Concept of the Month -- June 2002

Self Esteem -- What is it?

We have all heard the term "self-esteem" probably since grade school. This psychological term has become part of common parlance.  There has even been a self-esteem "movement" especially among educators and some mental health professionals -- born of a sincere desire to help people feel good about themselves.

Self-esteem has little to do with feelings at all.  It is the result of a process.  A person has "high self-esteem" if he has achieved something that he has worked for.  This does not necessarily mean money or high grades in school, although these may be part of it.  The achievement can be overcoming adversity.  It can be using one's talent in any area of endeavor, disciplining that talent, and doing something worthwhile with it.

If a person has been thoughtless, if he has been lazy, if he has cheated others, there is little to feel good about.  Some people believe that a core problem that criminals and juvenile delinquents have is "low self-esteem".  Actually, that is a misconception.  They vascillate between seeing themselves as number one or a nothing.  This is black and white thinking, little of it realistic.  If a person has lied, injured others, and done little with whatever abilities he or she has, that individual would have no reason to have "high self-esteem".   To artificially try to help that person feel better about himself would actually boost his criminality!

So keep in mind, that self-esteem is an outcome -- a result of a process that entails plenty of self-discipline, hard work, and the constructive use of one's talents.  Self-esteem exercises to artificially inflate how a person feels are futile.  Helping that person change his thinking so that he works at something responsible and worthwhile will eventually place him in a position where he actually has something to "feel good" about.

Stanton E. Samenow, Ph.D.

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