What is self-esteem and how can we maintain balance?

What is self-esteem and how can we maintain balance?

Self-esteem refers to our evaluation of our self-worth. It is considered a generally stable trait, although it can fluctuate depending on our experiences, our expectations, and our level of self-awareness (Orth & Robins, 2014). When we notice a gap between how we would like to be and what we believe we are now and judge ourselves harshly, it can lower our mood (Winch, 2013).
As a result, we may develop a feeling of inadequacy, where we feel uncomfortable with ourselves, affecting how we view ourselves and feel self-conscious when speaking with others.

We may tend to participate less in conversations, meetings or class, for fear of feeling embarrassed in front of others. Dealing with social situations can like feel hard work, so we may tend to avoid them, making it more difficult to learn ways to develop our skills to engage in communication with others. It can be hard to feel as if we do not belong – we all want to be accepted and have a sense of belonging.

Having difficulty in dealing with feedback can affect our confidence. When not feeling very good about ourselves, it can be hard to accept positive feedback because we may think it does not relate to us. It may feel more familiar to take negative feedback because it can confirm the negative view of ourselves. Not believing we deserve compliments or positive feedback can prevent us from having rewarding relationships with others. For example, we may doubt others care about us. We may also be quick to interpret situations as rejection (Winch, 2013).

Confidence refers to our belief in dealing with challenges and achieving a positive outcome (Shrauger & Schohn, 1995). Bandura (1997) focused on the concept of self-efficacy, which refers to our belief that we are capable of achieving our goals, so we are more likely to persevere with our efforts. When we have a sense of achievement, it can boost our confidence and restore a more balanced view of ourselves.

What can affect our self-esteem?

A tendency to perfectionism can negatively affect self-esteem, as the inner critic focuses on perceived faults. It can lead to fear of being rejected by others, and it can prevent us from having a sense of balance and acceptance of our strengths. 

To counteract this tendency, we can refocus our attention on our strengths and values. Also, self-compassion helps us to be more understanding and increase our self-awareness.

Another factor is having a rigid mindset, where we view things in black and white, which prevent us from considering other perspectives. Sometimes, we are not aware of the thinking pattern contributing to our negative view of ourselves and how it prevents us from finding ways to boost our mood. 

Sometimes, we try introspection to understand the situation. We take time to become aware of our thoughts and feelings. When we do this, we tend to ask, “Why is this happening to me?” but this question can lead to negative thoughts and feelings that only exacerbate our worry and distress.

Furthermore, when feeling vulnerable, we are more likely to be affected by criticism and failures. We may find it difficult to say no to requests and then overcommit. We may agree to do something despite not feeling comfortable because we worry that others may be upset if we say no ((Tawwab, 2021). Whereas, when we have a more balanced view of ourselves, we can be more congruent with our values and recognise what we can and cannot do. Paying attention to what matters to us, and acting according to our values, increases our resilience and ability to cope with disappointments and setbacks. 

What can we do for our self-esteem to be more balanced?

Develop self-awareness: We can learn to acknowledge our thoughts and feelings, and our strengths and vulnerabilities. Becoming aware of what matters to us and being honest with ourselves allows us to be more congruent with our values. It also allows us to have an understanding of how others see us more objectively. 

When reflecting to try to understand, ask “What questions?”. For example, instead of asking, “why does this always happen to me?”, ask: “What are the situations where I feel uncomfortable?”. Then use the insights you gain from your observations and apply them to new situations. “What” questions help us to gain some distance, and we are more likely to see alternative perspectives (Eurich, 2019).

Develop a growth mindset: We can do this by challenging fixed ideas about our capabilities, such as thinking that we are not good in a particular subject. We can then redirect our views to reminding ourselves that our brains are continually being shaped by what we learn and our experiences. It is good news, as it means that we can learn and develop our skills at any age and that with practise, we can grow and become more confident (Dweck, 2006).

Also, maintaining an open mind enables us to look for alternative ways of looking at situations. Instead of comparing with others, focus on your values to guide your thoughts and actions (Dweck, 2010). Sometimes, being shy can prevent us from taking the initiative to participate in conversations or activities as we do not know how others will respond. When we develop a growth mindset, we can better deal with uncertainty, and when we make mistakes, we can acknowledge them and apply what we learned from them in future situations. It also allows us to be more patient with ourselves, and with consistent efforts, we can build our confidence.

Develop emotional agility: It is best for our health and wellbeing when we adopt a flexible attitude. We all have an inner stream of thoughts and feelings that can include negative beliefs about ourselves or possible future scenarios. It is a normal function of our brain – it predicts what could happen to prepare for what comes next.

Notice” should” statements, for example, “I should get everything done correctly”, or “I shouldn’t make mistakes.” Or when we imagine possible outcomes and feel sure that these will become true. These thoughts lead us to further self-criticism that can erode our confidence and prevent us from learning from our mistakes.

