Foundations of Solid Self-Esteem


“Thou shalt” is the name of the

great dragon.

But the spirit of the lion says

“I will.”

- Friedrich Nietzsche

ven the most self-effacing among us acknowledge that it is good to have solid self-esteem, for we all understand that when we feel calmly and consistently confident in ourselves, we are much more willing to give our ideas a try. And some of those ideas are impressive and can lead us to grand achievements. And achieving those grand things increases our self-esteem, leaving us even more self-assured and capable. A self-perpetuating and enviable position to be in. This is the spirit of Nietzsche's lion that says, “I will.”

But when the opposite is true and we’re caught in the vicious circle of struggle/insecurity/abdication, how do we turn things around? When we shiver like a little mouse confronting a daunting world, what can be done?

We can make a commitment to set aside some of our precious time and energy to do a major overhaul of our self-esteem.

Sören Kierkegaard wrote: "How can one learn if one does not in some sense already know what one has to learn?" The good news here is that, relative to self-esteem, we know more than we think we do. We have all experienced moments of solid self-esteem (Come on, haven’t you? Now is not the time for modesty!) and we all have mastered many of the components underlying this construct. Our problem relative to self-esteem is consistency. We can slip into that vicious circle of insecurity because, even though we may have many of the pieces of self-esteem available to our minds, we don’t always know how to put them together to create and then maintain a foundation of solid confidence.

This article is designed to remedy that situation. We are going to define the term, outline the components and then discuss how they all fit together. The discussions about the components will link you to other articles on this website for clarification, so it might be helpful to think of this article as a directory for gathering all the necessary skills underlying self-esteem. It won't be an easy journey for there will be dozens of connections sending you out to review and practice many basic skills, but there is no better way to serve yourself than to attend to your self-esteem system.

A fine life is built upon a fine foundation of solid self-esteem. We all deserve a fine life.

Self-esteem defined

A definition of self-esteem needs to address both halves of the linked word.

For our purposes here, a “self” describes a thinking unit within us that can provide a psychologically safe internal clearinghouse for gathering data and analyzing how things are going in our day-to-day lives. A sound self recognizes that both positive and negative data are valuable and that all information must be assessed relative to what our particular intentions are. (That last sentence may look like a throw-away concept. Please don't be fooled. It is worth an extra read and an extra think.) The makeup of a strong self is covered later in this article, but I want to outline it briefly here. The more coherent the self within us, the better able we are to direct this daily research. We forge a vital self when we eliminate shame, heal childhood wounds, develop trust in ourselves, others and the world at large, and when we have access to adequate stipulation. Finally, a mature self is one that speaks to us with a firm and gentle voice that encompasses the five components of a good self-parenting attitude.

“Esteem” describes a level of confidence in our merit as an individual. This esteem is only solid if it is believable to the self and it can only be believable if it is based on an honest assessment of how we are doing. Although this assessment is subjective, our minds are savvy enough to understand that esteem needs to be supported by objective data that take into account our efforts, our successes and our very real failures. The bricks of esteem need be layered using a combination of contingent, external feedback and non-contingent, internal affirmation. The areas of our lives that strengthen our esteem must be germane to our core values and our preferred spheres of mastery. In other words, we can gain respect within ourselves only when we are successful at developing aspects of the self that are meaningful to us as individuals. To use me as an example, I’m very good at sarcasm but that fact does little to increase my self-respect because I don't see sarcasm as a component of self-actualization. On the other hand, I highly respect folks who reliably demonstrate self-discipline but I struggle to be a member of that club. My self-esteem, therefore, feels most sturdy when I have a day high in accountability.

In sum, the word “self-esteem” can be defined as having confidence in yourself based on a safe yet courageous relationship with yourself that allows for an honest and open internal conversation about your progress in life based on where you, yourself, are intending to go. With high self-esteem the following is true: you are the stakeholder, the stakes are high and the odds are good.

Overview of components

Five cognitive/behavioral components work together to construct the foundation upon which our esteem rests. And, not surprisingly, each component is created by an existentially-driven strategy. When they combine within us, the magic of synergy causes any devaluation of the self to be replaced with a resilient self-worth that can weather struggles and set-backs. The components and strategies are:

1. Safety: Retreat from the world in order to learn to trust yourself.

2. Self-Construction: Form up your own “self”

3. Intentions: Make a plan.

4. Courage: Persist in forward progress.

5. Cooperation: Solicit and accept help from others

Section One: Retreat from the world

It might seem strange to start a discussion about elevating self-esteem by talking about retreat, but we must remember how chaotic and unhelpful the everyday world can be. When we say that life is difficult, we mean, in part, that our world makes things difficult. Because inner peace is the goal of this first step, retreat is called for. Where we are retreating to is very important. We are seeking refuge inside our minds, where we are fully in charge. Within our skulls ought to be the safest place on earth. So our job here is to pull back inside ourselves and then make sure that we haven’t brought any enemies in with us.

The enemies I’m referring to are shame, the complete list of awful and a cultural decree of sinful. Shame, of course, is what allows the other two enemies to gain a foothold within our sense of self. I hope you can see that this Trojan horse is both hostile and ineffective. It is an attack on our character that labels us with the complete list of awful (stupid, childish, boring, cowardly, unlovable and lazy), as well as the complete list of sins (pride, greed, lust, anger, gluttony, envy and sloth.) We neither deserve nor need these labels. Guilt, that uncomfortable feeling we have when we have made a mistake with respect to the way we wish to behave, is adequate for self-critique and self-correction. As uncompromising as this sounds, there can be no solid self-esteem in the presence of shame. If you have any doubt about the validity of that last sentence, please reread the articles referenced in this paragraph.

