Two years ago, I published two short posts about the difference intrinsic or true self-esteem and merely contingent self-esteem; the importance of intrinsic self-esteem; and the problem with only having contingent self-esteem. I think it’s time to revisit this topic. Having reviewed the old posts, they seem good to me. However, some of the comments suggest that this is a matter which is difficult to communicate clearly about. Even if things are said directly and straightforwardly, the matter is unfamiliar, it is not easy to express unambiguously in language, and there is perhaps a good deal of quite understandable mental resistance to it. So let’s revisit this absolutely crucial topic. (I’ll link to the old posts about it below).
Intrinsic self-esteem may also be called true self-esteem, but here, I’m going to stick with intrinsic.
Intrinsic self-esteem: This is “the quality of self-respect that is evident in a person’s emotional life and behavior” (Mate 236). This is not “respect” in the sense of being impressed with someone’s achievement, status, or even skill, but is more about love and acceptance. It “has nothing to do with a self-evaluation on the basis of achievement or the lack of it” (Mate 238).
Contingent self esteem: This is conditional, or “contingent,” as contrasted with intrinsic. It derives from self-evaluation based on achievements and other such matters external to the self. Properly, it would be not so much an evaluation of the self but of achievements etc. However, although based on things external to the self, it is often felt and thought as an evaluation of one’s very self.
Clarifying Possible Misunderstandings
Based in part on some of the comments, I noticed at at least three possible misunderstandings of what I sought to convey in the older posts about true self esteem.
1. That I was saying no contingent self-esteem should exist. I certainly did not mean this, although perhaps it’s a separate question that deserves its own consideration. Yet in this current post, it should be clear I’m allowing that contingent self-esteem may have its own functionality.
2. That one should not feel self-esteem as the result of what one has done or accomplished. I didn’t mean this. Or conversely, that one should not feel a lack of self esteem, or what we might call self disesteem, if one has done bad things. I didn’t mean that either. Such manifestations of contingent self-esteem, it seems, can be functional and not unreasonable. It’s just that one needs a ground of intrinsic self-esteem as well.
3. That I was saying contingent self-esteem should be intrinsic. In other words, that I meant we should feel great about ourselves regardless of what we did or didn’t do, in a way that could be unconscientious and demotivating. But I certainly did not mean we should believe ourselves to have accomplished great things and to be perfect exemplars of humanity, though we had actually acted viciously or had made no effort to do our part.
The Proper Functions of Each
No, the problem is when intrinsic self-esteem is so lacking that an attempt is made to replace it with merely contingent self-esteem. But contingent self-esteem cannot perform the function of intrinsic self esteem. Moreover, contingent self esteem (or disesteem) cannot perform its own function without the grounding of intrinsic self esteem. Intrinsic self-esteem serves as a core basis of self-love and acceptance, which empowers one to be a good person, to self-correct, take risks, achieve, admit failures and wrongdoings, to treat others with respect, etc. Contingent self-esteem, with a grounding in intrinsic self-esteem, might evaluate how we act and what we achieve, without that crucial core of self-respect, -love, and -acceptance coming under threat of invalidation.
The importance of intrinsic self-esteem also relates close to the matter of compassion and appropriate personal boundaries: see my post Compassion and Personal Boundaries: No Conflict At All.
The Problem with Leaning Entirely on the Contingent
To understand this better, consider that contingent self-esteem, by definition even if implicitly, does not and cannot truly esteem the self. It esteems, or disesteems, actions, accomplishments, and so forth. Even if there is esteem, it is really for the action, for the achievement, and not for you yourself. It cannot truly provide a sense of self–esteem. This of course is not necessarily a problem with contingent self-esteem itself. It is, however, the problem with contingent self-esteem taking the place of intrinsic self esteem. The two types need to work in tandem, cooperatively, with the intrinsic grounding the contingent.
Lacking intrinsic self-esteem, one seeks grounding in contingent. But the contingent is contingent. Contingent means dependent on [other things], conditional upon [other things]. It cannot provide a secure ground. Ineliminable anxiety thus ensues. This helps no one and nothing. One’s most core self perception, most core sense of self and feelings about oneself, one’s core intentional state toward oneself, are always and essentially under threat. How can anxiety not arise? It is chronic, it is related to everything and nothing, and no action or accomplishment can remove it, though they might cover it over.
I want to reiterate here that possessing intrinsic self esteem does not remove motivations and conscientiousness related to actions and accomplishments. On the contrary, it empowers these. It grounds these, allows one to admit mistakes and failings, allows one to fully feel pride and satisfaction at accomplishments, and to feel this without it becoming ego-inflating and disparaging of others.
I realize it would be fitting to write about remedying this, and will attempt to do so in future.
The two previous posts about intrinsic (true) and contingent self-esteem:
*The quotations and citations are from and to Gabor Mate’s Scattered (also published as Scattered Minds).
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