We all want it, but not a lot of people have it. Some people call it ‘confidence’ or ‘self-confidence,’ which isn’t entirely correct, but it’s close enough. Obviously we’re talking about self-esteem. So, what is it? Well.. it’s hard to say. But, somehow we all innately know it’s important to have. People with a lot of self-esteem seem to date a lot more than others, and do so with more attractive people. They also seem to get better and higher paying jobs. Come to think of it, they simply seem much happier than people without self-esteem. For some reason, we can all imagine the difference between someone with a lot of self-esteem and someone with just a little bit of self-esteem. Even though we want to come across as we’ve got self-esteem coming out of every orifice, the harsh reality is that most of us aren’t as confident as we’d like to be. If we could accurately measure the amount of self-esteem we posses, a lot of us would end up on the lower end the scale.
The takeaway is that people with a lot of self-esteem tend to approach, perceive and respond to situations differently than people with low self-esteem. So, if you would put both persons in the exact same situation, they would see the situation differently and would have differently reactions to it. How crazy is that?
If we narrow things down a bit more, self-esteem can be broken down into two components:
This isn’t a new idea. The late Nathaniel Branden (psychotherapist known for his work in the psychology of self-esteem) came up with this idea:
"Self-esteem has two interrelated aspects: it entails a sense of personal efficacy and a sense of personal worth. It is the integrated sum of self-confidence and self-respect. It is the conviction that one is competent to live and worthy of living."
If you want more self-esteem, you will have to work on both of these components. Don’t limit yourself to one, because bad things will happen.
As opposed to competence, worthiness is more of a feeling or evaluation. The great sociologist Morris Rosenberg (inventor of the famous Rosenberg self-esteem scale) wrote the following:
“Self-esteem, as noted, is a positive or negative attitude towards a particular object, namely, the self… High self-esteem … expresses the feeling that one is good enough.”
So basically, the worthiness side of self-esteem is an evaluation OF yourself, BY yourself. It’s how you see and value yourself. About whether you regard yourself a good or bad person. If you see yourself as a bad person, it’s hard to have a lot of self-esteem. (Bad as in feeling rotten to the core, not as in a James Bond villain.) So, do you truly like and love yourself? Do you see yourself as a good and worthwhile person? Are you your own best friend?
Not feeling worthy is an absolutely terrible feeling. Being plagued by a chronic sense of guilt, shame or depression is very common among people with low worthiness. Clinicians have observed in their patients that of those who suffer from feel unworthy, a lot of them can neither give nor receive love. These patients feel that the extra exposure that comes with loving someone (or someone loving you) will reveal all the bad things about them and that they will get rejected because of it. Since they don’t want to get hurt by being rejected, they avoid getting close to people, but will ultimately leave them feeling isolated and alone.
What causes these feelings of unworthiness? Well, there’s a variety of causes, depending on who you’d ask, they might be or might not be developmental (a disturbance in the relationship with your parents when you were young) or even physical. But, since we don’t have a time machine to go back in time and fix things, let’s focus on the here and now.
When it comes to feeling unworthy, there’s usually a discrepancy between how you feel things should be and how they actually are. A gap between our aspirations in something you find important, and your actual achievement.
For example, let’s say you’re a pretty smart person. However, you’re stuck in a dead-end job without any hope for a promotion. This job has never been something you’ve wanted to do. You’ve always wanted to become (insert your dream job), but somehow that didn’t work out and you ended up with this crappy job and you’ve stuck around ever since. You constantly ask yourself how things could have ended up like this. You’ve always had these big aspirations, a feeling of being destined to do great things. But, now it feels like you’ve screwed up and missed your big chance in life. When you look around you and you see other people do very well. They’re acting like grown-ups with nice jobs, great relationships, proud parents, lots of friends. If this were a race, they would have all crossed the finish line and you would still be stuck somewhere halfway. It’s as if everyone went on with their lives, but didn’t tell you, so you’ve been stuck in time. Paralyzed.
In this example, your performance doesn’t meet your aspirations when it comes to jobs. Since you haven’t achieved what you want to achieve, you feel ashamed and depressed. Even if you’ve achieved other things, you feel that these don’t really count, so you will feel unworthy and inferior.
Not all cases involving worthiness will be as blatantly obvious as the example, but they will still have a negative effect on worthiness. A few small examples:
Obviously, a very important part of worthiness involves your values in life, which are partly instilled by your parents and other important people in your life. If you do things which are against your values, these actions will have a bad impact on how worthy you will feel. Even if you try backwards rationalize your bad behavior, deep down inside you’ll still know that you did something wrong. We have all felt something along the lines of “I should have done the right thing.”
Competence is all about the actions you take, your behavior and how well you perform. It’s about making rational decisions about what you want to achieve. Simply feeling good about yourself (worthiness) isn’t enough, because your behavior should be in line with how you feel about yourself, which in turn should be in line with the values you hold dear. That means you shouldn’t do stuff which go against what you stand for, as it will compromise your integrity as a person, and you SHOULD do stuff which is in line with what you find important in life. Once you have figured out what’s important to you, what’s personally significant, you will have to set realistic goals and develop the necessary skills (physical, cognitive, social or otherwise) to accomplish them.
Keep in mind that it’s the whole process that’s important when it comes to competence. From the decisions you make and the goals you set, to the actual actions you initiate to mastering the skills (working hard) and carrying things through to a successful conclusion. All of these will not just make you able to deal with life’s challenges, it will make you thrive! As a side note, what’s traditionally called confidence is actually part of competence. Translated from Latin, con + fides means with faith. Faith in yourself. Trusting yourself to be competent enough to deal with whatever happens.
Of course, all of that sounds much easier said than done. You will have to find your calling. Your path in life. And it needs to be a path which suits your identity as a person. But the payoff is so good, as it will give you that feeling of being rooted. That unwavering and perhaps clichéd sense of making the world a better place.
It roughly comes down to having worthy (personally significant) goals, which don’t compromise your integrity as a person in either design or execution) goals, developing the skills to realize those goals, and working hard to achieve them. Finding your path in life, one that suits your identity and what you find important, will give you self-esteem. It will make you feel rooted. When you have truly found your path in life and work towards realizing your goals in that direction, it will give you an immense self-esteem boost.
What’s absolutely critical here is the relationship between worthiness and competence, because it’s the relationship that’s actually generating self-esteem. Where worthiness is the ‘love and accept yourself’ part of self-esteem and has to do with your values, competence is the ‘setting goals and reach them’ part of self-esteem, which will have to reflect those worthiness values. It makes sense, right? If you do stuff which is important to you, it’s much easier to feel good about it. It just feels ‘right’ somehow. It’s actually a two-way street: doing stuff in accordance with your values will reinforce the worthiness part by having your feelings about yourself be based on something rational. There’s a virtuous cycle going on between competence and worthiness. And that cycle is what will give you your self-esteem.
Here’s the catch though: self-esteem is something that needs to be maintained, because it atrophies (like a muscle). You can’t emerge from you dungeon, get self-esteem and crawl back playing video games all day. It reminds me of a Louis CK bit, where he visits a doctor to take a look at his hurt ankle. The doc recommends him to stretch his ankle for half an hour a day. When Louis CK asks the doc how long it will take to fix his ankle, the doc replies: "No. You just do that now. That's just a new thing you do…"