On Self-Esteem, Self-Worth, and Self-Concept

“But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.” — EB White


Edit/Disclaimer, 1/27/16: I do not profess to be an expert in any field. The writing below is a product of my observations and opinion. Any sourced material is italicized, the sources linked immediately preceding the quoted text. Everything else is a combination of my collective inferences. Generalized psychology at the end are paraphrased parenthetically, and do not constitute enough depth to warrant citation, as the gist is provided, and can be double checked with a quick Google search. I do not profess to have invented or coined any of the terms or concepts used. 

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Being an adult sucks. I think we get wrapped up in the extent to which our ongoing responsibilities as an adult can negatively color our overall experience in the present.  The negative aspects of now generally overshadow things which happened in the past. We tend to romanticize the nostalgia of the past, and to pine for the carefree aspects of childhood. These blinders can cause us to dismiss the relativity of our situation, and to overlook the relevance of the cause and effect resulting from childhood experiences (ours and others). We go on as people carrying the cumulative extent of our experiences, and childhood is a much scarier, much more acutely fraught time than we tend to remember once we start to stoop under mortgages and tuition payments. The collective burden of childhood experiences is not something to be overlooked or thrown aside by caregivers. The effects of our experiences do not drop off suddenly (or gradually) as we enter the next developmental phases of life. We should not underestimate the severity and longevity with which our experiences shape us throughout our lives.

Dr. Dipesh Navsaria is an amazing human being, who I had the privileged of hearing speak at a Developmental Brain, Developing Accountability conference in Des Moines a few years ago. That same conference is where I learned about ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences), and the ways in which we can combat them.

The ACE Study findings suggest that certain experiences are major risk factors for the leading causes of illness and death as well as poor quality of life in the United States. It is critical to understand how some of the worst health and social problems in our nation can arise as a consequence of adverse childhood experiences. Realizing these connections is likely to improve efforts towards prevention and recovery.

I knew from a very early age that I had no desire to have my own children. However, I also knew that I was really good with kids: I talk to them directly, show interest in what was important to them, and reinforce their worth by validating them as people. These are interactions that adults know they need but for some reason are not as easily able to see that children need similar support, but with more intent and structure. Am understanding social nuances hasn’t been established yet, so the amount of important details adults overlook, how (and if) they respond to both positive and negative attention-seeking behavior, and what adults make time for in the course of their days really do matter to children, and to the children’s sense of self-worth. It’s important to help children learn to validate themselves, but one of the ways to do that is by example.

One of the reasons I feel I am able to cultivate meaningful relationships with kids is that I listen to them. I give them an audience for validation without giving them a crutch of needing meI’m the oldest child in my family, so I try to be the kind of big sister/auntie/teacher figure that I needed growing up. It’s hard for anyone put in a position of dependence on other peoples validation–not just as a means to provide stability, but validation necessary for existence. I also try to tell them the truth to the extent that it does not diminish them, and within a framework meant not to scare them into Chicken Little anxiety spirals.


The presentation of reality can be strange from a child-to-parent perspective, but it’s even stranger to me from a parent-to-child perspective. What is real to one group colors the reality of the other, but children are necessarily more dependent on parents than parents are on children, and therefore more specifically shaped by the set of realities and limitations set in place for them. It is a common phenomenon to stifle children unintentionally by helicopter parenting, as well as intentionally in a variety of ways so that they remain dependent on their caregivers (See Munchausens by Proxy from my previous entry).

There are also many adults who feel that a significant portion of their own self worth is wrapped up in the obligation/necessity/genetic manifest destiny of having children. It’s common to hear young girls pine for a baby so they would have someone to love them unconditionally. And that freaks me the fuck out, because that is not NOT NOT NOT what children are for. They are not replacements for cultivating your own self-worth. They are people, not status symbols. They are not a pair of shoes, they are not a good grade on an exam. There is a little more at stake when treat them as a sign of personal validation. This piece is based on my opinion, but I will vehemently state that people are not property, and children should not be treated as such.

Self-Worth, defined at “the sense of one’s own value or worth as a person,” is an interesting topic. It can be measured in terms of Self-Concept and Self-Esteem:

Self-concept refers to a [person’s] perceptions of competence or adequacy in academic and nonacademic (e.g., social, behavioral, and athletic) domains and is best represented by a profile of self-perceptions across domains. Self-esteem is a [person’s] overall evaluation of him- or herself, including feelings of general happiness and satisfaction (Harter, 1999).

From these definitions, I would argue that much of the time we misuse self-esteem. Here it seems that self-concept is our evaluation of strengths and weaknesses, and self-esteem is how we feel about that evaluation. I would argue that embracing our weaknesses is at least as important as being validated for our strengths in terms of obtaining an accurate self-representation, and that it really is fine to like who you are, warts and all.  I would also argue that perspective weighs heavily on our classifications.


