What is Self-Esteem Theory?

Self-esteem Theory has become a popular and most importantly practical way of viewing human interaction. While many famous Psychologists and Psychiatrists as well as Philosophers and Thinkers independently came about a similar construct, Alfred Adler, an Austrian Physician Psychologist and founder of the school of individual Psychology is generally credited with being the founder of at least the largest movement. Adler was among the co-founders of the psychoanalytic movement along with Sigmund Freud. In this short article I will outline a simple yet effective description and methodology of Self-Esteem Theory.

The core idea of Self-Esteem Theory is that everyone has an intrinsic ‘value’ that they feel they are worth and as human beings we constantly strive to improve or increase that value. It is related to the ego and those with ‘low self-esteem’ are said to be suffering from an ‘inferiority complex’. In practical terms, people with better self-esteem generally feel worthy of a good life and all that entails while those with low self-esteem feel they are of less value. Most people are not consciously aware of their level of ‘self-esteem’ and it can only really be seen via study of the individuals behaviors in day to day life and in certain situations.  

Low self-esteem or possessing an inferiority complex is often attributed to ‘self-defeating behaviors’. The reason being that accomplishing the task that someone intends or attempts will give the person a feeling of better self-esteem, which will conflict with the low self-esteem the person feels about himself subconsciously. He therefore sabotages his success to keep himself where he is comfortable, in this case his self-esteem.   Many modern psychologists include a further expansion on the general self-esteem concept to include a set-point. What this means is that during your childhood, the influences, experiences and nurture or lack there-of create your inherent level of confidence and worth in yourself. This then becomes your ‘set-point’. Once in adulthood, attempts to rise above or below this set-point consistently fail as your Self-esteem ‘set-point’ is maintained. This creates a dilemma for the person that wishes to improve his self-concept and self-esteem as it is very difficult, unless one is very self-aware to not self-sabotage repeatedly to keep yourself at this static ‘level’.  

More recent study into the brain’s development including neuro-plasticity lends scientific support to these theories but offers hope for those that would like to break their self-esteem Set-Point and have a permanently higher Set-Point. It is now known that the brain constantly adapts, re-wires and re-balances itself depending on the experiences that the person is going through. Therefore, if one consistently trains oneself to bypass the natural self-limiting beliefs and self-sabotage, just as in habit forming, it is possible to ‘reset’ the self-esteem set-point.  

One simple yet interesting way to determine if one has good or poor self-esteem is to observe how one reacts when faced with someone in a troubling or ignorant situation. A person with poor self-esteem will feel the urge to put down or condescend to the person. In extreme cases of very low self-esteem the person might even try and push the person down further by ridiculing or preying on them and victimizing them.   

This is in contrast to how a person with good self-esteem would act. A person with good self-esteem when faced with a person showing ignorance or confusion or trouble will try and help the person. A person with very good self-esteem might even take the person under his wing for a short time to educate or enlighten them to the mistakes they are making.   

Visually we can see this in an interesting analogy. Imagine a certain level of sea water. One boat sits high in the water, another low in the water. These are the high and low self-esteem people. Now if a strange boat of medium level encounters trouble, the ‘lower self-esteem’ people/boat try and drag that person/boat down to their level while a person/boat of high self-esteem instead tries to lift the damaged boat up to theirs.   

Applying this simple story to real life encounters with people can help you gauge very quickly if they have good or poor self-esteem. Just pay attention to if they ridicule others, or try and help and lift up others and you get an immediate window into their subconscious. 

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