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Chapter 1 - Definition of Self-Esteem

Before figuring out how to improve self-esteem, you must first understand what it is.   The cartoon above offers as good a definition as any.  Self-esteem is the value you place on yourself and your assessment of your abilities to get what you want out of life.  Unfortunately, most people think self-esteem is something you can or must earn from others and society.   Self-esteem is one of those personal attributes that if you try to achieve it from the outside, you will never earn enough to be satisfied.  You will always be chasing after more.


Self-esteem is the value you place on yourself and your abilities.

C. W. Sooter


Self-esteem is an appreciation for one's own worth, importance, and capabilities.  Self-esteem is learned and not earned.  Low self-esteem comes from input received and believed from other people, especially our families, peers, and authority figures when we were too young to know any better.    Initially, judgments regarding your worth came only from external sources, but at some point in your development, these conditional notions regarding your self-concept become so ingrained that you started to believe them.   Eventually, your judgments of yourself, your self-views, came from both external and internal sources.  A grouping of irrational beliefs eventually gelled and coalesced to form, what is called in this hand book as, your inner critic.  Your inner critic took over where your judgmental parents, caregivers, and/or authority figures left off.   After a long period of ‘brainwashing’ you were trained and conditioned to only feel good about yourself if you followed the rules, shoulds, and dictates of your inner critic.   Your self-esteem was now conditional; you had to follow the irrational beliefs, planted in your subconscious during childhood, before you could feel worthy of being you.  People with low self-esteem have a distorted picture of themselves and what they have to do, be, and have to be worthy of their parent’s approval, acceptance, and love.[1]    Even without the originating source of your self-concept (parents for example), your inner critic has taken over the job of directing you behavior in the never ending quest to gain and keep your self-esteem. 


Self-esteem is learned and not earned.

C. W. Sooter


Many authorities divide self-esteem into two parts.  The first part is based on self-trust or a belief that you have the ability to perform well enough to satisfy their wants and needs.  The second part is the feeling of worthiness, that you deserves to have your wants and needs satisfied.    Both of these two aspects of self-esteem are intricately connected.  The associated beliefs about competency and worthiness tend to develop in early childhood from the people that you interact with, namely your parents and other significant caregivers.  


Your inner beliefs determine your self-esteem.

C. W. Sooter


According to Saul Gellerman, “The first two basic components of self-esteem are a feeling of being lovable (often sustained by relationships with others) and a feeling of being competent (often sustained by work performance).  There is a complete lack of consensus about what makes anyone worthy or unworthy.  Everyone must learn realistic ways to sustain their self-esteem through a mixture of social, athletic, work, love, and intellectual activities.   An exclusive focus on just one of these sources such as love or work is problematic because both are essential to psychological health. Attempting to derive one's self-esteem from purely physical qualities tends to undermine self-esteem.  Superficial values may diminish self-esteem.  To truly sustain your sense of self-worth, you need a system of relationships with people who nourish your feelings of competence through their approval.”[2]  Still, these views suggest that self-esteem must be earned in some way via the approval of others.   The notion that self-esteem is based on external or conditional considerations is called pseudo-self-esteem, and it is a weak form that must be continually fed to maintain itself.  The lasting and stable form of self-esteem is independent of others and external conditions.  The strong and stable form of self-esteem is based on being the best you are capable of being.  Achieving and maintaining self-esteem is that simple.   The only necessary and sufficient condition needed for strong self-esteem is being the person you were created to be


Self-Esteem is Learned


You were not born with self-esteem.  When you were born, your subconscious was more or less an empty slate waiting for your identity to be defined by your experiences and your innate being of who God wanted you to become.  Based on distorted messages sent by your parents, caregivers, and early authority figures and received and stored in your subconscious, you slowly but progressively formed both an identity, self-views of how the world worked and what you had to do to survive, and a worth that you placed on yourself for being able to cope in that world.   Your self-concept, your identity, and self-esteem were all learned, and learned early in childhood as shown in Figure 1 below.   You most important influence on who you are today were your parents (1).  You received constant messages from your parents as to whether your behaviors were pleasing or not to them (2).  You quickly learned what you had to do and to be in order to gain their love and acceptance.   If your parents, in their ignorance and inexperience, erroneously did a bad parenting job on you, then irrational beliefs were impressed (programmed) into your subconscious where they formed, hardened, and remain to this day (3).  “A parent’s style of child-rearing during the first three to four years determines the amount of self-esteem that a child starts with.”[3]  It is these irrational beliefs (5) that are behind the voice of your inner critic (4).  Originally, your inner critic serviced an important function, which was to keep you safe within your parent’s zany and muddled world by forcing you to obey their seemingly chaotic and confusing rules.  But later, as you left your parents and became an adult, your parental influences may have ceased but your inner critic still remained.  Hence, your low self-esteem is what you emerged from child with and it is seemingly impervious to change.  Your inner critic has taken over the function of managing you where your parents left off.  The inner critic has never learned any better coping strategies that the ones originally programmed within your subconscious when you were a child.  Even though you are now a grown adult, you still respond to the dictates of your inner critic and you still carry the burden of a low self-esteem as a result.  The only way to undo the damage is to unlearn the irrational beliefs you’ve been carrying around in your head all these years and get rid of your inner critic.


