you accept other people as they are, accept that they may sometimes disagree with you, and create healthy, supportive relationships with people who also support you, you build your self-esteem. If you wait to change your life until other people change first, if you expect to be able to change them, and if you blame other people for your success or failure, you are showing the signs of an unhealthy self-esteem. With healthy self-esteem, you realize that you can help other people, but you cannot control them; they cannot and should not control you.
  • Taking responsibility for your well-being: Your well-being depends on your own ability to accept change, communicate clearly with others, make decisions, solve problems, show resilience in the face of setbacks, and form good relationships. Great stress accompanies the feeling that you are stuck, unable to change your circumstances or yourself, and have no path forward. If you are entertaining destructive thoughts or have repeatedly destroyed relationships by blaming other people for failures in your life, you need to speak to a professional. Healthy self-esteem reflects your ability to take steps to improve yourself and your situation.

TIP: People with a healthy self-esteem are able to embrace a growth mindset because they realize when change is necessary, and they consider it within reach.


Putting the Brakes on Unhealthy Self-Esteem

Many psychologists believe that what others consider unrealistically high self-esteem in a person is actually evidence of low self-esteem. That’s why you should strive for a healthy self-esteem, whether others call it too high or too low.

When your self-esteem is unhealthy, it is out of balance with reality. You believe yourself either much less or much more capable than you are; you avoid challenges but turn every interaction into a need to prove yourself. You barrel through the opinions and cautions of others, refusing to listen to feedback. You are

If you find yourself dismissing other people and their needs, unable to express your own needs in a way they can be met, becoming angry at any negative remark about yourself, or require constant praise as your due, your self-esteem is probably unhealthy.

Research has shown that one path to healthy self-esteem is through self-compassion. Self-compassion focuses on kindness to yourself, a sense that you share basic human feelings and experiences with other people, and mindfulness to help manage setbacks, both internal and external. While self-compassion means you are aware of your weaknesses and failures, you are also aware that everyone is imperfect, and you give yourself credit for trying. You accept your situation or circumstances without judgment and are ready to move on to problem-solving and decision making.

Self-compassion lowers anxiety and stress, increases a growth mindset, and allows you to reach out for happiness, gratitude, and optimism. Self-compassion is not an act of self-evaluation (as self-esteem often is) but is instead self-acceptance—it does not require that you meet goals, but that you exercise resiliency and handle whatever outcomes occur.

Key Takeaways

The question of high or low self-esteem is a false one; instead, you should aim for a healthy self-esteem that avoids negative or unrealistic comparison with other people, rejects perfectionism, accepts other people as they are, and takes responsibility for your own well-being.

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