Having a good level of belief in yourself and your abilities is a healthy way to live.
Unfortunately, for many of us our self esteem and confidence seem to wax and wane much like the waves in the ocean … one minute your riding the crest of a wave of good self confidence and happiness; the next minute something might happen and you’re crashing back down into a sea of doubt. For some people it may even feel like they can never get back up again, but rather continually get pounded and start drowning in low self-esteem and poor self-confidence.
This cycle all too often can lead to constant anxiety, self-loathing, and unhappiness with life. It’s not a very productive nor enjoyable way to live.
So, what can we do to build a healthy level of self esteem and self confidence?
First of all, we need to work out what the difference between self esteem and self confidence is…
The Difference Between Self Esteem and Self Confidence
According to the RMIT University in Australia, they define the terms as:
- Self Confidence – The belief you can achieve success and competence
- Self Esteem – Your opinion of yourself and your worth
What this means is that self-esteem refers more to how we feel about ourselves as a person, whereas self confidence refers more to how we feel about our abilities to handle certain situations or tasks.
While definitely related, in my opinion self-esteem needs to be developed first before confidence will come. Without that internal sense of self-worth it is hard to exude confidence. It’s an inside out approach. Sure, you can “fake-it-till-you-make-it” but the anxiety that goes along with that deception can sometimes be debilitating.
So, what makes up self esteem?
The DNA of Self Esteem
Over the years there has been countless amounts of psychological research done into what the essence of self esteem is. According to Professor Christopher Mruk of the Bowling Greens State University in Ohio, you can basically boil all that research down into two areas- Competence and Worthiness.
- Competence – If you have a competence based self esteem, your identity and who you are is directly linked to how well you perform at those things that matter to you most. People who pride themselves on winning fit into this category. It includes such things as reaching goals, motivation, and personal abilities. Ironically, being competent or even having high levels of success in areas that are not important to you does not necessarily boost self esteem. It has to be an area that is important to you. The main problem with competence based self esteem is it can lead to unhealthy outcomes such as pursuing success at all costs or being too afraid to try for fear of failure. And because failure is always possible and success never lasts, it is a fragile foundation to build self esteem on. It is often found in cultures that value successful individuals, such as the USA and most western countries.
- Worthiness – If you have a worthiness based self esteem, you are more concerned with being good enough. It’s more of a feeling than a behavior like competency. You do things so others will think well of you and you are more group focused. It’s all about feeling that you are worthy as an individual or that you matter to a collective, whether it be family, in your job, or the community as a whole. It is linked more so to cultures that value interpersonal relationships and have a group oriented view, such as in many Asian countries. It has the negative of having someone who regards them self too highly and is then perceived as arrogant, narcissistic, and self centered. In this category, your self esteem is closely tied to the acceptance or rejection of others.
There’s nothing wrong with either of these areas, but if you rely too much on one over the other you do run the risk of regularly hurting your self esteem when they are challenged. But Mruk also suggested a third, more holistically sound option- Competence & Worthiness combined:
3. Competence and Worthiness – this is a combination of the two groups above, where your competence at completing tasks is balanced by the integrity and personal values you hold as you go about it. Competence in this case means facing reality directly and making rational decisions that are personally significant and life affirming and doesn’t compromise your integrity. Competence is grounded in performance and worthiness is grounded in values, particularly interpersonal values. Mruk describes this group as ” … the lived status of one’s competence at dealing with the challenges of living in a worthy way over time.”
Of the 3 ways we can build our self esteem, only the last one will give you long-term, lasting, and stable happiness.
Where Do You Belong
Often we are unaware of which side we sway towards for our self esteem. That’s because it has been programmed into us since birth according to the collective values of our family, friends, and society. When we get older it feels completely normal to value either competence or worthiness according to that upbringing.
For example, your upbringing might have caused you to sway more towards success and achievement as you were constantly praised for excelling, and that in turn made you feel good about yourself. So your competence may be where you mostly get your self esteem from.
Likewise, you might have been brought up to consider your family (or friends, or sporting team, or religion, or whatever) as the most important thing in the world, and you feel good when you are actively working towards their betterment. (Or you might have grown up thinking you are the most important person in the world, so your self-worth is extremely high but you come across as arrogant and conceited!). So your self esteem is directly linked to your worthiness as a person.
Or perhaps you have general low self-esteem caused by feeling inadequate in both groups. For example, your identity is closely tied to you always doing a great job so that you can please your boss, partner, or authority figure. When you do something that isn’t up to scratch (and it always happens in life) it shatters your confidence and you feel worthless and rejected. This is a double whammy that can quickly lead into high anxiety and depression.
The important point is which side do you rely on mostly to feel good about yourself? How do you react when your competence or worthiness is challenged? What hurts more – turning in a poor report (competence) or being rejected by others (worthiness)? They both may hurt, but you will generally bounce back from one quicker than the other.
Have a look at your life and try to figure out which side you sway to the most.
The ideal way to build good self esteem and confidence is to have a strategy on how to deal with life’s challenges with integrity and in harmony with your values.
In the next article we will explore a bit more into the 3 groups as well as work out how to incorporate both competence and worthiness into your life.