Since low self-esteem is learned, it can be unlearned.

C. W. Sooter




Responsibility means accepting the consequences of your actions.  If you are highly aware of the cost of your actions and are willing to pay the price, you will choose relatively wise actions, and have fewer occasions to label your actions after the fact as mistakes (with attendant regret).  Regardless of how you initially acquired your low self-esteem, you are ultimately responsible for your actions because you will inevitably pay the price in terms of the consequences.  Becoming a more responsible person means increasing your awareness of the price you pay for your actions.   Low self-esteem means you are later surprised and dismayed at the cost of your decision.[4]     


If you don’t have positive self-views and a healthy self-regard for yourself, then low self-esteem is no one’s fault but your own.   You many not have been the primary cause of low self-esteem (most likely your parents, caregivers, or early authority figures are most responsible), but you have passively chosen to accept it, which now makes you responsible for fixing it.  A low self-esteem was not issued to you at birth.  The universe is likewise blameless, since the universe doesn’t care one way or the other.  If you suffer from low self-esteem, you chose to keep it and passively accepted it as the truth about yourself.   The universe did not give you low self-esteem.  By accepting responsibility, you accept the burden of fixing what is not right.


The Universe is neutral.

C. W. Sooter


Sure, you might have had some help in developing a low self-esteem as shown in Figure 1.  Other significant people in your life may have contributed a stream of toxic verbal messages, telling you on multiple occasions that you are “stupid”, “worthless”, “incompetent”, or any number of negative labels, which you might have hung on to.   Anyone can understand how a constant barrage of negative labels could affect someone… if they choose to accept, believe, and act on these assessments.   


In fact, this is how most people with negative assessments of their self-worth come to believe they are not good enough (unless they followed the dictates of their inner critic), because someone they believed (most likely their parents) told them so.  The origin of low self-esteem most often starts with other people; the people in familial relationships who should have loved you unconditionally and in more nurturing and positive ways.   The significant people in your life damaged your self-esteem…perhaps unwittingly trying to motivate you to do better and try harder.  Instead, as a child, their cutting words of rebuke were misconstrued and internalized as a reflection of your character and worth.  These harsh works alienated you and made you feel different and separate from the rest of the family or social group.


A telltale sign of low self-esteem is isolation and guardedness against the rest of the world.  Low self-esteem leads one to feel and act as if they were isolated from the world and in competition with its members.  If you believe that there is only so much self-esteem to go around and that everyone is in competition for the limited supply, you will respond non-cooperative with others in the world.   Fortunately, the sources of self-esteem, like happiness, have an inexhaustible supply.  There is plenty for everyone. 


If you feel isolated, because you were made to feel different or somewhat less than acceptable, then your sense of separateness blocks your connectedness with the world.  You may feel you are somehow deficient or not good enough to fit it.    In reality, everyone is as much connected to everything as they are separated.   The degree of connectedness is just a matter of personal choice.  You need not live in isolation, with low self-esteem, which is a defense mechanism designed to protest your ego from the harsh criticisms of others.  “The Buddhist monks believe that the sense of separation is illusory.   Without the barrier of inner thoughts and emotions, one becomes part of everything happening around you.  Egolessness is a condition of being non-separate from the rest of the world and being connected to the “infinite intelligence” that exists in the world.   Whenever you need to be more (capable) than you are, you need only tap into the infinite intelligence of the universe by lowering your own ego and sense of separation from the world.   You can gain more connectedness with the world by simply closing your eyes and mediating in a quiet place.   Allow your mind to wander, acknowledge what it sees, but bring it back to focus on anything neutral such as your breathing or the blackness behind your eyes.[5]  


No matter how these negative assessments were imparted to you from others, if you continue to buy into it, your own assessment of your self-worth will suffer.   There will be a constant stream of opportunities where others might associate your self-worth with your mistakes, faults, errors, failures, and fallibilities, because everyone is fallible.  EVERYONE is fallible to some extent or another.   Thus, you and everyone else are all in a constant struggle to withstand the assault by other people’s negativity that has the potential to bring your self-esteem down if you don’t resist it.


Negativity must be resisted; otherwise, it will lower your self-esteem.

