The self-esteem movement has swept through Western culture over the past 50 years, with parents and teachers alike doubling down on the idea that improving children’s self-confidence will lead to improved performance, and a more successful life in general (Baskin, 2011).
This movement started with a book published in 1969, in which psychologist Nathaniel Branden argued that most mental or emotional problems people faced could be traced back to low self-esteem. Branden laid the foundation for the Self-Esteem Movement with his assertion that improving an individual’s self-esteem could not only result in better performance but could even cure pathology.
Since then, there have been thousands of papers published and studies conducted on the relationship between success and self-esteem. This is a popular idea not only in literature but in more mainstream mediums as well. Before we begin exploring the complexities of self-esteem it is essential to unpack the differences between the overlapping concepts of self-efficacy, self-confidence, and self-esteem.
“Once we believe in ourselves, we can risk curiosity, wonder, spontaneous delight, or any experience that reveals the human spirit.” E.E. Cummings
Defining the Difference: Self-Efficacy, Self-Confidence, and Self-Esteem
While most people generally think of self-esteem and self-confidence as two names for the same thing, and probably rarely think about the term “self-efficacy,” these three terms hold slightly different meanings for the psychologists who study them (Druckman & Bjork, 1994; Oney, & Oksuzoglu-Guven, 2015).
What is Self-Efficacy?
Albert Bandura is arguably the most cited author on the subject of self-efficacy, and he defines self-efficacy as an individual’s beliefs about their capacity to influence the events in their own lives (Bandura, 1977).
This differs from self-esteem in an important way: the definition of self-esteem often rests on ideas about an individual’s worth or worthiness, while self-efficacy is rooted in beliefs about an individual’s capabilities to handle future situations. In this sense, self-esteem is more of a present-focused belief while self-efficacy is more of a forward-looking belief.
What is Self-Confidence?
This is likely the most used term for these related concepts outside of psychological research, but there is still some confusion about what exactly self-confidence is. One of the most cited sources about self-confidence refers to it as simply believing in oneself (Bénabou & Tirole, 2002).
Another popular article defines self-confidence as an individual’s expectations of performance and self-evaluations of abilities and prior performance (Lenney, 1977).
Finally, Psychology Dictionary Online defines self-confidence as an individual’s trust in his or her own abilities, capacities, and judgments, or belief that he or she can successfully face day to day challenges and demands (Psychology Dictionary Online).
Self-confidence also brings about more happiness. Typically, when you are confident in your abilities you are happier due to your successes. When you are feeling better about your capabilities, the more energized and motivated you are to take action and achieve your goals.
Self-confidence, then, is similar to self-efficacy in that it tends to focus on the individual’s future performance; however, it seems to be based on prior performance, and so in a sense, it also focuses on the past.
Many psychologists tend to refer to self-efficacy when considering an individual’s beliefs about their abilities concerning a specific task or set of tasks, while self-confidence is more often referred to as a broader and more stable trait concerning an individual’s perceptions of overall capability.
What is Self-Esteem?
The most influential voices in self-esteem research were, arguably, Morris Rosenberg and Nathaniel Branden. In his 1965 book, Society and the Adolescent Self-Image, Rosenberg discussed his take on self-esteem and introduced his widely used accepted Self-Esteem Scale.
His definition of self-esteem rested on the assumption that it was a relatively stable belief about one’s overall self-worth. This is a broad definition of self-esteem, defining it as a trait that is influenced by many different factors and is relatively difficult to change.
In contrast, Branden believes self-esteem is made up of two distinct components: self-efficacy, or the confidence we have in our ability to cope with life’s challenges, and self-respect, or the belief that we are deserving of happiness, love, and success (1969).
The definitions are similar, but it is worth noting that Rosenberg’s definition relies on beliefs about self-worth, a belief which can have wildly different meanings to different people, while Branden is more specific about which beliefs are involved in self-esteem.
What about those who have too much self-esteem? Narcissism is the result of having too much self-esteem. A psychological definition would be an extreme amount of selfishness, with a grandiose view of one’s own talents and a craving for admiration.
Self-esteem at high and low levels can be damaging so it is important to strike a balance in the middle. A realistic but positive view of the self is often ideal.
Where does self-esteem come from? What influence does it have on our lives? Self-esteem is often seen as a personality trait, which means it tends to be stable and enduring.
There are typically three components which make up self-esteem:
*Self-esteem is an essential human need that is vital for survival and normal, healthy development
*Self-esteem arises automatically from within based on a person’s beliefs and consciousness
*Self-esteem occurs in conjunction with a person’s thoughts, behaviors, feelings, and actions.
Self-esteem is one of the basic human motivations in Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Maslow would suggest that individuals need both esteem from other people as well as inner self-respect. These needs must be fulfilled in order for an individual to grow and thrive.
These needs must be fulfilled in order for an individual to grow and achieve self-actualization. Self-confidence and self-esteem are two closely related psychological phenomena, both based on past experiences and both looking forward at future performance.
Going forward, in an effort to keep confusion to a minimum, we will consider self-confidence and self-esteem to be essentially the same concept.
The bottom line is that a healthy sense of self-confidence is not something that we achieve once and then just have for the rest of our lives. If you are a parent, teacher, or someone else who interacts with children frequently, notice whether you are trying to build children’s self-esteem through protecting and praising them.
Consider what you are encouraging the child to learn from their actions, provide them with enough opportunities to safely learn through failure and offer them space to build their courage and express their self-efficacy.
No matter how confident they are, there will be a moment when they will need to draw from a deep well of self-esteem, resilience, and problem-solving to successfully navigate a complex and challenging world.
Self-confidence waxes and wanes and takes work to build, develop and maintain. We all experience moments which challenge our confidence, however, when we understand the sources of healthy self-confidence we can always work on cultivating it within ourselves.
BY Courtney E. Ackerman, MA