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Too many people are using the terms self esteem and self confidence interchangeably and it just has to stop!

Not because I’m a nitpicker, but because using self esteem to fuel confidence is beyond dodgy, it’s downright dangerous!

First let’s look at why they are different, then we’ll look at why self esteem is bad for confidence.

Psychology Professor Richard Petty (confidence specialist) as quoted in The Confidence Code defines confidence as

…the stuff that turns thoughts into action.

It’s an elegantly simple definition, although it doesn’t tell us much about the sometimes gaping chasm between our brilliant plans and the actions we need to take to realise them. Most of us have been indoctrinated to use self esteem to bridge that gap, but it’s not a well engineered bridge.

Self esteem is one of the more dangerous concepts emerging from mainstream psychology in the past few decades.

Having high self esteem has been promoted (and still is promoted) as a pre-requisite for a successful, happy, confident, fulfilled life. But it’s just not panning out like that. So what is self esteem?

Self esteem is a global and generalised judgement of self, often based on comparing yourself to others, and fluctuates according to recent failures or successes.

To have high self esteem you have to consider yourself better than others; more successful, smarter, more attractive etc. Aside from the dangers of comparison and judgement, it’s also illogical that we can all have high self esteem; we can’t all be above average, that’s not how averages work.

Self esteem is built by successes and favourable comparisons, and knocked down by failures and unfavourable comparisons. While having low self esteem has its problems, the things we do to achieve high self esteem are dangerous, both personally and socially.

When you couple your sense of internal wellbeing to external yardsticks, you put your psychological wellbeing in the hands of others and factors outside of your control. It’s a foreign concept for most of us, but it is possible to feel OK about yourself even when you’re failing, when things aren’t going to plan, or you’re not the most attractive person at the party.

Relying on self esteem to feel good also means we have to push ourselves to achieve more and more just to feel OK about ourselves. Being pushy with yourself is not only psychologically damaging, but can also impact on your physical and relationship health too. Being too attached to success often means people don’t eat well, get too little sleep, and don’t spend enough time fostering social connections.

It also means we try to hide what we think are less favourable parts of ourselves; from ourselves and from others. Playing favourites with different parts of your identity is not only delusional, it’s painful. It makes us pretend to be someone we are not, to be objects in our own lives instead of subjects. And it makes it hard to be sufficiently vulnerable to form genuine relationships.

Self esteem is also linked to the current epidemic in narcissistic behaviours.

I don’t like the popular trend of using psychiatric labels as adjectives, partly because I don’t like psychiatric labels full stop, but mostly because it’s a poor use of social power to label others, especially if you’re not qualified to do so. But if we just looked at the behaviours and don’t assume that everyone with these behaviours qualifies for a personality disorder diagnosis, we can see that the symptoms look surprisingly similar to being trapped in a vicious self esteem dependency: needing a lot of admiration; difficulty receiving criticism; a strong sense of entitlement; and, disregarding the feelings of others. All of these behaviours need to be engaged in to maintain high self esteem.

The other big issue arising from a reliance on self esteem is bullying, which curiously enough seems to be in epidemic proportions as well. It’s well understood that bullying behaviours are designed to make the bully feel good about themselves through asserting power (in abusive ways) over others.

Our shockingly low levels of power literacy (get some help with that here), combined with the doctrine of self esteem means most of us only know one way to feel and know our own power; by using it against others.

So how does relying on self esteem negatively impact on confidence?

If every failure and disappointment means we like ourselves less or feel that we are less worthy of respect and love, it just becomes too risky to try in the first place, so we don’t. If our actions put us at too high a risk psychologically, we’ll act less and less, and when we do it will only be in activities that are almost guaranteed to boost self esteem.

The internal shaming and self criticism we experience when we judge ourselves to be deficient in comparison to others or to have failed a task, will stop us engaging in social activities, learning new skills, and setting personally meaningful goals.

It also means that our capacity to discern and act on what is good for us is diminished (which impacts on confidence in the longer term). If we are driven by a continual need to boost our self esteem, we limit our choices and are forced to behave in certain ways and engage in certain activities, that perhaps we don’t really like or are misaligned with our deeper values and dreams for ourselves and the world.

What’s the alternative?

Self compassion. Being kind to ourselves and fostering a sense of worth not reliant on anything is the key. Learning to consider ourselves worthy of respect, compassion and understanding just because all humans deserve it, not become some are richer, smarter or more attractive.

It reminds and grounds us in our perfect imperfection, a shared human experience. In this way it unites us in our humanity, rather than separating us through judgement.

But it’s not easy. Most of us have decades of ingrained inner criticism and a lightning fast capacity to judge ourselves and others (for better or worse). Learning self compassion is also often painful to begin with as it shines a light on how much we’ve been unconsciously suffering at the hands of our own judgements.

But that’s generally the way of all self development; it’s a bit messy, a bit painful, certainly unpredictable, and of course never ending. Is it worth it? I think so.

Imagine your own thoughts being that of a good friend, encouraging, sympathetic, gracious. That would sound good to me.


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