What is Self Esteem? its Definitions, Types and Theories

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Self Esteem

Self Esteem is a particular attitude which is rooted in the perception of worthiness or value of self as a person. While positive self esteem fosters resilience and well-being, negative self esteem can manifest as insecurity and anxiety. Psychologists like Mruk (2006) explore self esteem through different lenses (competence, worthiness, or both), while Rosenberg (2015) emphasizes the “worthiness” aspect.

Erikson’s stage theory highlights adolescence as a crucial time for self esteem development, and Maslow’s hierarchy of needs places self-esteem at the core of human motivation. As the theories indicate how self esteem develops and that it significantly impacts your confidence, relationships, and motivation. 


Definitions of Self Esteem


According to American Psychological Association (2023), Self Esteem is  the degree to which the qualities and characteristics contained in one’s self-concept are perceived to be positive. It reflects a person’s physical self-image, view of their accomplishments and capabilities, and values and perceived success in living up to them, as well as the ways in which others view and respond to that person.
Self esteem is “the disposition to experience oneself as being competent to cope with the basic challenges of life and of being worthy of happiness.” (Branden, 1969).

Mruk (2006) explains the three major approaches to define Self esteem. First, Self esteem defined as ‘competence’; second, Self esteem as ‘worthiness’ and third, Self esteem as ‘competence and worthiness’.

Rosenberg (2015, Hefferon & Boniwell, 2011) defined Self Esteem as ‘the totality of the individual’s thoughts and feelings with reference to himself as an object’.

He paved a new school of thought in Self Esteem conceptualization, where he emphasized on the ‘worthiness’ aspect of Self esteem. He defined Self esteem as a particular attitude which is rooted in the perception of worthiness or value of self as a person.

Maslow defined self-esteem as “the desire to be what one is, to be oneself, the desire for self-actualization.”

Two Basic Types of Self Esteem

Self esteem, a cornerstone of our mental well-being, is not a singular entity. It’s involves two aspects: competence and worthiness. Understanding how these elements work sheds light on how self esteem can manifest as both a vulnerability and a source of strength.

  • Low self esteem

People with low self esteem doubt their abilities and feel unworthy, making them avoid challenges and feel worse about themselves. This can lead to timidity, withdrawal, and negativity.

  • High self esteem: 

On the other hand, high self esteem empowers people. They believe in themselves and feel good, leading to happiness, openness to new things, and a strong sense of identity. It also acts as a shield against stress and mental health issues.


Types of Self Esteem

Self esteem, our overall evaluation of ourselves, significantly impacts our lives. 


Positive Self Esteem:

Richard A. Griggs (2019) characterized positive self esteem by a strong belief in one’s abilities and a deep sense of worth.  This translates into confidence, a positive self-image, emotional resilience, goal orientation, and an openness to challenges. Individuals with high self esteem are more likely to experience well-being, build healthy relationships, and be motivated to achieve their goals.


Negative Self Esteem

Negative self esteem is marked by feelings of inadequacy, self-doubt, and a diminished sense of worth. This negativity manifests as insecurity, harsh self-criticism, a pessimistic outlook, lack of motivation, and difficulty in relationships. 

According to Griggs (2019), such individuals are more vulnerable to mental health issues, social anxiety, and difficulty achieving goals. While positive self-esteem empowers us, negative self esteem can be a burden. 

Theories of Self Esteem


Erik Erikson’s Stage Theory of Ego Development (1963):

Erikson proposed a stage theory of psychosocial development, where individuals navigate eight stages throughout their lives. Each stage presents a crisis, a conflict that needs resolution for healthy development. During adolescence (identity vs. identity confusion), individuals grapple with questions of self, forging their identities. Successfully resolving this crisis lays the foundation for future commitments in career and relationships.

