Your Inner Guide to Self-Esteem

Chapter 85 of the book Self-Help Stuff That Works

by Adam Khan

SELF-ESTEEM HAS BEEN a hot topic for years. And for a good reason: Low self-esteem is a source of trouble — bad marriages, social isolation, violence, lack of success, depression, conflict in the workplace, etc. Low self-esteem causes problems.

The obvious solution is to try to improve people's self-esteem by pointing out their good traits. Psychologists told us we could give our children high self-esteem by complimenting and praising them often. And they said you could protect yourself by making an effort to think well of yourself say good things to yourself, repeat affirmations, acknowledge your good traits, etc.

Recent research at Wake Forest University might be turning that popular philosophy completely upside down. The funny thing is, when all the smoke has cleared, what we have left bears a remarkable resemblance to simple common sense.

According to the research, self-esteem appears to be an internal guide to how well we're doing socially, somewhat like our internal guide to the temperature.

When you feel hot, you take off some clothing or open a window. When you feel cold, you bundle up. Although you might be able to repeat to yourself over and over "I feel warm, I feel warm," there are better things to do with your time. Might as well just put on a sweater and get on with it. It's useful to have an internal guide — a feeling — that lets you know what's happening in the world around you, and gives you some motivation to do something about it.

Apparently, that's exactly what self-esteem is.

The feeling of low self-esteem is apparently nothing more than an indication you aren't getting enough positive feedback from other people. You may not be getting rejected or criticized, but to really feel good about ourselves, we need something more than that. We need acknowledgment, compliments, appreciation. We need people to notice us and like us.

This is where it gets tricky. As a parent, you might want to improve your child's self-esteem by giving him lots of compliments. But watch out. If you exaggerate your acknowledgments or if you sometimes make a big deal out of a small thing or resort to puffery, you may be setting your child's internal gauge "off the beam." You've set his social-status meter too high, and it no longer measures the situation accurately. Your child then grows up and goes out into the world and has difficulty dealing with people.


Some new research at Northeastern University showed that people who think well of themselves regardless of how others feel about them tend to be perceived by others as condescending and hostile.

Given this new information, a different approach to creating self-esteem seems in order: Giving honest and accurate feedback to our children, our spouses, and our employees. It's relatively easy to compliment and praise people. It makes them feel good, and it makes us feel good to make them feel good. It's more difficult to find something you genuinely appreciate and to say it without the slightest bit of puffery, but it just might do more good.

We can also help people do better. Of course! If someone is getting along well with her peers and she's succeeding at something — trumpet, hobby, schoolwork, job, athletics — it will improve her self-esteem. So find a way to help her accomplish something. When people do well, they tend to feel better about themselves.

When you want to build your own self-esteem, it appears your best bet is to change your behavior. Do your tasks well and treat people well and you'll feel good about yourself. Don't worry so much about how you think about yourself. Change what you do to make yourself more appreciated by the people around you. Increase your value to other people and to the company you work for. Watch the reactions of other people. Pay attention to the reality outside your skin. Do more of what works. Do less of what doesn't get the response you want. Your self-esteem, your internal "sociometer" will rise as an accurate reflection of your true abilities and where you stand with the people in your life.

To improve the self-esteem of others:
Give unexaggerated feedback
and help them gain ability.

To improve your own self-esteem:
Change what you do to make yourself more appreciated by the people around you.

What does self-esteem have to do with depression? How does
it show up? What can you do to prevent future depression in
your children? Find out here:

For a one-step technique on becoming socially
fearless, try this out:
Refuse to Flinch

An extremely important thing to keep in mind is that judging
people will harm you. Learn here how to prevent yourself from
making this all-too-human mistake:
Here Comes the Judge

Dale Carnegie, who wrote the famous book How to Win Friends and Influence People, left a chapter out of his book. Find out what he meant to say but didn't about people you cannot win over:
The Bad Apples

The art of controlling the meanings you're making is an important
skill to master. It will literally determine the quality of your life.
Read more about it in:
Master the Art of Making Meaning

Here's a profound and life-changing way to gain the
respect and the trust of others:
As Good As Gold

What if you already knew you ought to change and in what way?
And what if that insight has made no difference so far?
Here's how to make your insights make a difference:
From Hope to Change

next: Complaint Compunctio

APA Reference
Staff, H. (2008, October 30). Your Inner Guide to Self-Esteem, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, June 18 from

Last Updated: March 31, 2016

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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