Helping you become all that you are capable of becoming!



Understanding Self-Esteem

Chapter 1: Understanding Self-Esteem

Tools for Personal Growth

By: James J. Messina, Ph.D.


What is self-esteem?


People with self-esteem:


Hold themselves as worthy to be loved and to love others, worthy to be cared for and to care for others, worthy to be nurtured and to nurture others, worthy to be touched and supported and to touch and support others, worthy to be listened to and to listen to others, worthy to be recognized and to recognize others, worthy to be encouraged and to encourage others, worthy to be reinforced as “good'' people and to recognize others as “good'' people.


Have a productive personality; they have achieved success to the best of their ability in school, work, and society. Are capable of being creative, imaginative problem solvers; of being risk takers,optimistic in their approach to life and in the attainment of their personal goals.


Are leaders and are skillful in dealing with people. They are neither too independent nor too dependent on others. They have the ability to size up a relationship and adjust to the demands of the interaction.


Have a healthy self-concept. Their perception of themselves is in synchrony with the picture of themselves they project to others. Are able to state clearly who they are, what their future potential is, and to what they are committed in life. They are able to declare what they deserve to receive in their lifetime.


Are able to accept the responsibility for and consequences of their actions. They do not resort to shifting the blame or using others as scapegoats for actions that have resulted in a negative outcome.


Are altruistic. They have a legitimate concern for the welfare of others. They are not self-centered or egotistical in their outlook on life. They do not take on the responsibility for others in an over-responsible way. They help others accept the responsibility for their own actions. They are, however, always ready to help anyone who legitimately needs assistance or guidance.


Have healthy coping skills. They are able to handle the stresses in their lives in a productive way. They are able to put the problems, concerns, issues, and conflicts that come their way into perspective. They are able to keep their lives in perspective without becoming too idealistic or too morose. They are survivors in the healthiest sense of the word. They have a good sense of humor and are able to keep a balance of work and fun in their lives.


Look to the future with excitement, a sense of adventure and optimism. They recognize their potential for success and visualize their success in the future. They have dreams, aspirations, and hopes for the future. They are goal-oriented with a sense of balance in working toward their goals. They know from where they have come, where they are now, and where they are going.

What are the signs of low self-esteem?

Persons with low self-esteem:

  • Consider themselves lost, unworthy of being cared for.
  • Are poor risk takers.
  • Operate out of a fear of rejection.
  • Are typically unassertive in their behavior with others.
  • Are fearful of conflict with others.
  • Are hungry for the approval of others.
  • Are poor problem solvers.
  • Are fraught with irrational beliefs and have a tendency to think irrationally.
  • Are susceptible to all kinds of fears.
  • Have a tendency to become emotionally stuck and immobilized.
  • Have a poor “track record'' in school or on the job; conversely, they sometimes over compensate and become over-achievers.
  • Are unable to affirm or to reinforce themselves positively.
  • Are unable to make an honest assessment of their strengths, qualities, and good points; they find it difficult to accept compliments or recognition from others.
  • Have poorly defined self-identites with a tendency to be chameleons in order to fit in with others.
  • Are insecure, anxious, and nervous when they are with others.
  • Often become overcome with anger about their status in life and are likely to have chronic hostility or chronic depression.
  • Are easily overcome with despair and depression when they experience a setback or loss in their lives.
  • Have a tendency to overreact and become de-energized by resentment, anger, and the desire for revenge against those whom they believe have not fully accepted them.
  • Fulfill roles in their families of origin that are counter-productive and maladaptive. These roles carry over into their adult lives.
  • Are vulnerable to mental health problems and have a propensity to use addictive behavior to medicate their hurt and pain. Such addictive behavior can include alcohol, drugs, food, gambling, sex, shopping, smoking, workaholism, or the search for excitement, truth, wisdom, and a guru with an easy guide to the achievement of happiness.

How do people with low self-esteem feel?

The following “Letter from a Boy'' taken from a midwestern paper gives us an idea of what a person with low self-esteem has to say.

Letter From a Boy

Dear Folks,

Thank you for everything, but I am going to Chicago to try to start some kind of new life.


