Understanding Self-Esteem


Self-esteem is an oft-discussed area of personal development and one that brings lots of people into counselling. Rarely though, do counsellors and therapists tackle self-esteem directly. Instead, they work on the limiting thoughts, social phobia or other issues that prevent people from having high self-esteem.

One resource for learning more about self-esteem is Self-Esteem: Issues and Interventions by Mary Guindon. This post is an overview of some of the important material covered in that volume.

There are four primary approaches to self-esteem

  • Object/Attitudinal – Low self-esteem is the result of dislike of ourselves as an object
  • Relational – Self-esteem is the result of difference between different sets of attitudes
  • Psychological Response – Psychological or emotional responses within the self
  • Personality Function – Self-esteem is the part of personality concerned with motivation and self-regulation

All approaches to self-esteem have two broad aspects: evaluation of yourself and the emotional experience caused by this. One of the most popular conceptualizations of self-esteem is the Looking-glass self: We imagine ourselves to be what others think us to be.

What Makes Up Self-Esteem

  • Reactions and responses from people important to us, feedback from significant others
  • Knowledge of who we are, identity grounded in values of culture, belief in our worth
  • Understanding of things we do well, appreciation of achievements, awareness of levels of competence

Carl Rogers’ Person-Centered Therapy defines three selves:

  1. Ideal Self (what you want for yourself)
  2. Actual Self (what you think about yourself)
  3. True Self (what you actually are)

The more congruent these three are the healthier your self-esteem will be.

Two Classes of Self-Esteem

  • Global Self-Esteem – A stable, overall estimate
  • Selective Self-Esteem – Specific and constituent traits

Basic Strategy for Improving Self-Esteem

  • Detect domains where discrepancies exist between aspirations and adequacy
  • Accurate evaluations are necessary
  • Clients can be taught to change the weight of selective characteristics

Behaviours related to Self-Esteem

  • Low self-esteem leads to è Self-protecting behaviours
  • High self-esteem leads to è Self-enhancing behaviour

When threatened, people with high self-esteem present their abilities, discounting negative feedback and seeking feedback on their competence. Low self-esteem individuals seek self-esteem by seeking acceptance.

Those with low self-esteem avoid circumstances that could increase self-esteem because it results in anxiety. Positive evaluations can be threatening because they challenge their existing view of the self.


  • Self-confidence is anticipation of mastering challenges and overcoming obstacles
  • Self-confidence is not self-esteem! Self-esteem is your worth. Confidence is your belief in your ability to do things.

Research Impacts on Improving Self-Esteem

  • High self-esteem did not increase academic performance. Low self-esteem has no effect on drinking, drug use or early sexual activity. High self-esteem does not solely improve outcomes, and indiscriminate praise in children may lead to narcissism.
  • Self-esteem, locus of control, neuroticism, self-efficacy all have high interrelatedness, to the degree that they could be the same construct.
  • Low self-esteem can be secondary to depression caused by rejection, conflict and experience of loss

Intervention Strategies

Social Support


  • Relaxation
  • Guided imagery
  • Study skills
  • Self-instructional skills training
  • Diaries – Diaries of those with poor self-esteem includes achievement more often than interpersonal experiences


  • Sports training increases self-esteem in kids
  • Tai Chi used in elderly Chinese (Lee and Woo, 2001)


  • Reality Therapy
  • Solution Focused Therapy
  • Narration Therapy
  • Creative Arts
  • Play Therapy
  • EMDR (children with self-esteem and behaviour issues)
  • Process-Based Forgiveness

Embedded vs. Specific Treatments

  • Embedded Treatments – Treating self-esteem by treating the original issue (e.g. ADHD, depression, etc.) to raise self-esteem as a secondary effect
  • Specific – Treatments focused directly on self-esteem

Harter’s (1999) interventions

  • Reduction of discrepancies between aspirations and perceived adequacy
  • Encouragement of relatively accurate self-evaluations
  • The potential for change in the valence of self-representation
  • Attention to client’s theories about causes of self-representation

Social Factor Interventions

  • Provisions to increase approval support
  • Internalization of the positive opinions of others

“In the case of lack of peer support or rejection, children may be misreading cues about actual support. If so, children can be encouraged to develop more realistic evaluations. If the perceptions are realistic, finding the specific causes such as deficits in interpersonal likability, physical ability or attractiveness should be undertaken. Social skills and athletic ability skills training or removal from nonsupportive to more supportive circumstances where feasible may be treatment goals.”

  • Internalizing positive feedback from others critical
  • Evaluating present performance against past performance

Mruk (2006)’s 8 Techniques

  • Acceptance and Caring
  • Consistent, positive-affirming feedback
  • Cognitive restructuring
    1. Identify problem areas
    2. Label
    3. Substitute more rational responses
  • Consciously raising awareness of natural self-esteem moments
  • Assertiveness training
  • Modeling
  • Problem-solving skills
  • Opportunities for practice [most important]

Wood et. al, 2006

  • Less destructive self-evaluation
  • Focusing on positive attributes
  • Remind of qualities they value

Mckay and Fanning, 2006

  • Cognitive restructuring via hypnosis, thought-stopping, rebuttal, coping statement, remember past feelings of confidence and self-liking

Roberts, 2006

  • Teach clients to answer thoughts as hypothesis
  • Test evidence to confirm or deny beliefs
  • Develop alternative beliefs consistent with facts

Other Strategies for self-esteem

  • Work on authentic values clarification
  • Cognitive restructuring
    • Bring into awareness negative self-talk
    • Refute internal critic
    • Substitute positive self-talk
    • Reframe negative attributions
    • Recognize low-self-esteem triggers
  • Assist clients in making a realistic assessment of self-elements and domains important to them by:
    • Reviewing and owning past accomplishments
    • Recognizing authentic strengths and talents
  • Provide opportunities for small risks in interpersonal relationships by teaching clients to:
    • Ask for positive feedback from significant others
    • Accept positive feedback without discounting
  • Introduce journal writing


Lee, D., & Woo, J. (2007) Effect of tai chi on state self-esteem and health-related quality of life in older Chinese residential care home residents. Journal of Clinical Nursing

Harter, S. (1999) The construction of the self: a deelopmental perspective. New York: Guilford Press

McKay, M. & Fanning, P. (2000). Self-esteem (3rd ed.) Oakland, CA: New Harbinger

Mruk, C. (2006) Self-esteem: Research theory and practice: Toward a positive psychology of self-esteem (3rd ed.). New York: Springer

Roberts, J.E. (2006). Self-esteem from a clinical perspective. In M.H. Kernis (Ed.)., Self-esteem issues and answers: A sourcebook of current perspectives (pp. 298-305). New York: Psychology Press.

Wood, J.V., Anthony, D.B., & Foddis, W.F. (2006) “Should people with low self-esteem strive for high self-esteem?” In M.H. Kernis (Ed.)., Self-esteem issues and answers: A sourcebook of current perspectives (pp. 298-296). New York: Psychology Press.

Cite this article as: MacDonald, D.K., (2015), "Understanding Self-Esteem," retrieved on December 9, 2022 from http://dustinkmacdonald.com/understanding-self-esteem/.

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