Is Self-Esteem Healthy? What Kind of Self-Esteem Is Unhealthy?

Some forms of self-esteem are unhealthy. What makes for low self-esteem, high self-esteem, and achieving self-acceptance? Conference transcript.

Some forms of self-esteem are unhealthy. What makes for low self-esteem, high self-esteem, and achieving unconditional self-acceptance? You may need to change your way of thinking to improve your feelings of self-worth.


Robert F. Sarmiento, Ph. D., our guest, is a licensed psychologist in practice in Houston since 1976. He specializes in short-term results using Rational-Emotive Therapy and has counseled over 2500 individuals and families. He is on the national Board of Directors of S.M.A.R.T. Recovery. Dr. Sarmiento also has extensive experience in psychological and career testing, having evaluated over 4500 people.

David Roberts is the moderator.

The people in blue are audience members.

David: Good Evening. I'm David Roberts, the moderator for tonight's conference. I want to welcome everyone to

Our topic tonight is: "Is Self-Esteem Healthy?" Our guest is Dr. Robert Sarmiento. He is a practicing psychologist in Houston, Texas. Dr. Sarmiento maintains that some forms of self-esteem are not healthy at all.

Good evening, Dr. Sarmiento, and welcome to Thank you for being our guest tonight. So we are all on the same track, what is your definition of self-esteem?

Dr. Sarmiento: Thanks for having me. There are many ways of defining self-esteem, but the sense in which I mean it being unhealthy is when we rate ourselves highly based on some external criteria, like success.

David: Why would that be unhealthy?

Dr. Sarmiento: Basically, what goes up can come down. High self-esteem and self-downing are the flip sides of the same coin. They are both global ratings of self-worth based on arbitrary and over-generalized criteria. For example, feeling you are a success when you do well, and feeling down on yourself when you fail.

David: But, isn't our self-esteem really based on how others react to us? If someone goes "wow! , you are really successful" (in whatever way that means), then we feel good. Conversely, if we are "put-down", then we feel bad.

Dr. Sarmiento: How others think of us is often a basis for measuring our self-worth, although by no means the only one. People often rate themselves based on success, perfection, attractiveness, wealth, piety, and other "yardsticks".

David: What, then, would be your definition of "healthy" self-esteem?

Dr. Sarmiento: Self-esteem, in the sense we have been talking about it, is conditional self-worth. In other words, I'm okay as long as I am approved or successful or loved, or whatever. The alternative is Unconditional Self-Acceptance (USA), which means you don't rate your total self-worth at all. You simply acknowledge the fact that you are what and who you are - a fallible human being.

David: We have a lot of questions coming in, so I want to get to those in a minute. I'm wondering then what concrete suggestions you have for achieving "healthy" self-esteem.

Dr. Sarmiento: There are many ways to achieve unconditional self-acceptance. Just one simple example is an "Official Human Being License" I give clients. On the back, it says that as a human being, you have the right to make mistakes, not be universally loved and admired, have shortcomings, and so on. The most important thing, though, is to learn emotional management skills. This involves changing how you think.

David: And on that note, we'll start with the audience questions:

teddybear44: So how do you change your way of thinking?

Dr. Sarmiento: It takes learning a number of skills and it takes practice, practice, practice. One set of skills to do this is called Rational-Emotive Behavior Therapy, or REBT.

David: Can you elaborate on that, please?

Dr. Sarmiento: Sure. One skill is identifying your "self-talk". For example, let's say you failed at some task and were feeling down. You might ask yourself, "what am I telling myself that might be making me feel down?" What might be going through your head is a thought like, "I failed at that task, so I am a failure". The underlying belief there, is the idea that to feel successful, I must succeed. This is what I call a "personal stone tablet". The next step is to question your beliefs, as for example, "Why must I do well?" Based on this questioning or disputing, you might change your belief to, "I want to do well, but I won't always, and I'm okay whether I do well or not"

David: Here's one audience member who agrees with you, and then a question:

charlie: You need to think about what are the conclusions that prove the thought.

fishstock: What should we base our self-esteem on?

Dr. Sarmiento: Well, this is a hard concept, but the way out of the self-esteem game is to stop rating your total worth as a human being. It makes sense to rate your performances or qualities, but not your total self-worth. Instead of high self-esteem, which can and will come down, you can strive for unconditional self-acceptance. If you base your self-esteem on any external criteria, you are asking for emotional trouble.


David: In other words, you are saying it's fine to rate an individual performance, but don't make that single performance equal your total self-worth.