C. W. Sooter


It is up to everyone to nurture their own self-esteem and to sustain it at high levels for their own good.  Your self-esteem is a key factor in determining your circumstances, including success and happiness.  Since nothing is more important than the value you place on yourself, you should do whatever it takes to develop and maintain a positive self-esteem. If you are not satisfied with your personal circumstances, you are free to change them.  The process of change will require that you modify the toxic and irrational beliefs you hold about yourself and your self-esteem.  “Self-esteem influences circumstances.  So, if you change your self-esteem, you have the ability to change your circumstances. You don't really change your circumstance until you change how to think about them.”[6]


Boosting Self-Esteem


To raise your self-esteem requires that you do these two things, 1) learning to think in healthy ways about yourself (your self-views) and 2) developing the ability to make things happen, to set and to achieve goals, which is a process that can be learned.  The first part of these two conditions can be fixed just by developing new mental habits regarding your self-talk.  By adding positive affirmations and visualizing yourself as living confidently and viably as your natural self, without any preconditions, you can learn to overpower your inner critic.    The second condition regarding ability needs an explanation.  The ability to make things happen does not necessarily mean achieving success or achievement, as these are measures of output which you may not be able to control.  Rather the ability to make things happen refers to the ability and the exercise of that ability to act on your behalf to the best of your ability, the equanimity to accept the results you get, and the persistence to keep hamming away at your goals if they are still relevant.   In other words, the focus of goal-seeking is placed on the intention to achieve goals and the continuity of actions you take on your own behalf.  The best place to start improving your circumstances is to “place most of your attention on just where you are.”[7]  


“Every criterion ever devised for measuring human worth is dependent on it cultural context.   Human worth is just an abstract concept.  Worth is equally distributed by nature.  So, choose to define yourself worthy, independent of any external standard, or choose to accept yourself despite any handicaps (you might perceive yourself as having).”[8]  A more realistic and useful measure of self worth would be based, not on not your results and accomplishments, but instead, your willingness to keep trying despite your results.


Never define yourself by your shortfall, handicaps, and failures

C. W. Sooter


There is no faster way to build self-esteem in yourself, as well as others wherein you might have a leadership role,  than by immediately ceasing all destructive criticisms and judgments   Criticism of others will come back to haunt you twice.  You cause damage first from the resentment of others towards you, and secondly, you are reflecting the opinions of your own inner critic which will level the same criticism against you if you fail to live up to your own standards.   If you finding yourself criticizing others for things they ‘shouldn’t’ do, you need to take note.  First, “you should not expect people to be any different than they are.  To blame someone is to say they should be different than they are.  Second, every time you make a value judgment about another person, you are priming your critic to level the same judgments at you.”[9] Your inner critic applies the same set of irrational beliefs, rules, and shoulds to others as well as to yourself. 


In your quest to find the irrational beliefs behind your inner critic’s voice, look at the way you judge others, because those are the same standards your inner critic is levying against you.  If you can’t live up to these standards or if you are using these standards to measure your own worthiness or demands for satisfaction before you can feel worthy, you are putting your self-esteem at risk.  “The primary reason for failure and unhappiness in life is low self-esteem.  Because of their low self-esteem, most people become completely concerned with themselves and their own feelings to the exclusion of the feelings of others (isolation and separateness).”[10]   The reason people become so driven to become what their inner critic demands of them is to achieve some measure of self-respect and a sense of worth, which is entirely unnecessary as a healthy self-esteem doesn’t have to be earned.  A healthy self-esteem comes from living life as best one can, given who they were created to be.  Achievement is not part of the self-esteem equations, but people with higher self-esteem are more confident and have greater success in achieving the goals they set for themselves.


A strong self-esteem doesn’t have to be earned, just learned.

C. W. Sooter


Sense of Personal Significance


Everyone strives for significance…to know that his or her life is now and has been worthwhile.  An effective cure for feelings of insignificance is simply to find someone who needs your help,  reach out to them, and render assistance.  To make a difference in the world, you only have to share your life with other people.  With your friendship, you have the power to give to others ‘the pieces of their puzzle’ that they fail to see which can help make their life complete.  Ralph Waldo Emerson suggests that your sense of significance comes from leaving the world a better place, whether by raising a healthy child, producing a garden patch, redeeming a social condition, or making an effort so that even one life has breathed easier because you lived, that is to have succeeded. 


Boosting Self-Worth


Self-worth is only a matter of personal opinion - YOURS.  So, if you get to choose your worth, why not give yourself the benefit of the doubt.  “If you feel unworthy, you will act under that mentality.  If you don't respect yourself, you can't expect to attract the respect or love of others.”[11]  To feel worthy, you need only think of yourself as worthy and then act as a person would act ‘as if’ they were worthy.


