What Exactly Is Self-Esteem?

Evaluations of ourselves give rise to another aspect of our experience of ourselves: our self-esteem. Self-esteem is ‘the positivity of the person’s evaluation of self … it makes a value judgment based on self-knowledge’ (Baumeister, 1998, p. 694).

The construct of self-esteem was first described by William James (1890) as capturing the sense of positive self-regard that develops when individuals consistently meet or exceed the important goals in their lives.

More than a century later, the definition of self-esteem that was offered by James continues to be relevant such that self-esteem is generally considered to be the evaluative aspect of self-knowledge that reflects the extent to which people like themselves and believe they are competent (e.g., Brown, 1998; Tafarodi & Swann, 1995).

Although self-esteem is related to self-evaluation Opens in new window, it is not the same thing. Whereas self-evaluation Opens in new window represents one’s judgment about one’s relative performance or ability or possession of some attribute, self-esteem is the inferences drawn about the self from that evaluation, and can be mediated by, for example, the attributions made for one’s performance and the importance placed on particular aspects of the self.

So, for example, seeing oneself as a comparatively unmotivated and procrastination-prone student could have serious consequences for self-esteem (‘I’m undisciplined and lazy and will fail at everything I try’) or minor consequences (‘Oh well, I have other positive qualities, and constantly striving for success is no recipe for happiness anyway’). Depending on the attributions made and the importance of that aspect of self to the person’s self-concept.

A person, based on how s/he evaluates the self, may have high self-esteem or low self-esteem. High self-esteem refers to a highly favorable view of the self, whereas low self-esteem refers to evaluations of the self that are either uncertain or outright negative (Campbell et al., 1996).

Self-esteem is not necessarily accurate or inaccurate. Rather, high levels of self-esteem may be commensurate with an individual’s attributes and accomplishments or these feelings of self-worth may have little to do with any sort of objective appraisal of the individual. This is important because self-esteem reflects perception rather than reality.