Dr. Sarmiento: Exactly! We have numerous performances and acts in our lives, so rating yourself on one, doesn't make sense.

Juler: I understand and agree with what you are saying, Dr. Sarmiento. I recently had a bout with depression and very low self-esteem. But how exactly do you go about achieving unconditional self-acceptance?

Dr. Sarmiento: That is often tough because we like the self-esteem high we get when we do measure up, albeit temporarily. What I am saying is that to get over self-downing, it is necessary to give up high self-esteem. In a sense, high self-esteem is addictive, or certainly seductive. This comes as a shock to people, but high self-esteem isn't just about feeling good about yourself. It is about feeling superior!

By the way, sorry about the bout of depression. I know that can be very painful. When you feel down on yourself, look for the thoughts behind that and start challenging them. It takes practice, but with some work at it, most people can learn to manage their emotions and "un-depress" themselves. Chasing after self-esteem is often behind anxiety too.

kaylee: How do we let go of say, a mistake, before we start that downward spiral we all know so well?

Dr. Sarmiento: It is common to berate ourselves for our mistakes. The way out of that is to separate the deed from the doer. In other words, you can dislike the mistake, but accept that, as a human being, you are going to make mistakes. The underlying belief here is probably, "I must not make mistakes." Once you have identified that belief, question is, like, "Why must I not?" "Is it possible for a human to never make mistakes? You might then change your belief to, "I prefer not to make mistakes, but I will sometimes." That belief will still make you feel disappointed or sorry, but not depressed and down on yourself.

daffyd: Would it be oversimplified to say that the whole objective here is to "think happy thoughts" and focus on the good we do rather than allowing ourselves to dwell on imperfections?

Dr. Sarmiento: That is a good question. It is often better to think happy thoughts and dwell on the positive, but taken to the extreme, that can lead to a Pollyanna outlook. What I am advocating is not just happy thoughts, but realistic thoughts. For example, you might really regret a mistake you made and acknowledge that is was bad, but still not be down on yourself for the mistake. Rational-Emotive Behavior Therapy is not just positive thinking. It is reality-based thinking, which can include acknowledging the negative things in life. The thought here might be, "What I did was a mistake, and I may be worse off for it, but I'm am still the same person."

David: Here are a few audience comments on what's been said so far, then we'll continue with the questions:

kaylee: Maybe that's why I don't like affirmations. They're just like real sweet icing, but you still have what's underneath.

fishstock: I think it's crazy to think you can control feeling good when you succeed or feeling bad when you fail.

Witchey1: Personally, a thank-you from family does wonders on being validated. My husband has been wrong only once in almost the twenty-four years we've been together.

David: One big issue related to self-esteem is the way one looks at their physical appearance. Here are some questions on that, Dr. Sarmiento:

stacynicole: I feel that I am such an ugly person. I am always comparing myself to other women. Thus, I have very low self-esteem. What can I do to improve that? I can't change my looks.

Dr. Sarmiento: I'm sorry to hear about how you feel about yourself and I understand it. First off, you are probably exaggerating about your looks. Secondly, physical appearance is only part of attractiveness. The most important thing, though, is to stop rating your total self-worth on attractiveness. You probably have many desirable qualities, so why rate yourself on just one issue?

It sounds like you have a belief to the effect that to feel worthwhile, you must be attractive. Attractiveness can be a desirable trait, but it is just one of many traits people have. If you base your self-worth on attractiveness, you will be insecure no matter how attractive you are.

I know many attractive women who feel insecure and down on themselves because they think they should be more attractive. Also, they are often afraid they won't keep their looks, so their self-esteem will go in the toilet.

David: Here are a couple of audience comments regarding looks and self-esteem:

Witchey1: Most people are judged by appearance first, though.

psyduck: Beauty does not last forever. We have to love ourselves for who we are.

kaylee: The stuff I like about myself is all invisible and nothing like the rest of my family's values. So when I'm around them, I feel most uncomfortable.

Helen: Based on an earlier comment of yours, do you think managing our emotions (using REBT, say) can totally cure depression or anxiety?

Dr. Sarmiento: Not necessarily. First off, I wouldn't necessarily call it a cure. One way of thinking about depression, is that it is something we do to ourselves, not something that happens to us, like a cold. It is a verb, not a noun. In that sense, emotional well-being is a life-long habit, not a cure. It is like eating right and exercising. Some cases of depression may have a physiological basis, however, so medications might be necessary. However, even in these cases, learning how to manage your emotions can reduce the dosage needed.


Talkalot: In the case of people with eating disorders, they cope with "negative voices" that hammer their self-esteem (eating disorder information). What can be done about that?

