What does it mean to have healthy self-esteem

“Believe in yourself”

This is a message we encounter constantly, on Instagram posts, books, advertisements, TV shows, and fables - all around us. We keep hearing that believing in ourselves, and having high self-esteem is important for success, relationships, happiness and flourishing life.

But what value does this belief in oneself hold without the support of our actions?

Dr.Martin Seligman, the father of Positive Psychology has some concerns about this, and rightly so. He worries that people seek a world where self-esteem is injected into a person’s identity, not caring in how it is done, as long as the image of “confidence” is obtained.

And this is completely true! This article is your comprehensive guide to unpack what this multi-dimensional, difficult-to-fit-into-a-box construct is about.

What is Self-Esteem?

According to self-esteem expert Morris Rosenberg (1965), it is quite simply one’s attitude toward oneself, which may be favourable or unfavourable.

But let’s look at the greater importance of self-esteem in terms of healthy self-esteem against high self-esteem — what does it really mean?

A healthy self-esteem is somewhat a balancing act. It explains normal waxing and waning of how you feel about yourself in terms of managing everyday life. It’s associated with feelings of satisfaction, making healthy lifestyle choices, having rewarding relationships and demonstrating effective coping skills.

Anyone who fits the definition would be a person who accepts that life isn’t perfect, and rolls with the punches.

In contrast, those with “too much” self-esteem may be cocky or aggressive. By taking high self-esteem bolstering efforts too far, such as praise not earned, it is possible for individuals to develop narcissism. It can certainly be off-putting to others and can even damage personal relationships.

You’re probably wondering “too much self-esteem can’t be a real thing!” especially since there are such hue and cry about how dangerous low self-esteem is. But it is. Let’s revisit some history!

The late 1960s and early 70s saw the birth of the “self-esteem movement” where many studies were conducted correlating high self-esteem and successful life.

In 1969, American psychologist Nathaniel Branden's pioneering work titled “The Psychology of Self-Esteem” was widely used to promote the idea. He opined that high self-esteem was the most valuable gift one could give their children, and as this thought vaulted into people, consciousness, the education system and parenting practices took a 180-degree turn in the West.

Well-meaning parents, teachers and caregivers tended to avoid criticism and looked for every possible reason, even no reason at all, to praise children and tried making them feel extra special at all times. Some schools, for example, for fear of damaging a child’s self-esteem, even went as far as handing out ribbons to everyone in sports competitions so as not to offend the ones who did not win a place. With all good intentions, children were sheltered from any criticism or adverse consequences, from the challenges of life and insulated from experiences that encouraged growth and self-respect.

As a result, many children born in the eighties and nineties grew up believing they can do no wrong. This kind of mollycoddling will yield individuals who are emotionally fragile, entitled young adults who find it extremely difficult to cope with adversities, take responsibility and receive feedback.

Studies also went on to show that high self-esteem does not prevent engagement in risk-taking behaviours like smoking, drinking, drug use, or engaging in early sex. It may, however, lead to experimentation and on the other hand even increase these activities. The self-confident youth who are engaging in risky behaviours may just not have the right kind of self-confidence.

Their self-esteem was but on the shaky ground of shallow praise, material possessions, unearned rewards, entitlement and privilege, instead of instilling a steady and grounded confidence that was built on a foundation of trust in oneself.

And needless to say, if high levels of self-esteem are rooted in the wrong values, it does not have the same protective factors as healthy self-esteem.

‘The effort had gone wrong in the approach.’ Branden, expressing dissatisfaction, after the movement became an explosive fad in the 80s said:

“Almost entirely neglected has been the stable middle ground of letting children learn to spiritually stand, walk, and run on their own: to build the strength of their self-esteem through the experience of self-directed pursuits, setting their own standards, and adapting to the natural consequences of the real world.

Authentic self-esteem promotes, not co-dependency and fragility, but independence, enterprise, resilience, adaptability, and a growth mindset: exactly the character traits that individuals, young and old, need more of in today’s economy and political climate.”

How and why is this relevant now?

An apt example, if that fad is extended in the current scenario would be that of social media, a place from where much of a sense of identity is derived. “Friends”, “followers”, “likes” and the need for constant validation are taking over people’s lives. The world is hyper-connected, anxious and is rapidly seeking information and validation.
When everything is branded with hyperbole such as “awesome” and “amazing”, it rarely truly is. People can barely see sadness, failure and disappointment that accompanies everyday human life; instead, seeing a perfect picture, a timeline full of only good news, achievements, accomplishments, and happiness. Digital identities are filtered and presented after careful thought and modification; they are hardly near the person’s primary or true selves. This dissonance leads to anxiety, for which people seek validation as a coping tool.

This is terrible for self-esteem and overall mental health as it results in a spirit of entitlement, and self-absorption. The cyber world is increasingly causing people to maintain a distorted sense of their own self-importance and relevance.

