What Is “Self-Esteem,” Anyway?


Studies have found that teens today have the same level of anxiety as psychiatric patients did in the 1950s, and the difficulties of managing this anxiety can diminish healthy self-esteem, leading in turn to depression. We hear so much about how we all need to have a high level of self-esteem.

But what does “healthy self-esteem” mean, anyway?

One clue to understanding any idea is to look at how its words evolved. We often think that holding someone in “high esteem” is to love them, so we often think of having “self-esteem” as loving ourselves. But let’s look at the older meanings, too.

“Esteem” was first used as an English word that meant “worth.” It came into English from very old French and Latin words that meant “to appraise” and “to estimate”—can you hear how “esteem” and “estimate” sound similar?

So self-esteem can mean how we “appraise” ourselves or “estimate” our “worth.” It’s like our selves—our bodies, minds, spirits—are like a house full of valuables, and we are the appraisers, estimating how much our house and all its contents are worth.

Here are two helpful new understandings we can draw from just looking at the words:

Self: We get to be the appraisers. Nobody else but we ourselves. If we give the power to appraise our estates to somebody else, then we give away our own power to “estimate our worth.”

Appraisal: Estimating our worth depends on having realistic attitudes. If we look at our “riches” and see only what’s missing—what we think should be there and isn’t—then we don’t do an accurate job of appraising our worth. But if we look at our riches and appreciate what we do have, then we have a better chance of building on that accurate appraisal.

Hear how the words “appraise” and “appreciate” sound the same?—they come from the same ancient Latin roots, too!

Habits that can “depreciate” our sense of ourselves:

  • Comparing ourselves to other people on social media
  • Looking in the mirror and seeing only defects
  • Trying to earn perfect grades

Habits that can help us more accurately “appreciate” ourselves:

  • Using social media to connect with others
  • Each time we look in the mirror, finding one or two things we appreciate in what we see
  • Looking at our improvements, rather than trying to earn perfect grades
  • Being patient with ourselves and taking life one day at a time

As we learn to more accurately “estimate” and “appreciate” our particular set of riches, we give ourselves space to imagine what we really want for ourselves, and we gain resilience and strength to plan and build our lives.

What does “self-esteem” mean to you? What are some other habits you use to build your self-esteem? Share with others who may benefit from hearing your experiences!

Moderator ★

Hi! The moderator is a research team member with a background in behavioral health. We're here to help answer your questions and stimulate some great conversation! We don't provide therapy and are not available 24-7 so please if you are in crisis, go to our crisis page: https://sova.pitt.edu/i-need-help-now We look forward to talking to you!

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