You asked me why I did those things, and why I gave you so much trouble; the answer is easy for me to give you, but I am wondering if you will understand.


Remember when I was about six or seven and I used to want you to just listen to me? I remember all the nice things you gave me for Christmas and my birthday, and I was real happy with the things for about a week at the time I got the things; but the rest of the time during the year, I really didn't want presents. I just wanted all the time for you to listen to me like I was somebody who felt things too, because I remember even when I was young, I felt things. But you said you were busy.


Mom, you are a wonderful cook and you had everything so clean and you were tired so much from doing all those things that made you busy, but you know something, Mom? I would have liked crackers and peanut butter just as well. If you had only sat down with me a little while during the day and said to me: “Tell me all about it so I can maybe help you understand.''


And when Donna came I couldn't understand why everyone made so much fuss because I didn't think it was my fault that her hair is curly and her teeth so white, and she doesn't have to wear glasses with such thick lenses. Her grades were better, too, weren't they?


If Donna ever has children, I hope you will tell her to just pay some attention to the one that doesn't smile very much because that one will really be crying inside. And when she's about to bake six dozen cookies to make sure first that the kids don't want to tell her about a dream or a hope or something, because thoughts are important, too, to small kids even though they don't have so many words to use when they tell about the feelings inside them.


I think that all the kids who are doing things that make the grownups tear their hair out worrying about are really looking for somebody who will have time to listen a few minutes, and who really and truly will treat them as they would a grownup who might be useful to them. You know, polite to them. If you folks had ever said to me: “Pardon me" when you interrupted me, I'd have dropped dead. If anybody asks you where I am, tell them I have gone looking for somebody with time, because I've got a lot of things I want to talk about.

Love to all,

Your escaping son

Where does healthy self-esteem originate?

Healthy self-esteem originates in the environment found in the: family, school, peer group, work place, and community.


For healthy self-esteem, individuals need to receive nurturing from the people in their environment, to include:
  • Unconditional warmth, love, and caring; to realize that other people recognize them as deserving to be nurtured, reinforced, rewarded, and bonded to. The environment transmits messages of warmth, loving, and caring by physical touch, meeting the survival needs of food, clothing and shelter, and providing a sense of stability and order in life.
  • Acceptance for who they are; to recognize that other people see them as worthy individuals who have a unique set of personality characteristics, skills, abilities, and competencies making them special. Acceptance helps individuals recognize that differences among and between people are OK, and this encourages the development of a sense of personal mastery and autonomy. Acceptance enables people to develop relationships with others, yet maintain healthy boundaries of individuality within themselves.
  • Good communication; being listened to and responded to in a healthy way so that healthy problem solving is possible. Appropriate giving and receiving of feedback is encouraged and rewarded. Communicating at a “feelings" level is a mode of operation for these people, allowing them to be in touch with their emotions in a productive manner.


For the environment to support the development of healthy self-esteem it must contain:

  • Recognition and acceptance of people for who they are. To base such recognition and acceptance on the condition that they must first conform to a prescribed standard of behavior or conduct is unhealthy. Unconditional recognition and acceptance given in the form of support allows individuals to reach their ultimate potential.
  • Clearly defined and enforced limits known to individuals with no hidden tricks or manipulation. Limits set the structure for the lives of individuals, allowing clear benchmarks of appropriate and inappropriate behavior. Limits enable individuals to recognize their responsibilities and to chart their course of behavior in a rational way.
  • Respect and latitude for individual action within the defined limits of the environment. This encourages individuals to use their creativity, ingenuity, and imagination to be productive within the established structure. Restrictions that suppress individuality can lead to a narrow focus, with people becoming stunted and handicapped in the use of their personal skills, abilities, and resources.
  • Established freedom within the structure. This enables individuals to develop a sense of personal autonomy. If they are too tied down and inhibited they could become resentful and eventually rebellious against the prescribed structures in their environment. Being given the freedom of self-expression within the established rules and norms allows individuals to explore their potential to its fullest; thus there is a greater possibility of becoming successful, healthy achievers.