Additionally, as young adults, people are required to navigate through many avenues in their fast-paced lives which foster the development of a sense of identities such as their chosen careers, hobbies, relationships and other immersions that demand their very soul. In order to survive through the demands of the environment and daily lives, there is a need to develop healthy self-esteem and build resilience.

Following some research, this is a little list of strategies to foster healthy self-esteem for millennials.

Or as it can be better termed - self-regard. Instead of using the elusive term ‘self-esteem’, for which there is no quantitative measure, it is better to ask yourself ‘What do I need to do in order to increase my self-regard?”

Define what you stand for

1. Understand what your personal values are by asking yourself questions like: “What is it that I value?” Take a look around and see what motivates most of your actions or what you admire in others. It could be integrity, communication, kindness, charity, community, knowledge, respect, stability, success, etc.

2. Once you have answered the above, ask yourself, “What do I need to do to live in tandem with what I value?” For example, if you value knowledge, ask yourself what you can do to make it a part of our lives closely.

3. Set goals for yourself that are in accordance with what you value (and leave room to fit in other things that you like too) and weave your actions around those.

Find your personal strengths

Everyone has their own signature strengths, but are often bogged down by focusing on what they struggle with, forgetting to develop and embrace their strengths. Knowing what you do best and how sets you up to succeed every day.

Make an inventory of your strengths, by asking yourself questions like “What am I good at and like doing at the same time?”, “When am I at my best to do this?”, “How does it make me feel?” This way, you can cultivate your best attributes that make you feel confident and incorporate these into your daily life.

Increase self-efficacy by setting SMART goals

A major attribute of healthy self-esteem is trusting and believing that can complete a given task. This is what psychologists call positive self-efficacy, and it plays a role in being motivated to take action and staying resilient when set-backs emerge. People who believe they can accomplish a task most likely will, but those who are uncertain will probably shrink away at the first set-back.

Make efforts towards self-growth by setting small, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-bound goals. Setting small goals for yourself by breaking bigger tasks into smaller ones, will keep you on track, make you feel more in control and as you keep achieving them will increase self-efficacy.

Use positive self-talk and limit negative self-talk.

An integral part of self-esteem are the thoughts you have about your abilities and self-worth. That’s why being compassionate in your conversations with yourselves is important. You need to program your brain into focusing on encouraging and positive ideas, images, and beliefs. It will lead you to think clearly, perform better and perpetuates greater self-esteem.

When you catch yourself being unkind to yourself, break the cycle by reframing your thoughts to include your strengths and capabilities that can be applied at that time.

Make your overall physical and mental health a priority:

This can mean going for a brisk walk every day, eating food that nourishes your body, sleeping well and on time, saying ‘no’ when you need to, going to your therapist, getting medical check-ups done on time, etc. Efforts towards honouring your physical and emotional needs will help you feel good about yourself.

Reflect on your emotions, honour and work with them.

1. Practice mindfulness by bringing awareness to your feelings: Become aware of your triggers and vulnerabilities when you are feeling sad or anxious.

2. Allow yourself to experience the emotion fully and accept it. Accept that emotions are natural and let the feeling pass. Don’t let it get the best of you. Distract yourself temporarily, if necessary, but do not avoid the emotion.

3. Checking in to assess where your mood is throughout the day is important. It allows you to get to know yourself, see where your thoughts are and to reset into a more positive, compassionate and loving (towards yourself) mindset as needed so that your mood doesn’t rule your day.

4. Set boundaries wherever needed to take care of yourself to avoid feeling overwhelmed.

5. Healthy self-esteem/regard takes practice and getting to know who you are, your moods, and your preferences. Self-reflection and a little compassion can take you to a place where healthy self-esteem is possible.

Let go of the need for perfection.

Always aiming for perfection is only a recipe for anxiety and disappointment. And it hugely affects that way we view ourselves. Knowing that it is okay to do your best and be happy with the finished project, even if it has flaws, can help you improve the way you view yourself. Be gentle on yourself and acknowledge that sometimes done is better than perfect.

Lastly, therapy can help one work on their thoughts and behaviours to develop a better sense of self-love, self-worth, self-acceptance, and self-esteem. The therapist, by providing a safe space for their thoughts, helps them understand how self-esteem is a belief rather than a fact, which is based on our experiences and can help the client gain insight on new experiences upon which to base this new belief about themselves. This enables the client to re-think some of their assumptions, to gain insight into their values, re-define them and reshape their ideas around their sense of self.

There is no single size that fits all. Remember, it is more about your own personal baseline of positive self-esteem and being able to reset back to that place regardless of the stressor.

About the Author

Mansi Poddar
Counselling Psychologist.

Ms Mansi Poddar is a Counselling Psychologist in Kolkata, West Bengal who sees adults and teens for

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