Most psychologists define self-esteem as a person’s evaluation of their own worth or value.
In other words:
- People with healthy self-esteem believe that they are basically good and worthwhile, even if at times they make mistakes or do the wrong thing.
- People with low self-esteem tend to think poorly of themselves and have a hard time believing that they are good enough or worthy enough, even when they succeed or do the right thing.
Self-esteem matters because A) What you believe about yourself strongly affects how you feel about yourself. And B) How you feel about yourself strongly affects how you act.
If you believe you’re incompetent or unlovable, for instance, you’re unlikely to feel very good about yourself. In turn, this can become a self-fulfilling prophecy that leads to not behaving the way you want.
So understandably, there’s been a big push culturally to help people improve their self-esteem and feel better about themselves.
Unfortunately, this emphasis on bolstering self-esteem often backfires. And for the same reason that telling people to try and just be happy or find their passion does…
It confuses cause and effect.
It’s dangerous to focus too much on things you can’t control
Close your eyes and look into your mind. Do you see a self-esteem dial anywhere?
No? Yeah, I didn’t think so. Me either.
That’s because we humans have no way to directly change our self-esteem. You can’t just turn up your self-esteem dial any more than you can hit the happy button or pull the inspiration lever. Happiness, inspiration, and self-esteem are all things that we can only influence indirectly, and usually, very slowly.
Here’s another example:
Suppose you really wanted to learn to play the piano. Obviously, there’s no button you can press that will instantly make you a piano player. Instead, it takes months and years of practice and study to become a piano player.
In other words, being a piano player is the indirect effect of practicing piano for days and months and years on end. Practicing piano = cause. Being a piano player = effect.
Now, imagine you decide that you want to become a piano player. And your next move is to spend hours every day watching YouTube videos of famous piano players, daydreaming about how cool it’s going to be when you can play like them. Is that going to get you any closer to being a piano player?
Nope, not much.
And in fact, there’s a real risk that you end up procrastinating on the hard work of practicing piano because thinking about being a piano player is more enjoyable.
Well, the same danger is present if your goal is to have better self-esteem…
Focusing too much on self-esteem can be a distraction from doing what’s required to actually achieve it.
Self-esteem isn’t something you do. It’s the result of many things done consistently over long periods of time.
But even if you get clear about this distinction between cause and effect, there’s another problem with focusing too much on self-esteem…
It’s awfully vague.
The secret to action (and results) is specificity
Let’s say you’re fully committed to the idea that you will only achieve better self-esteem when you start taking constant action on the things that eventually lead to it.
Here’s an example: Perhaps your self-esteem is suffering because you have a bad habit of not following through with your commitments:
- You decide to veg out on the couch instead of going to the gym.
- You find yourself late to lunch with a friend even though you’ve committed to trying to be more punctual.
- You keep setting boundaries with your mother-in-law, then letting them slide even though you promised yourself you’d be more assertive.
Even if you’re clear about all this, there’s another big problem with focusing too much on self-esteem: It’s really, really big.
Remember the definition of self-esteem from the beginning of this essay?
Self-esteem is a person’s evaluation of their own worth or value.
The problem with really big, general goals (like better self-worth) is that it takes a long time for them to even begin to change. If you don’t know the first thing about playing the piano, you’re not going to start feeling like a great piano player for months, if not years.
Similarly, if you have suffered with low self-esteem because you don’t keep commitments to yourself, that’s not going to just immediately change for the better with a few days of practice.
Unfortunately, for many people, this is the main reason they give up and fail in their goal to achieve better self-esteem: It’s too discouraging!
If your goal is to have good self-esteem, it’s gonna be a long time before you actually feel that way, even if you’re doing all the right stuff. That means that you’re essentially going to feel like a failure the entire time that you’re practicing. And it’s awfully hard to maintain any big effort if you’re constantly feeling like a failure!
So, what’s the alternative?
Forget self-esteem. Focus on self-efficacy instead.
Self-efficacy is a term coined by psychologist Albert Bandura, which he defined as:
The belief in one’s ability to succeed in specific situations or accomplish a task.
At first blush, this seems similar to the definition of self-esteem in that it’s a belief about yourself. The key distinction, though, is that self-efficacy is situation-specific, whereas self-esteem is global.
To illustrate the difference, imagine you’re an incredibly anxious and insecure person with very low self-esteem:
- Negative comments from just about anybody throw you into the depths of anxiety and worry.
- Small mistakes lead to massive amounts of shame and fake guilt.
- And you quickly discount successes as flukes or not legitimate.
