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Self-Esteem: What it Is, What it Isn't, and Where to Go to Get Some

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I recently had the pleasure of presenting three workshops at the National Conference on Student Leadership in Washington, DC. The title of one of those talks was The Psychology of Leadership Qualities. As I prepared for this talk, I realized that a good, healthy, solid self-esteem was an essential component to most of the qualities typically associated with successful leadership. I then adapted this talk and presented it during the faculty training week for Southwestern Illinois Community College in Belleville, Illinois.  

For today's post, I am sharing a simple bullet list of some of the major points that I made during those presentations. They aren't in any particular order. I look forward to hearing what you think.

  • Low self-esteem is at the core of the proverbial peeled onion. Regardless of the stated presenting problem of all the clients who ever came through my therapy office door, when you peeled the onion and said, “and what would that mean? and what would that mean?” fears and insecurities related to low self-esteem were the true core issues 99% of the time.


  • The fear, self-doubt, insecurities, negative beliefs, need for social approval and fear of conflict that stem from low self-esteem will result in self-sabotage. You will manage to push good people away and delay decision making. You will become risk averse to the point of paralysis and stagnation. It will blunt your imagination, creativity, and therefore, your innovation. The good news is that you won’t have the challenges of managing change in your organization because your paralysis will cause you to fear and avoid making changes.

Challenge Hikers Up Hill Expansive Backdrop

  • You will give away your power.  You will compromise your standards in order to ensure approval from others (this is the very definition of codependency). Weeks and months and years of doing this will stockpile your anger, which, when left unrecognized and un-addressed, will morph into resentment which will turn into bitterness, which will become cynicism. Then you will become the mean old man on the block who yells at the kids and throws rocks at the birds. “Beware the wrath of the patient man.” Eventually, you will become physically ill. Self-esteem. Get some. Now.


 Self-Esteem: What it Isn't

Before we go any further, let’s stop and define our terms. What is self-esteem? It is not your self-concept. Self-concept is your concept of yourself, who you believe you are, how you would describe yourself to someone – your values, your attitudes and beliefs, and your personality traits. That’s your self-concept. You wouldn’t have a “high self-concept” or a “low self-concept.” You might have an accurate or inaccurate self-concept. Your self-esteem is how you feel about who you are. Self-esteem could be high or low.


Self-Esteem: What it Is

  • For our purposes, self-esteem refers to a healthy and balanced positive regard toward yourself. It is a belief that you are a good person with a good heart. You have gifts to share with the world, with a unique purpose and contribution to share. You are not perfect. There are things about you that you still want to improve on. You deserve to be here on the planet and you are special in the same way that everyone is special.

Children Best Girlfriends

  • Where does our self-esteem come from? As children, we are very dependent upon our parents for information about our worth. Parents, primary caregivers, teachers and other adult authority figures have a tremendous amount of power in programming our self-esteem. We innocently download messages from them about who we are and about our worth as human beings. Pretty soon, during our grade school years, we take in messages from our culture (TV is a big influence) and our peers. You compare yourself to your culture’s norms for physical attractiveness, success, intelligence, financial prowess, and approval from others.


Self-Esteem: Where to Go to Get Some

  • Ideally, in your late teens and early twenties, you will shift the source of your self-esteem from external sources to internal sources. You will reject all those external superficial measures of self-worth and you will make a choice – a deep, thoughtful, philosophical, even psycho-spiritual choice. It will be a decision to have a healthy sense of self-esteem - not because you deserve it, or because you have earned  it. It will be based on a philosophically derived personal belief that you deserve innate self-esteem simply because you are a human being. And you will extend that generosity of spirit to others. It won’t be Pollyanna, pie-in-the-sky. You will still recognize hate and evil in the world, perhaps even in yourself. But you will put them within the perspective of a larger understanding about life and why people are the way they are. And your over-arching attitude about life and about people in general will tilt toward the positive. This is called maturity and it is the first step toward adulthood and eventual wisdom. Better yet, just start menopause now.

“You do not have to be a victim of your autobiography.”


