Self-esteem refers to the opinion you have of yourself; it’s your perceived self- value or self-worth. Self-esteem may be viewed as the evaluative part of your self-concept. That is, part of your self-concept consists of how valuable or worthy you think you are and that part is called self-esteem (Adler & Stewart, www.macses.ucsf.edu/Research/Psychosocial/notebook/self-esteem.html). One widely used definition is that self-esteem refers to a favorable or unfavorable attitude toward the self (M. Rosenberg, Society and the adolescent self-image, Princeton University Press, 1965). In popular usage, the term usually refers to positive evaluations (in fact, Webster’s defines it as “holding a good opinion of one’s self; self-complacency”) but it can just as easily refer to negative opinions. Thus, you may have high self-esteem and think highly of yourself or low self-esteem in which case you think negatively about yourself. And of course you may have high self-esteem when it comes to certain topics and low self-esteem when it comes to other topics. For example, you might have high self-esteem on the ball field but low self-esteem in the chemistry lab. Concepts such as “self-confidence,” “body esteem,” and “self-efficacy” (your sense of competence) refer to some of the more specific forms of self-esteem.
Another way of defining self-esteem is to examine the items in the scale presented below as you measure your own self-esteem. It’s the most widely used and most highly regarded scale to measure self-esteem:
Below is a list of statements dealing with your general feelings about yourself. If you strongly agree, circle SA. If you agree with the statement, circle A. If you disagree, circle D. If you strongly disagree, circle SD.
1. I feel that I’m a person of worth, at least on an equal plan with others. SA, A, D, SD
2. I feel that I have a number of good qualities. SA, A, D, SD.
3. All in all, I am inclined to feel that I am a failure. SA, A, D, SD.
4. I am able to do things as well as most other people. SA, A, D, SD.
5. I feel I do not have much to be proud of. SA, A, D, SD.
6. I take a positive attitude toward myself. SA, A, D, SD.
7. On the whole, I am satisfied with myself. SA, A, D, SD.
8. I wish I could have more respect for myself. SA, A, D, SD.
9. I certainly feel useless at times. SA, A, D, SD.
10. At times I think I am no good at all. SA, A, D, SD.
Scoring: to score the items, assign the following values to each of your responses.
For items 1, 2, 4, 6, and 7: SA = 3, A = 2, D = 1, SD = 0 (these are the items that are positively valenced, indicating high self-esteem). For items 3, 5, 8, 9, 10: SA = 0, A = 1, D = 2, SD = 3 (these are the items that are negatively valenced, indicating low self-esteem).
Next, add all your responses. Your score should range from 0 (indicating extremely low self-esteem) to 30 (indicating extremely high self-esteem).
*This scale comes from Morris Rosenberg, Society and the Adolescent Self-Image (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1965) and is used by permission (http://www.bsos.umd.edu/socy/grad/socpsy_rosenberg.html).
What’s particularly interesting about self-esteem is that it seems almost universally regarded as a good thing, as something that will influence positively what you do. High self-esteem, it is often thought, will lead to better academic performance, better job performance, and increased likeability—after all, it seems reasonable to assume that people with high self-esteem will perform better in school and on the job and will also be liked socially more than will people who have low self-esteem. However, the research that has been done on these topics—and there is much available—doesn’t really show that self-esteem leads to these benefits (R. F. Baumeister, J. D. Campbell, J. I. Krueger, and K. D. Vohs, Exploding the Self-Esteem Myth, www.ScientificAmerican.com, 2004). Rather, the research shows that there is a high correlation between the two. Thus, people with high self-esteem do function better academically. But, the question that this doesn’t answer is, Does the high self-esteem lead to better academic performance, or does better academic performance lead to high self-esteem? The same is true for job performance and for being liked by peers and associates. Unfortunately, some books and articles make it appear that the high correlation is somehow also causal; it isn’t.
When it comes to relationships, it may be argued that positive self-esteem helps in the development and maintenance of relationships and lessens the likelihood of relationship deterioration (C. L. Carmichael, F. Tsai, S. M. Smith, P. A. Caprariello, and H. T. Reis, “The Self and Intimate Relationships” in The Self, ed., C. Sedikides and S. J. Spencer (NY: Psychology Press, 2007, pp. 285-309). If you have high self-esteem, the argument goes, it seems you’d be more likely and more willing to initiate relationships than you would if you had low self-esteem. On the other hand, high self-esteem may lead you to wait until someone tries to initiate a relationship with you. After all, if you’re that hot, an alternative argument would hold, others should come to you.
In terms of maintenance and deterioration, you might assume that people with high self-esteem would maintain faith in themselves even when things in the relationship are going wrong. And they’ll believe that they have the ability to set things right; they’d be willing to fight for their relationship and be confident that they’d win. Low self-esteem people might feel incapable of re-directing a relationship and so may give up. On the other hand, you might argue that high self-esteem people, in a somewhat unhappy relationship, will feel that there are “other fish in the sea” and may simply move on to another relationship. A person low in self-esteem, however, might feel that this relationship needs to be saved because other relationships will not be easy to establish.
The research bearing on these issues does point to some positive benefits of self-esteem. For example, high positive self-esteem seems to improve persistence even in the face of failure, helps people perform better in groups, and decreases the likelihood that the individual will develop eating disorders (Baumeister, Campbell, Krueger, and Vohs, 2004). But, these benefits are a far cry from the larger benefits we assume will accrue to high self-esteem individuals.
It remains for research to go beyond establishing correlations to establishing causal relationships where we can say with some certainty that high self-esteem produces or leads to or causes specific positive or negative effects. One final thought. The widely acknowledged importance and usefulness of self-esteem coupled with the paucity of research confirming these values makes it difficult to know what the best thing to do is when writing the chapter on the self in an interpersonal or human communication textbook. In fact, I rethink this issue with every new edition. My solution—and please tell me if you disagree—has been to include a discussion of self-esteem but at the same time include a cautionary note that there is little research supporting the many beneficial claims. And so, for example, I also include several suggestions for increasing self-esteem: attack your self-destructive beliefs, secure affirmation from others through the exercise of effective communication skills, seek out nourishing people, and work on projects that will result in success and at the same time avoid projects that are simply impossible. But, I fear that the cautionary note gets lost because it seems so logical that self-esteem would have all these wonderful benefits and perhaps because we want it to.