The first step is to notice the all-or-nothing thinking pattern when going from one extreme to another. We can get stuck in this loop of negative thoughts. This pattern prevents us from considering alternative perspectives that could allow us to view things differently so that we do not jump to conclusions, leading to misinterpretations or unfair judgments. 

To develop emotional agility, practice catching those thoughts and relabel them. For example, if the thought is “I am terrible at this…I will never get a job”, rephrase it and say: “I am having the thought that I’m not good at this,” or “I am having the thought that I will not get a job”. The process of labelling the thoughts allows us to see them for what they are – just thoughts, and these are transient (David, 2016). 

In summary, the key is to pay attention to our thoughts and feelings, letting ourselves experience them without self-judgement. 

Practice self-compassion: When we adopt an understanding view of ourselves and others and accept our vulnerability as part of the human condition, we can acknowledge our mistakes without criticism. We can view these as part of the learning process to correct errors to improve our work. It helps to acknowledge our feelings and this, in turn, helps reduce distress (Gilbert & Choden, 2013).

Being kind and patient with ourselves does not mean that we are selfish or lazy. On the contrary, when we treat ourselves like we treat our best friends and focus on our values, it benefits our sense of wellbeing and improves our relationship with ourselves and others (Henderson, 2010).

Set boundaries: learning to set expectations of what feels safe and comfortable in relationships, help to maintain good communication and develop supportive relationships. Establishing good boundaries prevent feeling overwhelmed or resentful, and we can maintain a sense of wellbeing. (Tawwab, 2021).

When establishing relationships, it is essential to pay attention to our expectations and those of others, asking for reciprocity, respect, and providing mutual support to help create a sense of equality and trust. 

Focus on good enough is good enough: Having a sense of average self-esteem, where we accept ourselves as human beings, just like everyone else. Practising a more realistic evaluation of our strengths and identify areas we would like to develop. 

As we develop a more open and flexible attitude, we can maintain the hope that we can fulfil our potential and become more at ease with ourselves. 

Avoid comparing with others: when imagining how others think about us or wonder what they will say about us, we do not realise this is an imagined scenario. Focusing on what others think, or comparing with them, is not being fair to ourselves. We are all different, with unique qualities and experiences. 

As we maintain an open mind, we can consider alternative ways of looking at situations. Instead of comparing with others, focus on your values to guide your thoughts and actions (Dweck, 2010). This way of thinking helps to tolerate uncertainty, and when we make mistakes, we can deal with them by acknowledging them and then looking for the learning to apply these insights in the future. It also allows us to be more patient with ourselves, and with consistent efforts, we can grow our confidence.

Accept positive feedback: It can be hard to accept a compliment when feeling vulnerable. Perhaps because we think we do not deserve it, or we may fear it will increase expectations of us. Learning to accept the compliment helps to acknowledge our more positive aspects and incorporated them into our self-image. It does not mean that we will become arrogant or overconfident. Just like when you want to support your best friend, you want to let them know about something you appreciate about them. 

When feeling self-conscious, we tend to worry about saying something that will cause us embarrassment or fear rejection. Often, we worry about being misunderstood and anticipate potential conflict, so we avoid difficult conversations.

When feeling uncomfortable with ourselves, we may worry that we’re not good enough and criticise ourselves. We may doubt ourselves and our abilities. When we have a rigid thinking pattern, it limits our perspective and prevents us from considering alternative options. It can prevent us from taking action, such as participating in activities, because of our difficulty overcoming our fear of embarrassment or worry about a negative outcome.

To make a positive change, we can start by accepting that we can make mistakes – these are normal in new learning situations. We can focus on our efforts and the progress we make. Gradually, our belief in our capabilities will grow, which in turn, will strengthen our ability to regulate our emotions. We learn and develop our skills when we feel we can trust ourselves to take action and maintain the hope that we can make changes. We feel more motivated to pursue goals when they give us a sense of purpose and are meaningful.

Ground yourself: sometimes, life presents us with challenges, and these can make us question ourselves. When feeling challenged by events, we can restore our balance by taking time to be present – paying attention to what is happening now. Then, reflecting on what matters to us, what do we stand for? Focusing on what is meaningful to us can help us strengthen our belief in our ability to cope with challenges while maintaining the hope that things will improve. 





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Eurich, T. (2019) What self-awareness really is (and how to cultivate it). In Emotional Intelligence. Self-awareness. Boston: Harvard Business Review Press.

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Orth, U., & Robins, R. (2014). The Development of Self-Esteem. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 23(5), 381-387. 

Shrauger, J. S., & Schohn, M. (1995). Self-Confidence in College Students: Conceptualization, Measurement, and Behavioral Implications. Assessment, 2(3), 255–278. 

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Winch, G. (2013) Emotional first aid. Healing rejection, guilt, failure, and other every day hurts. New York: Plume Books.

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