Emotional Bonding

The physical/emotional phenomenon of bonding between individuals and the others in their environment is necessary for the development of healthy self-esteem.


What is bonding?

Bonding is:

  • Forming a mutual emotional attachment between an individual and a “significant other" (parent, child, friend, lover).
  • The significant other giving unconditional love to the individual.
  • Developing an emotional link between the individual and the significant other.
  • Developing a sense of security for the individual.
  • Establishing an emotional intimacy and sense of closeness between the individual and the significant other.
  • Helping the individual feel a healthy sense of identity.
  • Transmitting links between the individual and the significant other through which nonverbal communication and understanding takes place.
  • Providing the individual with a sense of belonging or being connected.
  • Bringing the individual into the larger network of caring and love present in the extended environment.
  • Concern and love of the individual by the significant other, exhibited in all aspects of the individual's life.


How is bonding between individuals manifested?

Bonding is reflected by the way a significant other:

  • Speaks about the individual, reflecting an understanding attitude and interest about the individual.
  • Holds and touches an individual.
  • Willingly allows the individual to enter a strange environment.
  • Encourages the individual to be socially secure.
  • Encourages the individual to be self-confident.
  • Encourages the development of the individual's self concept.
Responds to the individual's problems:
  • acceptance and coping = positive bonding
  • detachment, rejection, withdrawal = negative bonding
Deals with the individual's problems:
  • blaming, ostracizing, condemning = poor bonding
  • cooperative, helpful, understanding = good bonding


What are some ways to encourage bonding?

  • Talk face-to-face with an individual.
  • Get on the other person's level for eye-to-eye contact when talking
  • Use physical touch when interacting
  • Work at meeting the “match" of the individual by encouraging him to do things for which he is ready and capable.
  • Speak in a loving, caring manner to the individual
  • Show respect for the individual
  • Interact with the individual at his level of understanding and ability
  • Listen carefully to the individual; offer empathy and understanding when he is troubled.
  • Be honest with the individual when describing or dealing with problems
  • Be supportive of the individual as he faces the harsh realities of life and becomes fearful, scared, or concerned about the future
  • Let the individual grow to be his own person by encouraging the development of independent and autonomous thinking
  • Assist the individual in becoming a good problem solver by encouraging open exploration and discussion of options and alternatives when facing problems at home, school, work, or in the community.

What developmental tasks can adults do over their lifespan to insure the ongoing development of their healthy self-esteem?


18 to 32 Years of Age

  1. Pull up roots from family of origin (family born and reared in)
  2. Develop an individual sense of autonomy
  3. Establish self as independent from family of origin
  4. Shift attention from family of origin to new commitments, e.g., school, work, hobbies
  5. Learn personal management skills as a consumer (financial) and as the head of a household (home management)
  6. Relate to parents as adult to adult
  7. Develop an occupational identity and learn to adjust in the “adult'' world
  8. Test power and establish healthy patterns of conflict resolution
  9. Establish intimate relationships with significant others
  10. Learn to place demands of family of origin into proper perspective while developing an adaptive response to the “adult'' world
  11. Establish social networks in the various environments, e.g., school, dormitory, work, apartment complex, community, etc.
  12. Get involved in community life, politics
  13. Enhance the ability to communicate in interpersonal relationships
  14. Explore courting, coupling, or a trial mate relationship, selecting a mate
  15. Maintain intimate friendships with trust, love, and caring in these relationships
  16. Maintain healthy, stable, and appropriate sexual interaction in relationships
  17. Commit to a marital partner through a public affirmation of marriage
  18. As a married couple, define, negotiate, compromise, and establish goals, expectations, roles, relationships, finances, ways to solve problems and family-life model
  19. As a married couple or a couple in a committed relationship, provide mutual support, help, and energy to enrich the relationship
  20. As a married couple establish a family system by having child(ren)
  21. Expand the family system and establish redefined definitions and expectations concerning intimacy, sharing, sexual compatibility; make an honest reassessment of the romantic ideal
  22. As a married couple establish a healthy, complementary pattern to solve problems, handle power and control issues and ways to resolve conflict in the family system
  23. Shift attention to the role of parenting and accommodate to the child(ren)'s dependent needs as well as to the emotional (bonding) needs
  24. Focus attention on the child(ren)'s intellect, personality, sexuality, and goal-oriented behavior
  25. Assist child(ren) to enter the new environment of peer group, preschool, school, etc.
  26. As a married couple make periodic reassessment of the relationship; either take the steps to shore it up or decide to separate or divorce
  27. If needed, adjust to divorce and single parenthood. Redefine relationships with new sex mates. Adjust to re-entry to a school and/or work environment