Self Esteem in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (Abraham Maslow, 1943):

Maslow placed self esteem at the core of his hierarchy of needs, a pyramid depicting human motivations. He identified two aspects of self esteem: respect from others (recognition and acceptance) and inner self esteem. The two facets: external esteem, the desire for recognition and respect from others, and internal esteem, a positive self evaluation with feelings of competence and worth. Fulfilling these needs is crucial for well-being.  High self esteem fosters motivation, emotional well-being, and healthy relationships, while unmet esteem needs can lead to low self esteem, hindering achievement and contributing to mental health issues. In essence, self esteem, as highlighted by Maslow, is a cornerstone of reaching our full potential.

The Sociometer Theory and Self Esteem (Mark Leary, 1999):

Sociometer theory, developed by Mark Leary, and argued that self-esteem isn’t an inherent desire for positive self evaluation, but rather a social barometer. We have a deep need for belonging, and this theory proposes we have an internal “sociometer” constantly measuring our standing in social groups. Positive interactions and acceptance raise our internal gauge, leading to high self-esteem. Conversely, rejection lowers it, impacting our sense of self-worth. This explains why social cues affect self esteem so strongly. It goes a step further, suggesting our pursuit of self esteem stems from this need for social connection. This theory helps us understand the link between social experiences and self-perception, highlighting the importance of social connection for well-being.

Terror Management Theory and Self-Esteem (Ernest Becker, 1971):

Terror Management Theory stands out as the first theory to explore the psychological purpose of self esteem through a scientific lens. The theory sees self esteem as a psychological shield against this existential fear. The theory highlights two fundamental human motivations:  maintaining a positive self-image (high self-esteem) and upholding the values and beliefs of our culture. This theory suggests that self esteem serves a protective function by reducing anxiety about death. By maintaining a positive self-image and feeling valued by others, we buffer ourselves from the existential fear of mortality.

Self-Determination Theory and Psychological Needs (Deci & Ryan, 2000):

Self-Determination Theory (SDT), developed by Deci and Ryan in 2000, sheds light on the power of psychological needs in shaping our motivations and well-being.  The theory identifies three core needs that act as essential nutrients for our psychological health: competence, autonomy, and relatedness.

  • Competence is the belief in our ability to learn and achieve, fueled by a sense of accomplishment that motivates us to keep growing.
  • Autonomy is the feeling of control, where we initiate actions and understand the reasons behind expectations. It fosters motivation and ownership
  • Relatedness is the need for connection and belonging with others. It’s about feeling seen, valued, and supported by those around us. It highlights our need for connection, making us more open to new experiences and fostering overall well-being.

These fundamental needs foster self-determined behavior which makes us more likely to be intrinsically motivated, leading to deeper engagement, creativity, and a sense of purpose in life.

Humanistic Psychology and the Self (Carl Rogers, 1951):

Humanistic psychology emphasizes the importance of self-concept. Rogers believed that many people struggle with self esteem due to a lack of unconditional positive regard (acceptance and love) during their development.  His therapeutic approach aimed to create a safe space for individuals to develop a positive sense of self-worth through acceptance and empathy. When this is missing in childhood, it can lead to a distorted sense of self.  Rogers believed that a therapist could create a safe and supportive environment filled with acceptance and empathy.  This allows individuals to explore their true selves and develop a more positive self-concept and sense of self-worth and move towards a more fulfilling life.


  • Baumeister, R. F. (1999). Self-esteem: The puzzle of low self-regard. Philadelphia, PA: Psychology Press. 
  • Myers, D. G. (2018). Social psychology (13th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Education. (Chapter 10 of this textbook provides a good introduction to self-esteem and different theories that explain it).
  • Rogers, C. R. (1951). Client-centered therapy: Its basic principles and applications. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 
  • Rosenberg, M. (1965). Society and the adolescent self-image. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 
  • Royzman, E. B., & Ryan, R. M. (2015). Self-determination theory. New York, NY: Guilford Publications. 
  • Solomon, S., Greenberg, J., & Pyszczynski, T. (1997). Terror management theory. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications. 

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