What Exactly Is Self-Esteem, and Why Is It So Important? We Asked an Expert

The way you view yourself can completely change the way you approach your life.

It's called self-esteem—but what exactly does it mean to have high or low self-esteem, and why does it actually matter? We were curious, so we reached out to an expert. Psychotherapist Lisa Schab is the author of a number of incredible books including Self-Esteem for Teens: Six Principles for Creating the Life You Want, and she filled us in on why self-esteem is so critical in every aspect of our lives. 

Sweety High: How exactly would you define self-esteem, and what does it look like to have high or low self-esteem?

Lisa Schab: I define self-esteem simply as how you feel about yourself. "Healthy self-esteem" is when someone generally has positive thoughts and feelings about themselves. They're certain enough about their equality with others that they can admit their faults without feeling ashamed and enjoy their strengths without putting others down.

Those with "low self-esteem" generally have negative thoughts and feelings about themselves. They're not confident in their equality to others, so they feel ashamed when they make mistakes and may put others down in order to cover up their insecurity.

Healthy self-esteem includes overall positive regard for yourself, the ability to celebrate your strengths and understand and accept your weaknesses, with a realistic belief about your equality to others and theirs to you. Those with healthy self-esteem know and accept themselves, practice compassion for themselves and others, and act with integrity and self-discipline. They also use healthy coping skills in their thoughts and actions to meet life challenges, and hold a solid conviction of their unconditional worth despite changing circumstances. They choose and stand by their own thoughts, feelings and behaviors, instead of giving in to pressure from others.
They remain convinced of, and act with respect for, the worth of others.

Shutterstock: Woman smiling happy in front of mirror looking confident

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SH: How does one develop their self-esteem?

LS: No one is born with healthy or unhealthy self-esteem. We're all blank slates! The collection of thoughts we hold about ourselves develops over time, starting in the earliest days of our lives. It stems mainly from messages we receive about ourselves—thoughts that other people tell us like "You're so good at running!" or, "Your math skills are terrible." It's also influenced by what we tell ourselves in response to our experiences—"My sister keeps beating me at chess, I'm just not smart enough," or, "My sister keeps beating me at chess, but I can practice and get better!"

We receive messages from our families, our caregivers, our friends, strangers, our culture and our society. We receive them directly, such as someone saying, "Your thick hair is really unattractive," or indirectly, such as an advertisement saying, "Get rid of unattractive thick hair with this great product."

Our self-esteem is also influenced by how our brain functions and its "chemical tendency" to run negative or positive. For example, the deep limbic system in our brain sets the emotional tone of our mind. It influences our ability to see things in a positive or negative light. When someone's deep limbic system is working too hard, they tend to be negatively focused, which can lower self-esteem.

We also have different chemicals that help our brains function. For example, the chemical serotonin contributes to feelings of well-being and happiness. If someone's serotonin levels are low, they may have a harder time feeling good about their life situations and themselves. So the physiology of our brains that we've genetically inherited from our ancestors can also affect our self-esteem.

Shutterstock: Woman working on laptop with coffee cup looking confident and happy

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SH: How might the level of someone's self-esteem impact their life?

LS: Focusing on negative messages about ourselves affects every area of our life because we bring our self-esteem to every person and every situation we encounter. When we bring low self-esteem to other people, we often end up in unbalanced relationships with unhealthy communication styles. We often don't stand up for ourselves, we put up with more than is healthy, and we end up feeling or being taken advantage of. We tend to blame ourselves for any negatives in the relationship. Sometimes, too, we find it hard to keep friends because other people can get tired of our self-negativity. They can get tired of always having to convince us of our worth!

When we bring low self-esteem to situations, we're more likely to have negative experiences. For example, if someone takes tennis lessons and has trouble making progress with their skills, from a low self-esteem perspective they may think, "I'm so bad at this, I'll never get it right." This can lead to them giving up, even though they were initially really interested in playing tennis.

However, if that person comes from a healthy self-esteem perspective, they may think, "Wow, this is harder than I thought! But I really want to play tennis, and I know I can get better with more practice." Their healthy self-esteem will give them hope, keep them trying, and eventually, they'll have success and be able to play tennis like they wanted to.

When we believe in ourselves and focus on our strengths rather than our imperfections, we see the world as full of opportunities and chances for success and happiness. Even when times are tough, we believe that we can make it through and come out on the other side, and we also believe we deserve to make it through. When we have unhealthy self-esteem, we focus on the negatives in ourselves, so we tend to view challenges as obstacles.

If we don't believe we have the ability to succeed, or if we don't believe we deserve to succeed, then we don't see any point in trying and we miss out on a lot of amazing opportunities. This can create a negative cycle that continues to feed our low self-esteem. If we don't think we can succeed, we don't try. If we don't try, we don't succeed. When we don't succeed, we have less to feel good about ourselves for. Also, if we don't believe in our intrinsic value and worth, we may not feel we deserve anything good.

When we work to improve our self-esteem, we increase our positivity all around and end up with more happiness, more joy, more inner strength, more resilience, and more amazing experiences.

The most important thing is to remember your power. You are in charge of your self-esteem, not anyone else. The second thing is to be gentle and patient with yourself as you move through the process of developing healthier self-esteem. This attitude in itself is one of healthy self-esteem and will help you achieve your goal.

Shutterstock: Woman smiling happy in front of colorful tile wall

(via Shutterstock)

Eager to find more tools that help you figure out your emotions? Click HERE to read our review of Lisa Schab's Put Your Feelings Here.