Dr. Sarmiento: That can be a tough problem. Again, it is largely a matter of how you think. For example, if you believe you must be attractive and thin to feel worthwhile, you will probably never feel thin enough or attractive enough. The way out of this is to unconditionally accept yourself, not rate your worth on your appearance.

David: Here are a few audience comments on depression and self-esteem:

pennyjo: Depression is so hard to get out of, I wake up depressed and have to fight hard to pull out of it. I am on Paxil for depression and Xanax for anxiety.

kaylee: I'm learning to recognize depression earlier, and dealing with it then. It seems to lessen its icy grip.

daffyd: For me, when I feel good about myself, it is validated through the response I receive from others. But it seems like most people think that others should feel good about their accomplishments, so they can validate themselves.

Witchey1: Yes, I am dysthymic, so most of my days are "gray" along with my feelings of self-worth.

We B 100: I've heard that what we call self-esteem is really self-efficacy. Is this true? And if so, what is self-efficacy exactly?

Dr. Sarmiento: Good question. Another related term is self-confidence. Self-efficacy or confidence can mean an objective rating of your ability. For example, I can tell you I am a lousy golfer. Usually, when people talk about not being self-confident, it is not that kind of objective rating. Rather, it is a global rating of one's total self-worth as a person. In my example, I might jump from thinking I am a lousy golfer to thinking I am therefore a failure as a person. The first part of that is self-efficacy, the second self-esteem, in the global sense we have been talking about.

By the way, I understand that depression can be very painful and difficult. It is certainly nothing we do intentionally. However, the good news is that most people can learn to reduce or eliminate it. A good book on this is "Feeling Good" by David Burns.

Brenda1: My self-esteem was so trampled by my parents' negative comments. How do I rise above that talk in my head, now that I'm an adult?

Dr. Sarmiento: It is unfortunate that you had to suffer such negative comments and it is tough to overcome that. However, you can! The past only influences us to the extent that we allow it to. What I would suggest is that you examine your beliefs. You may have started thinking your parents were right when you were a kid. As you point out, you are grown now and you don't have to keep believing what they said. The other thing is that they probably were upset when they said it or, they thought they were motivating you. They may have had their own issues too. I'm not trying to excuse their actions, but just to help you put it in perspective. Regardless of what happened, you can choose to accept yourself unconditionally now.

David: A few more audience comments:

Sabrinax3: In order to love ourselves, we must accept ourselves totally, faults and virtues, quirks, etc.

Helen: I've heard people say REBT is too hard to do when you're depressed.

Dr. Sarmiento: It can be difficult to do anything, including REBT, when depressed. That's when medications can help. However, it isn't "too hard", it is just hard.

Witchey1: Most people are judged by first impressions, that is appearance, which is also a main attractive quality. There's an old joke, "beauty is only skin deep, but ugly goes right to the bone." How do you get past that type of thinking?

Dr. Sarmiento: Others may judge you by your appearance, and that can have some practical implications. However, you don't have to judge yourself based on that.

Talon: What can be done to raise low self-esteem, when one is consistently and persistently abused by people he or she cannot escape?

Dr. Sarmiento: First off, I would want to make sure that the person literally couldn't escape, or just felt that to be so? If you are in a lousy marriage or job, you could get out of it. If you are in a prisoner of war camp, maybe you can't. Either way, you don't have to take the put-downs to heart. There have been people in prisoner of war or concentration camps who did not give in to despair, despite being in very difficult situations. I know this isn't easy under those circumstances, but it is possible.

invraisemblable: No matter what anyone says, you're the only one who can tell you how great you are. I hated myself for so long because I thought everyone else was somehow better.

deejayh: Saying that we need to accept ourselves unconditionally is easy, understanding what that means and how to get there, well, I have no idea.

David: I want to thank Dr. Sarmiento for coming tonight. I know it's getting late. And thank you to everyone in the audience for participating. Self-esteem is not an easy subject to get a handle on, but Dr. Sarmiento, you did a good job. Thank you again.

Dr. Sarmiento: Thank you for having me. The idea of unconditional self-acceptance is tough at first, but it is very empowering. 

Disclaimer: We are not recommending or endorsing any of the suggestions of our guest. In fact, we strongly encourage you to talk over any therapies, remedies or suggestions with your doctor BEFORE you implement them or make any changes in your treatment.



APA Reference
Gluck, S. (2007, February 26). Is Self-Esteem Healthy? What Kind of Self-Esteem Is Unhealthy?, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, June 22 from

Last Updated: May 14, 2019

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

More Info