True Self-Esteem

Not long ago, I read something about self-esteem that seems important to share. It’s a distinction between contingent and true self-esteem. Or rather, a distinction between self-esteem, and something that looks like self-esteem, but isn’t.

Gabor Mate puts it like this: “Self-esteem based on achievement has been called contingent self-esteem or acquired self-esteem. Unlike contingent self-esteem, true self-esteem has nothing to do with a self-evaluation on the basis of achievement or the lack of it.” (Scattered, 238)

Conditional self-esteem isn’t really self-esteem at all. It esteems an accomplishment, or perhaps some other non-essential feature of oneself. It does not esteem — it does not value, does not positively regard — oneself. It thus is not true self-esteem. True self-esteem would be intrinsic or un-conditional. True self-esteem cannot be dependent on this or that accomplishment.

If I feel that I am worthy, as a person, a human being, only on the condition that I achieve certain grades in school, produce a certain income, learn a certain number of languages, impress enough other people, and not otherwise, then I lack a genuine sense of self-esteem.

How often, I wonder, do we relate to ourselves on the basis of merely conditional self-esteem, and not on the basis of true self-esteem?

What is your experience of this? Do you see it in yourself or in others?

Besides writing, SeekerFive creates visual art and designs under his Leaf Town brand. Some of these can be seen on Instagram @leaftowndesigns, Currently he is emphasizing face mask designs.

Images by (and property of) SeekerFive unless otherwise indicated.

40 thoughts on “True Self-Esteem

    1. Even that, though, may not be true self-esteem, since it’s premised on being able to do particular things. It might thus imply that you would not worthy of being respected as a human if you were not able to accomplish those things. Which means it isn’t really *you* that’s esteemed.

  1. I found this really interesting. What happens when you have no intrinsic self esteem, no unconditional self esteem? I grew up with no self esteem or sense of worth through being told I was stupid, fat etc etc. I didn’t believe I was lovable until I met a wonderful man who loved me and still loves me after 45 years. I gained self esteem through things I achieved. My family, my self-education, things like that. So, sometimes self esteem has to be made, if it’s never there in the first place. Thank you for writing this and making me think

    1. I get what you’re saying! I too didn’t start with inner self esteem after my primary abuser had torn me down.

      I started to build inner self worth by the outer cues of accomplishment to create a platform or foundation where none had existed before. Once I started to feel a little better about myself I was able to slowly start doing the inner work of building myself up because I had something I could believe in.

      We have to start somewhere!

      1. That’s a great observation on how one can use healthy conditional self-esteem, in adulthood, as support in developing the true self-esteem one deserved to receive and develop while a child.

      2. 😊 I find it encouraging to see that even those of us who weren’t blessed with a good childhood experience can still develop self worth! It’s truly something we can do for ourselves at any time in our lives!

    2. You’re right Belles, anyone who grows up within an abusive or neglectful environment probably does not receive a sense of intrinsic self-worth, even though every child deserves to develop that sense and has a natural human right to receive it. I’m very happy to hear you have been able to find a sense of worthiness.

  2. I love this differentiation SeekerFive. I’d not thought of it like this before. Perhaps that’s why many of us always feel driven to do more or be more – and yet can’t make sense as to why it’s never enough? Because we are lacking true self esteem

    1. This is spot on AP2. I was always driven to do more and more until my body physically broke down. I made myself ill trying to achieve weight loss, then contracted mono. I then, in my middle-40’s, developed Primary Progressive MS and have been in a wheelchair for 11 years. I know it’s because I drove myself beyond my physical limits and my stress levels were permanently off the scale. It sounds as if I am exaggerating but believe me, I’m not. All to prove to myself that I wasn’t useless and to make me feel better about myself. I was determined my own children would have true, intrinsic self esteem and the fact that they feel worthy is my one true achievement.

      1. I’m sorry to hear about your struggles but the fact that you have used that to help your children is amazing. I worry about my health as a pilot and the stress involved with constant night flying. It has already taken a toll and I’m still young! I can certainly see how it might lead to longer term health problems. It’s one of my biggest fears. Your story made me sit up straight! My plan is to get out of aviation for exactly that reason. I want to read and write and help others with their mental health issues. But also be with my children as much as I can – to make sure they don’t feel like they need to make up for some kind of perceived inadequacy but simply love who they are. Thank you for sharing your story – it’s exactly what I need to hear.

      2. Pleasure. Being a pilot is known to be stressful – I have a friend who is a former airline pilot and he has often spoken of it. Your plan is a good one, and that’s exactly the right thing for your children, to be allowed to be and love themselves. Good luck!

