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 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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18 thoughts on “Intrinsic Self-Esteem: What It Is and Why We Need It”
Good blog. I missed the original posts, so I will have to go back and read them. I wanted to say a few things about this one for now.
First, before I forget, let me say that if you haven’t done so yet, you should look into the works of Dr. Nathaniel Branden. He is considered the “father” of the importance of self-esteem in psychology.
Now on with my comments on the content.
Self-esteem is of major importance to me because many people have misunderstood the concept and therefore cheapened it. (If you want to see the depth of the misunderstanding, I should show you the responses I got when I left a comment on a George Carlin video where he actually BASHED self-esteem. Let’s just say George wasn’t the only one who misunderstood the term.)
In fact, it is so important that I tried incorporating discussions of it (and mental health in general) on a YouTube channel I run that is devoted to the martial art Wing Chun Kung Fu. Why? Because I think it is the most neglected area of training, and of life in general. Think about it this way: with poor mental health, you don’t want to get out of bed to even do the things you HAVE to do, let alone “optional” things like martial arts training, so I posted content about it.
Sadly, the significance of my point was lost on many. My viewership dropped while I was posting that content. It’s funny; people tell you that if you want to succeed, you need to think, “How can I be different from the thousands of other channels out there that are about the same topic?” Then I FIND a way to be different, and people tell me it’s TOO different…now can you get back to videos where you show us how to use Wing Chun to kick a$$, please? I’ll never understand it.
At any rate…
The way you describe “contingent self-esteem” makes me think of the term “self-confidence,” which many people think is interchangeable with self-esteem. Of course, it isn’t. I can feel like I play guitar pretty good but still feel like a crappy person. (You understand this, but many people don’t.)
Personally, I don’t think “contingent” self-esteem is needed. If you have true self-esteem, what need would a person have for it? After all, once you have your permanent driver’s license, you’ll never again pull out the temporary one for identification purposes.
Now I want to talk about two of the misunderstandings you mentioned.
“…that one should not feel self-esteem, or its opposite, in terms of good or bad things one has done.”
>>Feeling good about an accomplishment is NOT self-esteem. Self-esteem comes from within; accomplishments are external. Also, you shouldn’t have lowered self-esteem simply because you did something wrong; you might feel GUILTY over it, you might learn from it, etc., but it shouldn’t cause a hit to your self-esteem.
“…we should feel great about ourselves regardless of what we did or didn’t do…”
>>>This is one I have heard, and it is just plain silly. If you went down the street and kicked every dog you saw in the throat, but then still felt great about yourself…well, you don’t have self-esteem. You have DELUSIONS. You live in a state of denial. Self-esteem is based on reality. It does NOT mean you sweep every dirty, nasty little secret under a rug. To have true self-esteem, you need to be able to face your positive AND negative qualities.
You need to be honest about yourself as a whole, not just the parts that make you look good. There is a quote from the book/movie SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK, spoken by the character Tiffany Maxwell, that sums up this point perfectly:
“There will always be a part of me that is sloppy and dirty, but I like that, just like all the other parts of myself. I can forgive. Can you say the same for yourself, f***er?”
(I used the asterisks to keep this as family-friendly as I could.)
Thank you so much for your thorough contributions in that comment, Steve, and for mentioning Nathaniel Branden. You make a lot of great points.
I’m also sorry to hear about the sort of reception you’ve received in the past when publishing content on the self-esteem topic. It does seem like culturally, there’s a kind of “knee-jerk” interpretive reaction in which the mind interprets ‘self-esteem’ as *contingent* self-esteem, almost as if we can’t imagine another kind. I suspect this may say a lot about our collective psyche and state of mental health.
Maybe the hostility and misunderstanding can be used as a “learning moment” or “teaching moment,” at least for the more open minded or more thoughtful readers/viewers?
I don’t even pretend to know why people react the way they do. For example, on the George Carlin video, all I did was point out how what George was criticizing actually wasn’t self-esteem. Plus, he wasn’t even criticizing it in a way that made sense.
Here’s a paraphrase: “Studies have shown that self-esteem will NOT help you get better grades or land better jobs.”
Um…okay…so…who said it DOES do those things?
The way you get better grades is STUDYING.
The way you get better jobs is by knowing what you’re talking about, having good experience, and making a good impression at the interview.
Whoever said self-esteem guarantees those things is an idiot, and quite honestly George was a bit of an idiot himself for not realizing that. I mean, that’s like saying, “This hammer is a bad tool because it couldn’t cut that 4×4 in half.”
But God forbid you criticize the one and only George Carlin! People went ballistic. One person left a comment like, “Haha, yeah, right. I guess George should have asked YOU before he wrote that bit.”
Another person wrote, “If you’re a sh*tty person, then you should feel like sh*t, period.”
Of course, even though I saw the pool of quicksand there, I marched forward instead of going around it and fired back: “I didn’t say anything about what kind of person anyone is. I said what he is talking about is not actual self-esteem.”
The same YouTuber wrote back and said, “Clearly my point went right over your head. You must have Down syndrome or something.”
Well, that reply said all I needed to know. This is the kind of person who will never admit someone else has a point, or that they are wrong. Even when they are cornered, and the only choice they face is to indeed admit they are wrong, they will resort to cheap shots like that.
So yes, it could be a teachable moment but, like you said, only for those are willing to be receptive. You can’t expect that from a fool who would leave that sort of comment. LOL
I’ve noticed that sort of thing with a lot of stand-up comics. What I mean is, misinterpreting something in order to make a joke. Not that I’m against it, but sometimes people (including myself) get attached to thinking that an intentional misreading for the sake of humor is actually a true and profound critique. Maybe we make the mistake in part because comics can also function as valuable social critics.
