The building blocks of self-esteem


Over the past twenty years of dealing with clients in my counselling and hypnotherapy practice, I have found that the most frequently asked question is, “How do I raise my self-esteem?” Since clients are often confused about the difference between self-esteem and self-confidence, it may be helpful to clarify these two concepts.

Self-confidence is temporary and can swing wildly from highs to lows and change from one minute to the next. It exists only at the surface level of one’s encounter with life’s events and relationships. It is dependent on success, and even on repeated success. A loss can put a serious dent in one’s self-confidence.

Self-esteem, on the other hand, is long term and usually set in early childhood at a fixed (but changeable) level. It comes from deep within a person’s psyche and stays constant, unless, as an adult, one experiences making difficult choices about challenging emotional issues. Once a person has “ratcheted up” their self-esteem by making such choices, it cannot go down again. It is permanently set at the new higher level. Self-esteem is also not dependent on success. Failure, as a result of a choice one has made, does not diminish one’s self-esteem. Self-esteem increases based on the mere fact that one has made a difficult emotional choice, regardless of the outcome.

For children to develop high self-esteem and carry this into adulthood, it is essential for parents and teachers to “get out of the way” and learn to be comfortable allowing very young children to make the many hundreds of little choices that they encounter each week of their lives. This enables children to “ratchet up” their self-esteem gradually through gentler, smaller, incremental choices rather than all at once through the momentous and sometimes traumatic choices they may face later in life.

This paper does not apply to people who have very few choices in their lives. For example, someone who, as a child, has been sexually abused by a parent or someone from a poor country where just getting enough to eat is a full-time endeavour. Hopefully their opportunities and options will some day increase to the point where they are able to make the choices that lead to enhanced self-esteem.

To make good choices people have to know what they want. Many of my clients ask me, “How do I know what I really want?” I generally suggest Stettbacher’s Therapy as described in Alice Miller’s book “Banished Knowledge”.

There are four steps to Stettbacher’s Therapy:

  • a. Precisely describing the present situation and one’s present sensations.
  • b. Fully experiencing and fully expressing one’s present emotions.
  • c. Assertively questioning the present situation.
  • d. Clearly articulating one’s needs.

Timing is critical in this process. It is important to make decisions about what one wants at the optimum moment. If the decision is made too soon, then useful information may be missed. If it is made too late, the number of possible courses of action may be considerably reduced. It is equally important to make decisions about what one does NOT want. For many people, this ability remains underdeveloped because it was severely thwarted in childhood by parents, teachers, the clergy, etc. In many cases, people have been conditioned to say nothing rather than express what they don’t like or don’t want. An example of this is the frequently used expression, “If you don’t have something good to say, don’t say anything at all.”

Nathaniel Branden in his book “The Six Pillars of Self-esteem” delineates six practices that lead to enhanced self-esteem:

  • a. The practice of living consciously. Being present.
  • b. The practice of self-acceptance.
  • c. The practice of self-responsibility. Response-ability
  • d. The practice of self-assertiveness. Claiming space.
  • e. The practice of living purposefully.
  • f. The practice of personal integrity. Honesty.

Branden believes that, if we adhere to these pillars, we will evolve to the point of loving our own life. However, in order to attain such a high level of self-esteem, he stresses the need for honesty and courage. Honesty usually leads to conflict and conflict to anger. It is therefore imperative for a person to attain sufficient self-esteem to be able to express “conscious anger”. Conscious anger usually leads to acceptance and resolution, whereas unbridled or “unconscious” anger will often lead to destructive fighting and rejection.

Another characteristic of people with high self-esteem is that they usually experience giving and receiving in a balanced and equal way. Giving and receiving are interconnected. It is an illusion to believe that one is giving more than one is receiving, and vice versa. As the Beatle’s expressed it in one of their songs, “In the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.”