28 to 40 Years of Age

  1. Deepen commitment to work and marriage
  2. Handle the restlessness that comes from commitment in marriage or work
  3. Increase productivity at work and in family life; develop a more natural relationship
  4. Establish definite patterns of decision making, problem solving, and distribution of power
  5. Expand social network
  6. Increase community status
  7. Learn to cope with stress in the couple relationship
  8. Readjust to single life, single parenting, and the aftermath of divorce
  9. Find another partner for a marital commitment; re-adjust to the new marital relationship
  10. Put down extended roots
  11. Accept that children are growing up.
  12. Mature in the parental role and clearly establish the structures of the family system
  13. Adjust to mother or wife returning to the work force or to school
  14. Relate to parents as older or senior citizens
  15. Deepen social involvement
  16. Examine community concerns
  17. Allow one another room to grow in a relationship; allow tolerance of growth in each another
  18. Acknowledge the individual differences within the couple relationship
  19. Mature and increase intimate friendships
  20. Deepen commitment and productivity in marriage, family, work, community; pursue long-range goals
  21. Mark increase of intimacy in marriage and/or committed relationship
  22. Accommodate to the autonomy, independence, and peer-oriented shift of adolescent children
  23. Accommodate to the identity formation of adolescents in their sexual, emotional, social, and professional selves
  24. Modify parental roles in response to the child's growth and personal autonomy, socialization, intellectualization, and personal development

38 to 55 Years of Age

  1. Evaluate one's life structure
  2. Reassess marriage with either deepening of the relationship or divorce and adjustment to single life
  3. Adjust to second and/or third marriage(s) and to the children in them
  4. Adjust to mother or wife returning to the work force or to school
  5. Extend roots in the community and maintenance of identifiable system of connectedness
  6. Refine social network
  7. Expand personal relationships
  8. Revise status in the community
  9. Prepare and plan for retirement and/or loss of spouse
  10. Adjust to loss of mate
  11. Learn to integrate self with others to avoid isolation
  12. Solidify mature sexual relationships
  13. Adjust to last child on his own; adjust to the “empty nest'' syndrome
  14. Examine, review, and reassess progress made in life
  15. Search for an accommodation between aspirations and realities
  16. Evaluate success, failure, and search for future goals
  17. Accommodate to separation and loss of self-sufficient children
  18. Create linkage of new family networks with in-laws once children marry
  19. Stabilize marital relationship once children have moved out
  20. Adapt to the loss by death of parent(s), extended family member(s), and intimate friend(s)

48 to 65 Years of Age

  1. Disengage from old hometown associations in retirement
  2. Prepare for and accept retirement
  3. Expand into new, retired community interest areas, taking on new roles and senior-citizen status
  4. Adjust to loss by death of mate, friends, and other loved ones
  5. Become reconciled to one's impending death
  6. Create new senior social networks
  7. Renew involvement in areas set aside during “family focused" years
  8. Expand and enhance personal relationships into caring and loving companionship
  9. Adjust to the role of mentor and sage in the extended family
  10. Relate reasonably with married children, their spouses, and the grandchildren
  11. Deal with the care of one's aging parents and their dying
  12. Adjust to the selling of one's home and moving into a residence requiring lighter maintenance
  13. Prepare budgets and finances to adjust to living on a reduced, stabilized income
  14. Restabilize and reorder one's priorities
  15. Deal in a healthy way with the loss of youthfulness, vigor, and health
  16. Handle changes in intimacy threatened by aging and boredom
  17. Secure stable relationships
  18. Establish functional three-generational hierarchy in family of origin and in new and old extended families
  19. Accommodate to a healthy grandparenting role and resolve issue of “dependence vs independence" in relation to the demands of the children
  20. Use creative employment of leisure time and develop individual potential outside of employment
  21. Accommodate to illness and declining physical powers
  22. Accept one's personal mortality