Personal worth is an inappropriate and even dangerous concept, because it implies the concept of unworthiness.   People are not worthy because they are effective nor are they worthless because they are ineffective.  People are just what God made them to be.  The only thing that might distinguish one person from another is the effort they made to live to their full potential.  If you choose to live a ‘less-than’ life, as opposed to a ‘more-than’ life, then shame on you.  You will have wasted a perfectly good life.  “If you live life happily and love yourself, you still will not be a more worthwhile person, only happier.”[12]


You must earnestly want a healthy self-esteem before you will be willing to do what it takes to achieve it.  The solution to the disability of a poor self-esteem is both harder and easier than you might imagine.  A low self-esteem is the product of learning; thus, the cure is unlearning.  But learning anything, like a foreign language, takes time and patience and faith that if you persist, you will get where you want to go.




A self-esteem that is based on conditional requirements is learned, most often in childhood, when a child is developing, learning, and absorbing everything about his environment and how he fits into it.   If a child learns the wrong lessons, the erroneous information can cause problems in their ability to function well later in life.  Low self-esteem is a product of learning the wrong lessons of life.  “Reality is our classroom.  The lessons become an automatic part of our daily life.”[13]  However, it is possible to get what you should learn wrong, and if you do, then you need to unlearn so you can relearn the right lessons.          


The only lasting cure to low self-esteem is to dissolve the inner critic by unlearning and then to relearning the right lessons.  The irrational beliefs that are behind the inner critic, and low self-esteem, must be replaced by their rational equivalent.  The cure for low self-esteem is relearning, a matter of reeducation, which takes time.   There is no other cure for a low self-esteem except a complete makeover of some core believes that just happen to be irrational.  You can not cure low self-esteem by becoming rich and famous.  Self-esteem is not contingent upon anything, except perhaps you doing your best.  Self-esteem is not based on any preconditions.   For example, self-esteem is not based on the successful achievement of goals. You might be able to build self-confidence by achieving goals, which will help you feel better about yourself, for a while, but eventually, your inner critic will demand that you prove yourself again and again.  You will caught in be a never-ending cycle of proving your worth, because your worth is based on achieving success.


Low self-esteem is a product of learning the wrong lessons of life.

C. W. Sooter


A healthy self-esteem is based on an unconditional acceptance of you as you are, doing the best you can to be the person you are capable of being.  If you believe you must be, do, or have something in your life before you can consider yourself to be worthy and good enough to be you, then you have an unhealthy self-esteem.  The only way to restore a healthy self-esteem is to remove the preconditions, which are the irrational beliefs resident in your subconscious.   Once you eradicate your inner critic, you will be free to be the person you were truly meant to be.


The solution to low self-esteem is reeducation.

C. W. Sooter


You will have a healthy self-esteem when you can accept yourself unconditionally.

C. W. Sooter


In summary, just because you are human and make mistakes and errors, and people derided you for it, doesn’t mean that you are incompetent and not worthy to live a normal and happy life.   Everyone makes mistakes of both commission and omission.[14]  The problem of mistakes, errors, and failure on self-esteem begins when you believe that you should be better than you are and that as you are, you are not good enough…that somehow you must strive to be better before you and others can accept you.   As a result of this irrational thinking, you may push yourself toward goals whose only purpose is to prove to yourself and others that you are indeed good enough, rather than pursue goals that reflect your uniqueness and personal desires.


This handbook presents many ways to build and maintain self-esteem.   All these methods are based on relearning or more specifically, a healthy self-esteem is based on removing every conditional element you might have placed in front of yourself before you can feel good about yourself.  The cure for low self-esteem to get rid of your inner critic by taking away the source that feeds it, your irrational beliefs.


The best time to start improving your self-esteem is now.  Consider the methods you learn in this handbook for boosting self-esteem as ways to inoculate yourself against the continual assault against your self-worth from your inner critic.  Use what you learn to modify your self-views and self-talk and incorporate them into your daily routines so that they become as natural as brushing your teeth.  Eventually, the influence from your inner critic will diminish to the point that you are free of the burden of proving your self-worth, and you will always feel that you are good enough to be who you are. 


When you believe you are good enough to be who you are, you will be.

C. W. Sooter



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[1] David Brooks & Rex Dalby, The Self-Esteem Manual

[2] Saul Gellerman, Motivation in the Real World

[3] Matthew McKay & Patrick Fanning, Self-Esteem

[4] Matthew McKay & Patrick Fanning, Self-Esteem

[5] Janaro & Altshuler

[6] Matthew McKay and Patrick Fanning, Self-Esteem 3rd Edition

[7] Gay Hendricks, The Big Leap

[8] Matthew McKay and Patrick Fanning, Self-Esteem 3rd Edition

[9] Matthew McKay & Patrick Fanning, Self-Esteem

[10] Brian Tracy, Maximum Achievement

[11] Les Brown, It’s not Over until You Win!

[12] Albert Ellis & Robert Harper, A Guide to Rational Living

[13] David Brooks & Rex Dalby,  The Self-Esteem Manual

[14] Patricia Wiklund, Taking Charge when You’re not in Control