  3. I would guess it all depends on your background because when I was at school I had conditional self esteem and it would only increase if I achieved something great -why- because everyone at home would be proud whenever I passed. But now that I’m older things are different and my esteem no longer depends on others.

  4. It’s OK to just…be, and just be OK with oneself. I am fortunate to have that type of self esteem and I protect it jealously. And yet… and yet the conditional type is constantly pounding on my door, demanding entry and recognition. It’s not easy to keep it at bay, and I confess I’m not always able to. Tremendous piece.

  5. Absolutely, I see it both in myself and in others. As a performer for over 50 years, I can say that the performing arts has a way of convincing you you’re worthy and important and beautiful one day and leas than a piece of crap the next. It took decades to separate myself from its hold on my self-identity. Now, my thoughts about myself, my self-esteem, are based on what I alone value in life and no one’s, and no thing’s, opinion or critique, or metric of that is relevant to me. I believe this comes with age and wisdom BUT also requires deep self-reflection and meditation (in whatever way one approaches that).

  6. I think I came at this from a different angle. What is called “conditional self esteem”. I would call self respect. I must admit that I put more
    Value on that than simple self watwwm

      1. No, I meant that I would
        Call what the booster describes as “conditional self esteem” “self respect” I see respect as something that is earned, not given. Self respect similarly is earned, not given. Because respect is earned it is based on accomplishment or at least effort. (At least in my view.)

  7. Very rightly conveyed…nothing can be more valuable and true than intrinsic feeling of self worth. It should come from within to help us move forward in life with positive feeling of self worth.

    1. Thank you, yes. And Mate (I think) observes that it’s initially received (if it’s received) from without, in childhood, so that it can then come from within when we are adults.

  8. I have been struggling with this for so long and personally it gives me validation from others and I think that’s what am always looking for .Working on it though

    1. Gabor Mate suggests that a kind of “re-parenting” is needed to develop the intrinsic type of self-esteem, but doesn’t say much about how to accomplish such re-parenting in “Scattered”. I know there are a couple books by Pete Walker that do discuss re-parenting in more detail, particularly “The Tao of Fully Feeling.”

  9. “I am good enough as a human being only if I…” is living according to external validation, which of course is not self-esteem. My favorite definition of self-esteem comes from the man who was considered to be the “godfather of the self-esteem movement,” Nathaniel Branden. He says self-esteem is “the experience of being competent to cope with the basic challenges of life and of being worthy of happiness.”

    Dr, Branden passed away not that long ago (2014), but he left quite a legacy. If you haven’t heard of him, check him out here:

  10. I built self esteem I never had after leaving a domestic abuse situation. I found my own apartment and independence for the first time in my life. This move led to many other improvements! I didn’t realize how much safety & independence meant to me and a healthy future, until an abuser took it all away.

    1. Very sorry that you experienced such undeserved mistreatment and suffering, chaosaftermath, and very glad to hear you’ve found your freedom and your completely deserved sense of self-worth.

  11. Thank you for sharing this. Reading your description has helped me see this is such an important distinction to realise and understand. Being content with who we are, and not what we do or accomplish, is important to being *us*. Even without achievement, we still are a unique and valuable person.

    Keep on keeping on being awesome.

  12. I like the Growth Mindset approach to this – you can boost your self-esteem and resilience through effort and thinking about how to do things you initially find difficult differently (and hopefully better) next time. If your self-esteem is contingent on always getting 10 out of 10, how devastating is it when you – as we all must at some point – only get 8, or 5, or 2? Far better, the Growth Mindsetters say (and I paraphrase greatly here) is to base your self-image on stuff like how hard you worked and knowing that you are at least prepared to reflect and learn. This way, one bad experience won’t destroy your self-image and you know that you have the capability to handle bad situations and maybe even grow as a result… Hope that makes sense – the Growth Mindset Bible, by the way, is ‘Mindset’, by Carol Dweck. Maybe worth a read, if you’re interested in this sort of thing?

    1. That sounds like a good approach, at least in developing a less perfectionistic contingent self-esteem. But on the other hand, I don’t know if that would develop true and intrinsic self-esteem. Maybe the Growth Mindset approach you mention could be useful in relation to overcoming achievement-related anxieties about one’s abilities. Yet a contingent self-esteem should never be substituted for intrinsic self-esteem. That substitution is what makes it false. We each need an unconditional sense of self-worth at our core. With that in place, one can grow in healthy, sustainable ways on a stable foundation.

  13. I am trying actively as a trauma (not victim) survivor and abuse (not victim) survivor of multiple forms to place value on my life, myself, see my worth, not just everyone else’s. It is still hard. Yet it is a journey and being mindful, practicing affirmations, journaling, and practicing—actively practicing gratitude—does help change your mindset. I hope to meet this goal one day.

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