A self esteem definition

Clara’s talking to herself

To illustrate a definition of self esteem, let’s have a look at the internal dialogue taking place in Clara’s head :  « I have been so ridiculous in this meeting. When my boss asked for my opinion, I blushed, then blurted out something that made no sense at all. I feel so ashamed.

Deep down, the reality is that I’m incompetent at work. Other people seem so self assured; I just feel lost. I never really know what is the best thing to do. I never really succeed in anything. I’m really not up to the task.

In reality, I feel stupid and worthless most of the time, in any type of social interaction. What I say or do is often silly, if not downright inappropriate. I can not even count the times when all I wanted to do was to disappear into the ground. I hate parties. I hate dinners.

And I’m not even talking about my love life: it’s even worse. »

And on and on and on it goes, the whole day, every day.

Clara is not a real person, but a lot of real persons do have some version of this self talk running in their heads.

Details can change. These attacks can be related to work or social situations, like for our unfortunate Clara. They can also be about physical appearance (I’m too fat, I’m ugly), personality traits (I’m too selfish, I’m a wimp), masculinity, athletic performance, whatever. We can really get very creative in this area.

From stupid and worthless, to low self esteem

What do we really learn, when we listen to Clara ?

We could think that Clara is effectively not up to the task, and that her social skills could be improved.

That’s what Clara thinks. But I do not agree.

If we stick to facts, we see that Clara’s boss asked for her opinion, which shows that he values it. We also learn that Clara does have a normal social life – if not, she would not be embarrassed so often… she is getting invited to dinner and parties, she does have friends.

In reality, the only real information we get from this dialog, is that Clara has a self esteem issue.

Maybe her « out of the box » comment at work allowed a new, fresh perspective on the problem being discussed. Maybe Clara’s friends like her company because she is so authentic in interactions, not always hidden behind social conventions. Or maybe not. We don’t know.

The thing is, our self esteem is able to ignore reality completely. So we cannot believe Clara’s internal dialogue. And she should not either.

We all know people who are beautiful, but find themselves ugly. People who think they are so stupid, whereas we are impressed by their intelligence. An extreme example of this distortion is body dysmorphia, when you literally do not see your body the way it is.

A self esteem definition?

There are plenty of definition of self esteem, as many as authors.

But let’s start with an indication of what self esteem isn’t: it is not a statement about our skills in a particular area. I can state that I don’t know how to pilot a plane, or how to perform heart surgery: it is not indicating a problem in my self esteem. To start with, it is factually true. And more importantly, I don’t have negative feelings attached to these statements. It does not say that I would never be able to be a pilot or a heart surgeon, given proper motivation and training. It also does not say that I am not worth it.

Here we find two sides of self esteem: confidence in our capacities, and believing in our value.

« self esteem has two components: a feeling of personal competence and a feeling of personal worth. In other words, self-esteem is the sum of self confidence and self respect. »

Nathaniel Branden

Some of us really doubt our competence; not in a particular, but in general, as if we were unfit for life, not able to respond to the basic challenges of life.

Some of us do have issues around our value: we believe we are not worthy of good things, of respect, of love.

Often, we unfortunately have doubts about both our competence and our value. And that feels horrible.

How can I measure my self-esteem ?

You can easily measure your level of self esteem, using an online free Rosenberg scale test.

The Rosenberg scale has been around since 1965. Researchers and clinicians have used it in thousands of situations and research, worldwide.

As you will see, it is a very short and simple test, but with a proven validity. All you have to do is answer truthfully – and not how you think you should answer.

The score varies between 0 and 30. A score below 15 indicates a low level of self esteem. That’s probably where Clara would be, if she existed.

Above 25 indicates a strong self esteem, with only around 15% of people being above this level. Between 15 and 25 is the « normal » range; naturally, the higher, the more comfortable.

According to me, anywhere below 25 is worth some attention and work. I did the test while preparing for this post, and I get a 25 now. However, there are still times when I really think I would benefit from an improvement in this area.

A brief word of encouragement if your score is low: don’t despair, it is not set once and for all. Self esteem can improve :

  • With time: the average score improves of several points with us getting older. It is one of the few instances when time is on our side. A few points can make a huge difference in our lives.
  • With recovery work, and in particular psychotherapy. If again I take my example, I am certain my Rosenberg score was below 15 when I was young, and probably under 10. With hindsight, I was probably a textbook example of disastrous self esteem. If I can make it, believe me, there is hope for you.

But I feel for you: it is painful, it is difficult. I do remember.

Why is self esteem so important ?

Psychologists do find a link between self esteem low levels and a lot of mental health issues, such as depression, addictions, eating disorders, and, particularly relevant for us survivors, post traumatic stress disorder.

From this fact, the same psychologists started a very interesting chicken and egg debate: Are self esteem issues causing depression, or is depression causing self esteem issues ? The debate has value, however I think we should not be overly preoccupied by it.

Some of us do have our self esteem devastated by a past of violence. I will touch on it in next post, but sexual violence in particular can be a terrible blow to our self esteem.

For some of us on the other hand, our low level self esteem does have other causes. And some of us keep an intact self esteem, which is truly admirable.

But the thing is: no matter what the cause, it will be very difficult to recover from trauma with a low level of self esteem. This problem needs to be addressed and it can be.

To start with, we have to believe we are worth spending time, energy, other people’s time and energy, on our healing. We also need other people’s help, and low levels of self esteem tend to isolate us. We shy away from contact, when this is precisely what is needed.

We also need to believe we can heal, that we have what it takes.

And frankly, independently of what happened to us, we all deserve and need to have a decent level of self esteem to enjoy our lives.

How would you feel if someone was constantly sitting next to you, shouting insanities like the ones Clara is hearing the whole day?

Not good I’m sure.

And what makes you think it is better if these insanities come from inside your heard ? Nothing. It’s worse!

So let’s work on this problem. You can find more information here in related posts :

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