Self-esteem is the value that people put on the mental image that they have of themselves.
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What Is Self-Esteem?
Everyone has a mental picture of his or her strengths, weaknesses, characteristics, and abilities. This mental picture, often called self-image, begins to develop in infancy and continues to grow and change throughout life. People develop their self-image through their interactions with other people and the world. Self-esteem is a person's overall sense of being lovable, acceptable, worthy, and capable.
Self-esteem has three main parts:
- feeling loved and accepted by others
- having feelings of self-acceptance and self-worth
- feeling competent and capable of solving problems and using skills
How Does Self-Esteem Develop?
The first ideas that babies and young children have about themselves are strongly influenced by the things their parents do and say. If a caregiver tells a toddler that she is bad often enough, the child will begin to believe that she is bad. If a parent constantly tells a school-age child that he is dumb, there is a good chance that he will believe that he can never do well in school. As children grow, the judgments of teachers, friends, coaches, and other people in their lives influence the image they have of themselves.
People also have a mental image of what they would like to be. Everyone's mental image of the ideal person is different. Some people admire athletic skills. Others admire academic abilities, courage, compassion, or the ability to get along with others. People whose mental self-image matches fairly well with the qualities they admire generally feel good about themselves and have high self-esteem. People whose self-image does not match well with the things they think are important tend to be unhappy, dissatisfied, negative about themselves, and have low self-esteem. With low self-esteem, people may see themselves as unlovable, unacceptable, unworthy, or incompetent.
Why Does Self-Esteem Matter?
The way people feel about themselves has a big effect on their behavior. People with high self-esteem who feel good about themselves and see themselves as competent, independent problem solvers are more likely to meet challenges at home, school, and work. People who feel lovable and worthy have better relationships and tend to ask for help and support when they need it. Self-acceptance helps people cope with failures and learn from mistakes. High self-esteem allows people to accept their imperfections.
* antisocial behaviors are behaviors that differ significantly from the norms of society and are considered harmful to society.
* depression (de-PRESH-un) is a mental state characterized by feelings of sadness, despair, and discouragement.
* body image is a person's impressions, thoughts, feelings, and opinions about his or her body.
* eating disorders are conditions in which a person's eating behaviors and food habits are so unbalanced that they cause physical and emotional problems.
Low self-esteem has been linked to violent and delinquent behavior and to school failure. Teenagers with low self-esteem are more likely to be involved in gangs, drug and alcohol abuse, sexually promiscuous activities, or antisocial behaviors * that lead to confrontations with the law. Low self-esteem is also linked to depression * , poor body image * , and eating disorders * . People with low self-esteem tend to have a harder time coping with failure, mistakes, and their own imperfections.
Can People Improve Their Self-Esteem?
Unlike a person's height or eye color, self-esteem is not fixed for life. Self-esteem can be nourished and improved. Studies have shown that positive thinking or positive self-talk helps raise self-esteem. For example, people who think, "I'm so dumb, I'll never solve this math problem" reinforce their low self-esteem. They can help raise their self-esteem by mentally correcting themselves and thinking instead, "I might have to work harder than some of my friends to solve this problem, but I am sure I can figure it out."
Parents, teachers, coaches, and friends can help people develop high self-esteem by:
- helping them learn new skills that are suited to their age and interest
- encouraging them to try new things
- offering genuine praise for trying hard, as well as for success
- not comparing people's abilities (especially with siblings or classmates)
- expressing acceptance and caring
- being a good listener and letting the person know that his or her ideas and feelings are important
Canfield, Jack, Mark Victor Hansen, and Kimberly Kirberger, eds. Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul: 101 Stories of Life, Love and Learning. Deerfield Beech, FL: Health Communications, Inc., 1997.
The National Association for Self-Esteem (NASE), 1776 Lincoln Street,
Suite 1012, Denver, CO 80203-1027. The National Association for
Self-Esteem has a website that provides information on the latest
research on self-esteem and its relationship to behavior.
Nemours Center for Children's Health Media, Alfred I. duPont
Hospital for Chidren, 1600 Rockland Road, Wilmington, DE 19803. This
organization's KidsHealth website has articles about self-esteem.