Twenty years ago, it was common to see studies which correlated self-esteem with direct behavioral results: Too little means we don’t try new things, don’t feel compelled to stray from what is familiar, suffer from depression, and are more likely to form dependency issues, drop out of school, have unintended pregnancies, and basically cause the end of the world as we know it. We turn those with “low self esteem” into victims who are purely a product of their circumstances.

calvin esteem.jpg

There really wasn’t much of a focus on what happens when you have too MUCH self-esteem. More recent studies have observed that too much can lead to narcissism, selfishness, and a sense of entitlement. Turns out, having too little self-esteem didn’t correlate with drug use/self-destructive behavior as well as having too much does.
It could be argued that an inflated sense of exceptional-ism can result in a lack of accountability, and a habitual pattern of “these rules apply to other people but not to me.” However, while arrogance and self esteem aren’t the same thing, they are frequently and casually used interchangeably, and should not be.

The primary error with narcissists or arrogant people is they feel they must be right all the time or there’s something wrong with them. This is a huge error, as no matter how smart we are, we can make mistakes in our thinking or actions. The healthy person knows this and doesn’t let a lapse in knowledge or a mistake threaten his self-esteem. In fact, he embraces facts, whether those facts come from himself or someone else, because he knows that knowledge will help him in his life.



Narcissists are different than people with narcissistic personality disorder. 


Having self-worth, being able to interact with others, while not depending on them too heavily nor dismissing them too readily is a balance that we find difficult to strike as adults; being careful to guide children towards a healthy understanding of these dynamics is important. Being careful not to encourage an air of arrogance in place of a healthy ability for developing self-esteem is vital, but it is not always an option. Teaching children that adults don’t know absolutely everything might be a good starting place; then they have wiggle room not to take word as gospel, and not to feel the anxiety associated with receiving conflicting messages from several “all knowing” beings.

Establishing a realistic understanding of Cause and Effect is vital for children. Adolescents can’t distinguish between their perspective and others; they can’t gauge what is objective and what is subjective, an affliction aptly dubbed Adolescent Egocentrism for the resulting “the world revolves around me, for better or for worse” outlook. They take their opinions and beliefs and generalize them as Facts That Everyone Shares, dismissing different perspectives as false or non-existent. They also experience interactions with Imaginary Audiences (Everyone is looking at me and judging me all the time!), made more difficult by the existence of their Personal Fable (I am a unique snowflake; no one could possibly understand my life/experiences/etc).

Some adults also struggle with overcoming these concepts; they don’t have the means or the ability or the experience to establish perspective within a situation, and then suffer with the consequences of concepts that are actually quite scary for adolescents and adults alike. Being able to have perspective, and then being able to shift it accordingly, are useful tools in overcoming presented obstacles.

beautiful monkey
As someone who has always sought out a system of rules for accountability, I acknowledge that I may be somewhat biased in my perceived value and pursuit of order. BUT I also think that rules should be established from logical systems: having rules for the sake of simply having rules is as absurd as declaring that Anarchy is best. You need some sort of guidelines for getting through your day, and the more layers of diversity you interact with (the general populous, school, work, basic public services, the internet, fancy dinner party etiquette, etc) the more subsets of rules that come into play.

I’ve also been vehemently against any system that relied on “Because I Said So” tactics. From my friends and peers with children, I understand that this is sometime a necessary option, but I would argue that it should only be implemented if the following options have been attempted:

  1. If you don’t know something, admit it. Embrace the freedom providing in proclaim I Don’t Know. Teaching children that there is a limited scope to individual knowledge is valuable–it allows an opportunity to go seek out answers (individually, or together), as well as teaching humility. Experiencing humility garners the same long-term rewards as experiencing failure does by illustrating that “what if” situations aren’t as bad as we build them up to be, and that the world doesn’t end over precarious, minute missteps. We’re stronger people for it.
  2. Ask why they want to know something they are asking about. Children (and adults) aren’t always as straightforward as they might be, and addressing the reasoning behind a question or action gives a more appropriate lens through which to provide an answer.
  3. Provide an example that everything we might rush to identify as a shortcoming or difference of opinion is an opportunity for growth. Knowing everything with certainty means you’ve confined yourself in a very particular space. Break out of it, and see what else is out there.
  4. Know that when you have an off day, you can try again tomorrow.

esteem is weird


2 thoughts on “On Self-Esteem, Self-Worth, and Self-Concept

  1. Well done. I’m wondering about how you are going to present on Emotional Energy and the need for validation. Something lacking in adventures on narcissism. — There must be a formula out there somewhere.

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