  • A great way to teach children to have low self-esteem is to not give them any consequences for bad behavior. This accomplishes four things: it teaches them to lose respect for you, to feel insecure in a world where their grown-up is weak, to have to escalate their behavior in order to find a safe boundary from you, and to feel guilty and bad about themselves. They know the difference between right and wrong. When you don’t insist on right behavior from them, this sends the message that you don’t care and that they are not worth the effort. If you are this permissive parent, start the trust fund now for your child's therapy when they hit their teens.


Joy Word in Stone

There is a big difference between “feeling good about yourself” and believing in your core self-worth. Feelings are transient. They come and go hundreds of times in a day. Feelings are a dime a dozen. If you want to change your feeling, change your thought. Here’s a thought: “You just won a million dollars.” How do you feel? Elated, thrilled, relieved, happy. OK. Here’s another thought, “Hey, man, they’re towing your car outside.” How do you feel now? Angry, scared, confused. Here’s another thought. You are at the grocery store and you have the memory, “Oh, I need to buy some milk.” How do you feel? Nothing in particular. Here’s another thought. “Your evaluations are back and all your coworkers and supervisors love you!” How does that make you feel? Happy. I feel good about myself. So you feel good about yourself; you feel high self-esteem right now. Do you now have high self-esteem? “Sure, people love me, so I must deserve to like myself.” No. You don’t have high self-esteem just because you are feelin’ the love right now. By the way, feelings never ever get to be judged. You don't get to judge others' feelings and you don't get to judge your own. You can judge behavior if you like, but feelings are off-limits.


  • True self-esteem is actually more than a belief. It is a Knowing. It is a deep, unshakable Knowing that is not affected by transient moods or feelings of self-doubt or even transient feelings of self-satisfaction. It is one of your most valued possessions. You must protect it as fiercely as the mother bear would rear up and protect her little cubs. Animals Polar BearJohn Bradshaw used to lead his audiences in this group recitation, “You mess with my self-worth, and you answer to me!” I will not hand over my self-esteem on a velvet pillow to anyone. You cannot have it. You cannot take it away from me. You cannot cause me to doubt my core value as a human being. I will not give you that power.


  • Self-esteem is not the same as narcissism. In fact, it is the opposite. The person with the “superiority complex” is actually masking an “inferiority complex.” True deep, solid and healthy self-esteem does not require self-promotion. The self-promoter is telegraphing his low self-worth. Now, self-promotion is not the same thing as the person who is comfortable with their healthy self-worth. They can graciously receive a compliment with a warm “thank you” while maintaining eye contact and saying, “Thank you. That is very kind of you to say.” Can you do that? People are afraid to like themselves or they are afraid to let others know that they like themselves. They are afraid that they will be conceited or “have a big head” or that others will at least think that they do. I give you permission to like yourself today.


  • You can have wonderful self-esteem and still have humility. Humility is not about being a door mat or about being totally self-critical. Humility, for the high self-esteem person expresses itself as gratitude – gratitude for one’s blessings while also compassionately co-existing with areas that still need improvement. This whole discussion requires an ability to find and be comfortable somewhere between the extremes of self-hate on one end and conceitedness on the other end. Our American majority culture is so dualistic in how we perceive the world. We think in either/ors and all or nothings, black or white. This way of thinking is stunted at the cognitive development stage of about a six year-old. Navigating the numbers 2 – 9 is the challenge of adulthood and a sign of maturity.


  • How about your handshake? What does it say about your self-esteem? Is it a wimpy wet rag handshake that says, “Hi, I don’t deserve to be on the planet … and you probably shouldn’t hire me.” Or is it an overly tight grip that attempts to be a power play to intimidate others? This handshake says, “Hi, I am actually very insecure, but I am trying to over-compensate for that by being overbearing … and you probably shouldn’t hire me.” Or, do you use a full handed clasp that is simply firm and solid? This handshake says, “I am comfortable and confident; you can trust me with your company and … it would be wise for you to hire me.” News Alert: The current standard in American business culture is for both men and women to shake hands with both men and women using a firm, strong handshake.