62 Years of Age and Older

  1. Deal effectively with aging, illness, and death while retaining zest for life
  2. Support and enhance each spouse's struggle for productivity and fulfillment in face of the threats of aging
  3. Struggle to maintain intimacy in the face of aging, separation, and illness
  4. Adjust to single life or loss of spouse
  5. Extend community interest into new domains
  6. Learn and handle new roles in new peer groups
  7. Be reconciled to one's impending death
  8. Adjust to the new rules and customs of retirement
  9. Handle and cope with the death of spouse, loved ones, family members, and close friends
  10. Continue involvement in all aspects of one's life to maintain some sense of order to it
  11. Sustain personal friendships and social networks
  12. Enhance friendships, caring, sexuality, and companionship in light of changes due to aging
  13. Make a productive review of one's life and accept all perceived or real shortcomings, failures, or successes
  14. Learn to accept being cared for by one's family
  15. Have an understanding relationship with one's children; maintain boundaries between involvement and interference
  16. Relate to grandchildren and great grandchildren in a healthy manner
  17. Handle the care and death of one's parents
  18. Move into quarters where one is more likely to be the receiver of care rather than the giver
  19. Adjust to reduced, stabilized income
  20. Adjust to the sense of realism that one's life has been rewarding and fulfilling; that there is now time to rest and soak in the rewards for leading a productive life

Steps that can be taken to improve self-esteem:

Step 1:  Determine if your self-esteem is at a healthy level by completing this questionnaire:

Self-esteem Assessment

Directions: Write down T if the statement is true for you. Write down F if the statement is false for you.

  1. I am able to discuss my good points, skills, abilities, achievements, and successes with others.
  2. I assert myself with someone whom I believe is violating or ignoring my rights.
  3. I am content with who I am, how I act, and what I do in life.
  4. I am not bothered by feelings of insecurity or anxiety when I meet people for the first time.
  5. My life is balanced between work, family life, social life, recreation/leisure, and spiritual life.
  6. I am aware of the roles I played in my family of origin and have usually been able to make these behavior patterns work for me in my current life.
  7. I am bonded with the significant others in my environment at home, work, school, at play, or in the community.
  8. I am able to perform the developmental tasks necessary to ensure my ongoing healthy self-esteem.
  9. I am satisfied with my level of achievement at school, work, home, and in the community.
  10. I am a good problem solver; my thinking is not clouded by irrational beliefs or fears.
  11. I am willing to experience conflict, if necessary to protect my rights.


If you wrote down F for three or more of the preceding questions, you probably need to work at increasing your self-esteem. Proceed to Step 2.

Step 2:  Review the material in this chapter on self-esteem, and answer the following questions in your journal:

  1. What are the signs of your low self-esteem?
  2. What was lacking in your childhood and earlier adult years to explain your low self-esteem?
  3. How would you rate your bonding with the significant others in your life? List your significant others and then rate the quality of your bonding with them as to poor, fair, average, above average, or excellent.
  4. List those developmental tasks you need at this stage in your adult life in order to insure your ongoing self-esteem?

Once you have answered the above questions, go to Step 3.


Step 3:  You are now aware of some inner feelings you experienced in answering the four questions in Step 2. Explore what you felt by answering the following questions in your journal:

  • I had the following feelings as I responded to the four questions in Step 2:
  • I believe that these feelings are based on the following beliefs I have about my self-esteem:
  • I believe the following irrational beliefs and fears are at the root of my stagnant self-esteem:
  • Having identified my feelings, beliefs, irrational beliefs, and fears concerning my low self-esteem, I believe I need to take the following actions to improve my self-concept:


Step 4:  Having identified the steps you need to take to improve your self-esteem, make a commitment to take these steps and involve the significant others in your life in the execution of them.


If, however, at the end of exploring your feelings in Step 3 you still suffer low self-esteem, return to Step 1 and begin again.