23 — What are Self-Esteem and Self-Worth, Really?

Is there a difference between self-esteem and self-worth? Not really. Much has been written about self-esteem—especially in children—most of which doesn’t seem to distinguish between the two (see Wikipedia here and here), so we’ll use the two interchangeably. Much has also been written on the influences on self-esteem and what to do about low self-esteem (see this extensive list of articles from Psychology Today). There are also many articles recommending alternatives to focusing on self-esteem; e.g., compassion, status, self-respect, and self-recognition and acknowledgement.

If you’ve followed my other posts, you might guess that I feel they’ve all got it wrong! The one article that comes closest to getting it “right,” IMHO (in my humble opinion), is the one that focuses on self-recognition and acknowledgement because the author focuses on the relationship of self-esteem to the little self in the last paragraph of the article:

In the Yoga tradition, there is a phrase that is often heard, “You are perfect just the way you are.” The intention of this sentiment is that, by recognizing both our limits and abilities, we come to a deep and authentic understanding of ourselves, and that this ‘self’ to which we are so attached is both brilliant and flawed… but, it is, ultimately, both. That recognition and acknowledgement takes courage, but it is a necessary element in the evolution of our personal consciousness and authentic self, for as Buddha said, “Too pure water has no fish.”

It is this “self”—the “little self”—to whom self-esteem is so important. And it is the little self that creates low self-esteem in the first place. The little self contains all the values, beliefs, attitudes, decisions, and positions that drives the individual’s behaviors—and how it feels about itself. It is the little self that is continually judging itself and others, and this judgment is always harsh—a condemnation of some sort (good/bad, right/wrong). That’s the nature of judgment (vs. discernment, which could be defined as keen insight or wise perception—both non-judgmental).

Increasing one’s self-esteem is the little self (the ego) trying to change the little self. But with all its insecurities, the little self can only work with what will always be imperfect, trying to find ways not to admit the imperfections, or to compare itself to those with “greater” imperfections, or to adopt some other approach which is neither authentic nor sustainable.

Einstein said something like (paraphrased), “You can’t solve a problem from the level of consciousness at which it was created.” In other words, in this case, trying to change the little self from the little self is ultimately futile. When we truly are in touch with our “real” or “higher” self, we are able to discern (but not judge) the qualities of the little self, without suffering from the lack or limitations the little self perceives and judges. We are able to live our lives from a place of oneness, knowing no separation or duality. We acknowledge the present limitations of the body/mind we inhabit in this lifetime and work with those in ways that are life-fulfilling, working to enhance some and to accept others just as they are. For example, I may learn to ride a bike for pleasure but accept that I don’t have the physical stamina to go on the 100-mile rides that an acquaintance does, without making myself something less because I can’t keep up with her.

Let me tell you a short story to illustrate the points above. A very good friend supports herself through work that many others consider “lowly” when compared to the professions, or to careers requiring much education, or to those earning large incomes. But she has these marvelous qualities of authenticity, transparency, playfulness, and the ability to relate intimately to children and animals—all qualities of her real self, rather than her little self. If she were to focus on her “status” or “education” or some other comparison of the little self, she could potentially make herself small and uncomfortable in social settings. However, when she is just “being herself,” she has a radiance and beauty that projects itself widely into whatever room she’s in. These qualities resonate with those in the room who are also much more in touch with their authentic selves, which can lead to some very deep and fulfilling exchanges.

So, positive self-regard (or self-esteem or self-worth) naturally flows from the degree to which we are in touch with our higher/authentic selves, not from anything we do to try to manipulate the little self/ego. IMHO, working on improving self-esteem or feelings of self-worth is only temporary and far less valuable than the deep work that brings us closer to our authentic/real/higher selves. The outcome of this deep, higher self work is that we are more real to those with whom we work, play, and relate and—perhaps more importantly—to ourselves.

As always, I’d love to hear your perspective and experiences!