The Source and Value of Self-esteem

by | May 16, 2021 |

Having good self-esteem is essential to being happy with your life. How can you be happy if you don’t have a good opinion of yourself? But developing and maintaining high self-esteem isn’t easy.

When I was a teenager, I allowed my self-esteem to be disproportionately impacted by the way others treated me. My sense of self-worth wildly fluctuated due to comments from and interactions with others, which I often over-analyzed until they seemed worse than they actually were. Eventually, I realized that these thoughts were counterproductive and that I needed to readjust my thinking so that I could enjoy my life fully.

When I started working to improve my self-esteem, I found a rough analogy helpful: I compared myself to a diamond. A diamond, I thought, has stable qualities; it’s hard, sparkly, has a certain degree of clarity, and so on, whatever anyone may think of it. Of course, humans are more dynamic than diamonds, but we still have stable qualities formed by our choices and actions, and your view of yourself should be based on these stable characteristics—on who you actually are, not on the opinions of others.

For example, when I was younger, I considered myself to be fairly intelligent: I did well in school, I remembered things easily, and I was a voracious reader, which helped me develop a vocabulary beyond my years. When I was sixteen, however, I got into a toxic relationship, and my partner at the time often made fun of and berated me if I didn’t know something. I started to question whether I was actually as smart as I thought, and to doubt my worth more generally. After I got out of that relationship, I realized that his evaluations weren’t based on reality, as shown by my abilities to analyze a situation, solve problems, learn new things, and so on. I realized this right as I started college, from which I would graduate summa cum laude with two bachelor’s degrees.

Around this time, I read Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead, which depicts a protagonist (Howard Roark) who achieves great things in his field and consequently has high self esteem, despite the many “second-handers” who work against him. Roark describes these second-handers as people who “have no concern for facts, ideas, work. They’re concerned only with people. They don’t ask: ‘Is this true?’ They ask: ‘Is this what others think is true?’” By contrast, Roark stands as a pillar of independence and integrity. He doesn’t concern himself primarily with the opinions of others. His evaluation of his work is based on its own merits, not on what the critics have to say. He provided a perfect example of the self-esteem I was trying to build.

This is not to say you should necessarily ignore feedback from others. Feedback can be helpful in improving yourself and reaching your goals. But it’s important to distinguish useful advice based on the facts of the matter from other comments. This realization radically improved how I evaluate myself. When someone criticizes me, I try to consider the criticism separately from my emotional response to it. Is the person correct? If so, how can I learn from the situation and avoid making the same mistake in the future? 

Using Roark as an example, I started working on my character and evaluating myself on the basis of my decisions and achievements—and my self-esteem skyrocketed. Having a strong sense of self-esteem is essential to flourishing; it requires judging yourself on your own actions on the basis of the facts without allowing the opinions of others to distort your thinking. Taking this rational approach to such an essential aspect of your thinking can radically improve your life.

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