I like to think it can be instructive for people who read the comments section, and who weren’t involved in the exchange, to see what you said and the contrast with the almost troll-ish attack responses.
If you like, I could give you access to check out the self-esteem videos. They are on YouTube as “unlisted,” so only those who have the link can find them. I wouldn’t expect you to watch them ALL (I believe I stopped when I had 200!), but then you would have the link to watch whenever you felt like it.
Thanks, Steve. I’d be interested in watching some of those videos. Not sure what the simplest way to send me the link is (I take it you don’t want to include it in a comment). You could drop it in the contact form at my philosophical consulting/counseling page https://philosophicadvising.com/contact-me/. Or, Wise and Shine also has a Contact page.
I tried looking for it in my comments history, but it seems like they are nowhere to be found. I also tried looking up “George Carlin self-esteem” on YouTube. Although I found quite a few versions of it, I could NOT relocate my comments.
However, I did remember something else George said, which was something to the effect of: “You know who has self-esteem? Criminals! Yeah! As it turns out, criminals think really highly of themselves.”
Okay, where do we even begin?
1) Criminals do NOT have self-esteem, for many, many, MANY reasons. Let’s see here.
(a) They brag about things they did; in other words, those are their ACHIEVEMENTS, and true self-esteem does not come from achievements. (Combine that with the fact that their “Achievements” are often about duping people, manipulating people, ripping people off, etc. If you need to face reality to have self-esteem, and their world is a celebration of lies…well, then that leads us back to the same conclusion: they do NOT have true self-esteem.)
(b) Let’s build on the second word from the previous point: “Bragging.” This is the equivalent of a cat puffing itself up to look huge to scare off an aggressor. It is an ILLUSION. Boasting is not self-esteem. It is something they do to create an appearance so that other criminals won’t mess with them. Again, it’s not reality.
2) Even if criminals DID have true self-esteem, let me ask this: SO WHAT? I just don’t understand the point George is trying to make by saying that. In my mind, the only conclusion I even come near is through the Socratic method:
(a) Criminals have high self-esteem.
(b) I have high self-esteem.
(c) I am a criminal.
I can’t imagine what else he could have been trying to say, but that is how it comes off to me. “Since criminals have high self-esteem, then getting high self-esteem for yourself isn’t a lofty, worthwhile goal.” That is intrinsically, thoroughly, 100% foolish.
Or is he saying that having high self-esteem like a criminal means you have something IN COMMON with a criminal? Well, I already have something in common with them long before you touch upon the topic of self-esteem: criminals are human, and so am I. Should I feel bad about that too?
I just wish I could find the video that had my comments and the troll retorts!
Haha, it’s all so confusing, isn’t it!
Aw, damn…I looked at my YouTube account and realized that, even though all the videos are there, I NEVER got around to compiling them on a playlist. I don’t want to send you 200 individual links, so I will need to get to work on that! 🙂
Okay, thank you, Steve!
Well, I got that playlist organized, and I sent it to you via the “contact” link on your site. 🙂
Thank you, Steven, I just saw it!
“Contingent means dependent on [other things], conditional upon [other things]… Ineliminable anxiety thus ensues. This helps no one and nothing.” Ain’t that the truth.
This is a really helpful post to clarify a lot of the blanket misapplication, or misidentification, of what self-esteem is and what different forms it might take. I will have to take a look at your previous posts as well to read more of your thoughts on this.
Thank you, Sophy. I thought Gabor Mate discussed it very helpfully in his “Scattered” book. Interestingly, it’s a book primarily about AD(H)D.
“No, the problem is when intrinsic self-esteem is so lacking that an attempt is made to replace it with merely contingent self-esteem.” That makes so much sense. What an interesting post, SeekerFive. Thank you!
Thanks for reading, Wynne!
I really appreciate this post and follow-up since I also missed the initial versions.
I have been trying to tease this one out for myself since I was little. I think I have always had a pretty good grasp on the intrinsic vs contingent understanding, but I have been mingling ideas of self esteem with self confidence, as was pointed out in the first comment.
My core sense of self has been remarkably solid, given how lost and confused I often feel about the trajectory I feel I am on (or rather, missing). There have been many attempts made to tack myself onto following what has worked for other people, but it never feels genuine. I find myself unable to be someone other than I am, and I believe that this has a lot to do with the quality of intrinsic self esteem that you are highlighting here.
Where I have been struggling, is that at the same time as I find myself charting a course away from what most people think of as “normal”, and even away from choices that many people would make for convenience , I still find myself lacking in self confidence, and also partially in contingent self respect. I am trying to follow the deep call of myself, and yet I often have little confidence that I am up for the task.
Seeing that there can be a difference between esteem and confidence is actually very helpful for me as I think more about my life’s project. It gives me clarity that my sense of what is valuable can remain strong even if I have doubts about where and how I am doing in my pursuit. Addressing confidence can perhaps be taken up as a separate matter without questioning who I am.
Thank you and those who have added to the conversation.
Thank you very much, Andy. I’m sure you will find further answers as you continue to seek.
You might also find interesting a research- and tradition-backed idea in a fairly recent book by Kristin Neff called “Self-Compassion.” Dr. Neff suggests that self-compassion may be a more useful idea, and a more useful quality and intention, than self-esteem.
My current impression is that she is probably right about this, and I intend to write some posts about this eventually. The book is inexpensive and contains practical guidance.