  • “When you try to make an impression, that is the impression you make.” Be a person of attraction, not promotion. (One of the AA Twelve Traditions). Tell the story of Aesop’s Fables’ Mr. Wind and Mr. Sun and their competition to remove the cloak from the man walking along the road below. When Mr. Wind blew and blew, the man just held his cloak tighter. When Mr. Sun simply shone brightly, the warmth caused the man to willingly take off his cloak.

Driver Cheauffer

  • Are you “driven” to succeed? Or, do you “have drive?” There is a big difference. They look like the same behaviors, but the underlying motivation is very different. If you are “driven” to succeed, perhaps this is a compulsion, an addiction - to succeed; you are pushed from behind by a fear of inadequacy. The person who simply “has drive” is making the choice to achieve and accomplish because it is satisfying and fun. Think about it. If you are “driven,” who is in the driver’s seat?


  • The middle path between low self-worth and narcissism. Passivity on one end and aggression on the other end. Ex. El Paso Times reporter’s interest about my Assertiveness Workshop for women at the minimum security prison in Las Cruces. The reporter thought it was so strange that these women would need to learn assertiveness. He was confusing assertiveness with aggression – a common mis-understanding.


Man Tearing Hair Out

  • Anger and fear are two sides of the same coin. Explain. How many of you grew up in a home where the grown-ups modeled the healthy expression and resolution of anger? Anyone? Most of us have a very warped relationship with anger. We tend to over-express it or under-express it. “Anger is our protest over that which cannot be changed.” From The Courage to Heal . Most of the time, when you are feeling angry, this is just a defense mechanism against feeling either fear or emotional pain. The next time you get angry, ask yourself, “Hmm, what might be the fear or emotional pain about this situation that is under my anger?”

Ocean Evening

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Mary Maulsby

This is great, Kris! You are so good at explaining psychological concepts and you are such a great speaker! I think a lot of people confuse high self-esteem with being conceited, so they don't want to appear to have good self-esteem.

I am also glad you pointed out that people often self-sabotage due to poor self esteem. It's so sad. They visualize and visualize what they want, but if they don't feel they deserve it deep down, it doesn't happen.
'Gotta keep peeling that onion!

Thanks for this post, Kris!


Cindy Gaillard

Kris! What a great and thoughtful essay. As the recipient of some of your wisdom I have learned to lead a creative department of 5 strong, talented, creative documentary producers and have learned to surf the waves of ambiguity through my own creative process. It's not been easy. But then again, the journey isn't supposed to be, in fact, it is supposed to be challenging to both mind and spirit. Divorcing self worth from accomplishments and making it a core value in which to hold one's own sense of being in the world is a message that I have treasured from our time together. It has kept me both sane and brave.
Peace and love my friend! Cindy

Kristin L. Roush, Ph.D.

Thank you, Cindy, for taking the time to post a comment. It is great to hear from you, especially since we haven't seen each other in a hundred years. I really appreciate your input from the perspective of a leader and as one who supervises other professionals. By the way, you are so articulate. Let me know if you would ever like to be a guest writer for a post. Yes, our sense of who we are and our place in the larger context is essential for our emotional intelligence, peak performance, and overall life satisfaction. Self esteem. Get some. Now.

Judy Siebenaler

Thanks, Kris. You have always been one of my wisest teachers and for this, I am grateful. I see that you are able to share your wisdom at many different venues. You're doing it, Kris! Yay!! I remember when you said it out loud that that's what you wanted to do. Intention is big. I once woke up in the night saying, "I have to get my intestines straight." Even in my sleep fullness, I realized that was truly not my intention!! This post is and will probably continue to be exactly what I need to hear. Mary's input on deserving what I'm visualizing has "breakthrough" potential! So, thanks, ladies!! You matter so much to me!


Thanks for sharing your insights. I always
get a lot from reading your perspective on things!

Kristin L. Roush, Ph.D.

Hi Mike,
Thank you so much for taking the time to comment. It means alot to me. I am also so glad you found something helpful in this post.
Big hug and best wishes!

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