Even for someone like this with extremely low self-esteem, there are probably many areas of their life where they have relatively high self-efficacy:
- Ask them to bake chocolate chip cookies, and they don’t have much self-doubt at all. In fact—though they might question it if you brought it up explicitly—they probably feel pretty confident baking chocolate chip cookies.
- Or maybe they’re perfectly confident in their abilities to drive to work and parallel park their car gracefully.
- Or perhaps they have complete trust in their ability to file taxes correctly.
In other words…
If you get specific enough, everybody believes in themselves somewhere.
Unfortunately, because most people only think in terms of general concepts like confidence or self-esteem, they learn to think of themselves as generally incompetent and unworthy.
And because they don’t have the language to describe specific instances of confidence, they tend not to think much about it and discount those things.
On the other hand, once you start thinking about self-efficacy and the many specific areas of your life where you do have confidence and belief in yourself, everything changes.
Instead of the crushing burden of high self-esteem and feeling better about yourself generally, you can celebrate smaller wins of feeling good about yourself specifically.
This is critical because it creates virtuous circles:
- Feeling good about yourself for a small “win” leads to a little more confidence.
- This little bit of situation-specific confidence leads to more attempts and successes in other areas.
- Which leads to more confidence…
The secret to getting better is getting smaller
To illustrate the benefits of self-efficacy over self-esteem, let’s go back to our example of learning to play the piano….
If I was a piano instructor, I would say that learning to play the piano is a terrible goal because it’s much too big and vague:
- First of all, it will take forever to achieve.
- And the whole time my students aren’t “good piano players” they’re going to feel like “not good piano players.”
- This means their likelihood of sticking with piano playing long enough to become “good piano players” is low (which is probably a big part of why so many kids start piano lessons but never actually become good piano players…)
Instead, I would encourage my students to set goals like this:
- Understand how to sit properly at the piano.
- Learn to play the basic melody of some favorite song with one hand.
- Become really good at playing hot cross buns (including cool jazzy versions or something like that).
In other words, I would encourage my students to set small, specific goals for themselves and judge their performance based on their ability to meet those goals.
I want them to utterly forget about becoming a great piano player and keep their focus on something they have more specific and immediate control over. Because it’s only by hitting these small, incremental goals that they will build up the confidence and skill to reach progressively higher and more challenging goals—including one day becoming a really good piano player generally.
Building self-esteem is like learning to play piano
Okay, now apply everything we’ve just talked about with piano-playing to the idea of self-esteem.
Even if your end goal is to have higher self-esteem, the most likely way to get there is to ignore self-esteem itself and focus on achieving self-efficacy in specific situations that, eventually and in aggregate, will lead to higher self-esteem.
Let’s say improving your self-esteem mostly boils down to getting better at being assertive in your relationships and following through on your commitments to yourself. First of all, just go ahead and ignore one of those two things for now. Pick one and start to work on that.
Let’s say you chose to ignore personal commitments and work on being more assertive. Building self-efficacy around becoming more assertive is a good start, but it’s still pretty big and vague.
So get even more specific…. I’m going to work on becoming more assertive with my mother-in-law. Bingo! There’s a specific goal that—while challenging—is certainly doable in a relatively short period of time.
Once you’ve gotten more assertive with your mother-in-law, you might move on to being more assertive with your boss. Then your spouse. Then your kids. Then your parents. Now, think about all the self-efficacy and confidence you’ve been building!
Once you decide that you’ve improved your overall assertiveness enough, guess how you’re going to feel about working on following through with commitments to yourself? Yeah, a lot more confident!
So you can then repeat the process with self-commitments, working through specific mini-goals one at a time and slowly building up confidence and self-efficacy. And by the time you’ve built up confidence and self-efficacy in both these areas—assertiveness and self-mastery—I think you’ll find that your self-esteem will have risen considerably without any direct effort on your part.
In some ways, terms like self-efficacy and self-esteem are not actually all that important.
Instead, try to keep in mind these two basic principles for setting and achieving goals:
- Don’t confuse cause and effect. You can’t do a goal. You can only do things that eventually result in the goal becoming realized. If you waste your time and energy trying to do goals directly, you’ll have little time or energy left over for working on the things you actually have control over.
- Get more specific. The key to achieving goals is confidence. But the key to confidence is setting very small, specific mini-goals that you can reliably achieve, and as a result, start building up confidence.
If you want better self-esteem, don’t set it as a goal. Instead, learn to fall in love with the tiny goals that—achieved constantly—will lead to confidence and self-belief.
Naval defined self-esteem better than anyone else I think when he said:
Self-esteem is just your reputation with yourself.
If you want your reputation with yourself to improve, focus on doing more things—very small things—that you can be proud of.
Do that long enough and your self-esteem can’t help but rise.