By Brianna Wiest

We tend to think of self-esteem as a static thing, a state in which your mind naturally fuels you with positive, supportive thoughts, never being too deeply influenced by any doubts or dislikes. This, however, is where the fine line between self-esteem and self-aggrandizement blurs.

In the words of Anna Deavere Smith, self-esteem is what really gives us a feeling of wellbeing. It’s the very inherent sense that everything’s going to be alright, because we are capable of making it alright. “[Self-esteem is knowing] that we can determine our own course and that we can travel that course. It’s not that we travel the course alone, but we need the feeling of agency — that if everything were to fall apart, we could find a way to put things back together again.”

Self-esteem is not how much confidence you have in how well people perceive you, but how much confidence you have in whether or not you can manage your life.

What’s interesting about having real self-esteem is that it eliminates the need to focus on how we’re superior to others. When we don’t feel we’re actually in control of our lives (or aren’t happy with how things are going so far) we often focus on “how much better things are than someone else” to placate the feeling of failure.

In 1969, Nathaniel Branden published The Psychology of Self-Esteemin which he outlined what exactly it takes to build a healthy sense of self. He notes, particularly, that people either take the “feel good” approach (I am beautiful, I am rich, I am successful) which is merely a substitute for the real thing, or they build it in a genuine way.

He says that the two fundamental elements self-esteem boils down to are self-efficacy, which is “a sense of basic confidence in the face of life’s challenges,” and self-respect, “a sense of being worthy of happiness.”

[Self-esteem] is not an emotion which fluctuates from moment to moment, but a continuing disposition to experience a sense of efficacy and respect for oneself. Thus, it is something which is built over a long period of time, not just wished into existence. It is reality-based; undeserved praise, whether it comes from oneself or others, will not provide it.

Here are the six practices, or “pillars,” on which Branden argues self-esteem can be built. They prove that it is not just a choice to feel confident in yourself, but it many choices, made continuously, and with as much effort as possible.

Living consciously.

To live consciously is to not be controlled by your subconscious biases and desires. Your “shadow selves,” as they’re called, are out in the light. You understand what’s going on around you, and you can make informed choices based on that inherent understanding.


You aren’t aggrandizing your looks or your intelligence or being willfully ignorant of the natural balance of traits and characteristics every person possesses. This is true self-acceptance. It is seeing your whole self without judging or condemning parts of it.


You hold yourself accountable for your own happiness. You understand the phrase “it may not be your fault, but it is still your problem.” You are in control of your life because you are not letting other things do it for you.


You can stand up for yourself without being defensive. Defensiveness is born of fear; assertiveness is born of confidence.

Living purposefully.

You live mindfully and intentionally. You recognize that your “purpose” is just to be where you are, doing whatever you’re doing. In this, you infuse your days with a sense of purposefulness, as it is something you choose, not wait to find or have created for you.

Personal integrity.

You hold yourself to a certain standard of morals and ethics and accountability. You develop a code of conduct for yourself, rather than just abiding by the one that you were conditioned to. You are able to look at choices objectively, even when the circumstances are difficult. You realize the importance of the phrase “the road to hell was paved with good intentions…”

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