Self-Assessment: An Underrated Way to Gain Self-Esteem

by | May 10, 2024 | Lifestyle

Many people assume that high self-esteem means loving yourself unconditionally, which includes thinking that you’re great at lots of things—perhaps even thinking that you’re better than you are. But that’s not true. As psychologist Nathaniel Branden put it, “one of the characteristics of persons with healthy self-esteem is that they tend to assess their abilities and accomplishments realistically, neither denying nor exaggerating them.” Branden considers self-esteem to include both a sense of efficacy—belief in your ability to deal with the world, and worth—conviction that you are moral.1 

Given that definition, achieving self esteem requires having your mind connected to reality—observing the relevant facts and evaluating them objectively using reason. This is a prerequisite both to becoming efficacious and moral, and to knowing that you are efficacious and moral. The good news is, the more you flex your rational “muscle” by engaging with reality, the more confident you will be in your mental capabilities and ability to deal with the world around you. The alternatives—living by unexamined emotions, by the judgements of others, or a combination thereof—leave you open to having a sense of self-esteem that can vacillate wildly based on the whims of others or the slightest event that you feel reflects on your abilities or worth.

Accurately assessing your abilities also enables you to correctly identify areas of weakness so you can improve and adopt a learner’s mindset in appropriate contexts, such as when you’re a beginner or when you’re speaking or working with someone more advanced than yourself.

There are also contexts in which others’ assessment of your abilities can affect your life and self-esteem. It’s both misguided and pointless to try to ensure that everyone around you knows exactly how good you are at what you do, but paying attention to others’ expectations and feedback can help you gauge whether their assessment of your abilities matches your own—assuming you have good reason to trust their judgment. 

For example, an acquaintance recently posted on Facebook about his wife’s job hunt. In her previous job hunt, he helped her apply for many senior positions in her field. She got only a few interviews, and they were difficult and made her feel discouraged and inadequate. The job she eventually got wasn’t a good fit, and she left after a relatively short time. This time, however, he isn’t helping her apply for jobs, and she’s applying for junior positions that she considers herself more qualified for. She’s early on in the job search, but has already scheduled several interviews. In this case, the husband’s well-meaning intention (to help her find a high-paying job that would challenge her) had the opposite effect: It made her feel bad about herself, because there was a mismatch between her husband’s (and the potential employer’s) expectations of her and her own assessment of her abilities. She feels more confident going into these new interviews, and most likely, the job she gets will be a better fit for her.

Although skill level isn’t the only element involved in a job being a good fit, it’s a huge aspect. And this idea applies to other areas of life as well. Consider lifting weights. Lifting heavy enough to be challenging for you is a good strategy—it helps you build strength. But lifting too heavy for you at a given time is frustrating and puts you at risk of injury. Knowing your skill level matters here because it enables you to choose weights that build muscle without injuring you (just as it enabled my acquaintance’s wife to choose a job that challenged her without demotivating her). 

We can mis-evaluate our own abilities in a variety of ways, and there’s an added layer of complexity when we consider others’ assessments of our abilities. But we can improve our own accuracy, and have strong reasoning and examples to present to others when appropriate, by using the evidence to accurately assess our abilities, readjusting regularly as we get new information, and acting accordingly. 

There are a few strategies that can help you improve your evaluation of your abilities—and to spot when others’ evaluations may be off—so that you can build a strong, reality-oriented self-esteem:

  1. Look out for “yeah, but”s in your thinking and speech: Many people downplay their own accomplishments. If someone else brings up their achievements, they may say something like, “Yeah, but that was easy for me,” or “Yeah, but it’s not that impressive really because I had this great teacher,” or something to that effect. It is, of course, honest and just to appreciate those who help you, but that doesn’t take away from whatever it is that you accomplished. Don’t belittle your own skills and achievements; be proud of them.
  2. Look out for things being too easy: If you’re finding yourself whizzing through your work or getting bored easily, as I did in school and in some of my earlier jobs, then perhaps you’re not in a position where you’re being challenged. This may be because you or others have underestimated your abilities. How significant of a change you can make to your work or academic environment depends on your context, but there are always ways to find new challenges. If changing jobs or schools is not an option, consider taking on a new project in your current job, picking up a new hobby, or studying a new subject (the Internet makes it easier than ever to teach yourself new skills or do deep dives on niche topics of interest).
  3. Look out for overwhelm or defensiveness: Many of us have experienced being in a situation where we felt in over our heads, as though the task or issue before us was too big for us to handle. Sometimes this also manifests as defensiveness toward those who try to help us, provide constructive criticism, or ask valid questions about what we’re doing. Although context can play a role (if you aren’t well-rested, for example, or struggling with mental illness or a recent traumatic event, many things will feel overwhelming), this can be a sign that you’re being expected to do something, or are expecting yourself to do something, that’s currently beyond your capabilities. It can be great to challenge and stretch yourself, but a persistent feeling of overwhelm may indicate you need to seek some assistance with whatever it is you’re working on.
  4. Separate your expectations from external expectations: I hold myself to very high standards, but sometimes those standards are completely unreasonable. To figure out when that may be the case, I start by disentangling whether the expectations I’m dealing with are my own or set by someone or something else. Is the expectation reality-based—for example, that I work out at least two to three times a week for stress management and physical health? Or is it arbitrary—say, that I spend a certain number of hours cleaning each week? Or is the expectation set by someone else, such as a boss or a family member? If the latter, does the expectation make sense given my context, workload, and abilities, or do I need to have a conversation with the person setting it to readjust? If it’s my own expectations, why have I set them where they are? Is it to achieve a particular goal? To impress someone? Or is it totally arbitrary? High expectations can push us to achieve great things, but unrealistic expectations that don’t make sense in my context aren’t serving me—they’re just stressing me out and making me feel inadequate.

There are of course many other data points that can help you assess your abilities in a given area, including feedback from trusted individuals, objective criteria, and tracking your progress. But often when we feel frustrated, overwhelmed, inadequate, or bored, it’s because we or others have misjudged our abilities. Correcting this mismatch can help us to be in situations where we’re adequately challenged and appreciated, which, along with properly appreciating our own accomplishments, can help us build stronger self-esteem.

  1.  This definition comes from Ayn Rand, whose work heavily influenced Branden’s. ↩︎

On Solid Ground is a community blog where we publish articles by guest contributors as well as by the staff and officers of OSI. The ideas offered by guest contributors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the ideas of the staff or officers of OSI. Likewise, the ideas offered by people employed by OSI are their own, and do not necessarily reflect those of others in the organization.

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