Assuming that you have retreated within the safety of your own mind and have been able to at least minimize shame, you then need to check your defense systems to make sure you are able to protect yourself from harsh, overpowering or wrong-headed data coming into your sanctuary from the outside world. Healthy defensiveness helps us in two ways: it reminds us that only the people who matter, matter; and it titrates the flow of incoming data to a manageable level. The article that covers this ability is Defending Yourself: Why It Is A Good Idea.

The last piece needed to optimize the safety of our skull environment is a clean relationship with who we have been becoming. Because the data about who we are today reside in who we have been to date, we must learn to look back anew over our background to assemble a refreshed version of our unique selves. The point here is not to achieve freedom from our past, but freedom within our past – freedom to harvest the information there without shame distorting the data. To build this trust in yourself, start by remembering that you are the authority on yourself because you have been there, every moment, watching. There is no one else who can get inside your head, who knows you better or who has paid more attention to you. You are unique and you deserve to be taken seriously. Happily, you are the person to do just that. If these words do not stir you in a positive way, you need to work on your relationship with your past. The articles about understanding your childhood (It’s Not Your Fault, To Err Really Is Human, Pricked: The Sleeping Beauty Effect of a Poor Childhood, The Moxie of Truth and A Good Childhood) are all designed to help you make peace with your past so that you can integrate all that rich data into an affirmative sense of who you are. If you have tried reading these articles and you remain unconvinced that you are a good person who deserved a good childhood and who now deserves a good future, please consider seeking professional therapy.

You can see that the first step in constructing self-esteem is a doozy. You need to retreat from a chaotic and hostile world into the safety of your own mind for a good think or two. But few of us have been taught how to a create an inner sanctuary that is safe, so once we are willing to retreat to think, we need to clean up our internal world. There are many skills needed to create that safety. You have to retrain your harsh inner critic to use appropriate guilt to continue the formation of your character. You must seek semi-permeable defenses that will allow you to access outside data at a speed you can manage. You will have to take the initiative to critique all data according to your personal value system to ensure a high level of differentiation. You have to come to trust yourself because you, of all people, know how very hard you have been trying. That gentle assessment of your unique past now stands as a testimonial to that earnest effort.

When all these skills are more or less in place, the inside your skull is now the safest place on earth.


Women's Growth in Connection

- Judith V. Jordan, Alexandra G. Kaplan, Jean Baker Miller, Irene P. Striver and Janet L. Surrey

Passionate Marriage

- Richard Schnarch

Emotional Intelligence

- Daniel Goleman



Send your questions to me at:


Section Two: Form your own self

Once you’ve retreated and you’re safe inside your mind, it’s time to check out how grown up you are. Growing up means you take over the job left unfinished by your parents. This self-construction is made easier if you have a model of parenting that you can assemble within yourself. If you were fortunate enough to have had good parenting as a child, you will only need to find the model your folks created within you for a bit of polishing up. If you were not so fortunate, you will need to build a parental unit for yourself from scratch. This can be difficult to do in a culture that is lean on examples of good parenting. One such model is the two-voices/five-attitudes model described on this website. The two voices represent different personas with two different ways of guiding you: one persona is supportive and the other is challenging. The supportive voice wants you to be thoughtful about your safety (both physical and psychological) and is focused on making sure you have access to the resources you need. The challenging voice wants you to think big, take risks and shake off any setbacks. These two voices both care for you, are equally valuable to you and need to coexist in a respectful and stable manner inside your mind. The article How To Talk To Yourself: Healthy Internal Discussions describes the workings of these two voices in some detail.

Despite the fact that they have the opposite views of what criteria you should be privileging at any point in time, these two voices should both robustly embody the five parental attitudes. What this means is that each voice in the pair should: take their job as consultant seriously, hold themselves accountable for speaking out truthfully, find you and your endeavors delightful, remember that your life ALWAYS boils down having to face the terrifying givens of existence and agree to work on cooperating with each other. These five attitudes are expanded in the article Self-parenting: It’s all in the Attitude.

Because humans tend to make better decisions when they broaden their perspective, it helps to consult with this pair of voices as we work to create our existential essence. But because few of us have these parental figures in the front of our minds, we have to take responsibility for seeking them out and listening to them. If we find that one of the two consultants tends to dominate, we will also have to take responsibility for forcing them to remain in balance. The dominant culture tends to be demanding, which means that often the voice of challenge speaks the loudest. If we’re not careful, “Thou shalt” echoes constantly inside our heads. This is dangerous to our self-esteem because it too often leaves us under-provisioned and over-extended. You are in charge. These voices work for you. I like to think of the roles this way – you are the CEO whose job it is to listen then make the decisions, the supportive voice is the CFO making sure every chosen endeavor of yours gets funding, and the challenging voice is the Director of Research and Development always on the lookout for new and exciting things to try. The more overtly you personify these voices in your head and the more clearly you hear their input, the easier it is to run your business.

In addition to remembering to consult with your “thinking unit” about how things are going, it is also important to self-esteem to take the time to discuss with them the greater existential issues that underlie all our lives all the time. Because these givens are so pervasively difficult, if we forget to review them, we can start to believe that we are struggling in life for no good reason. So, sit down with your committee from time to time to discuss these unsolvable truths of life: We are unique; we are responsible for designing our own lives; we have to decide for ourselves which things are meaningful; we have to tolerate the randomness of Fate; we are isolated within our bodies and therefore everything we “know”, we have to take on faith; and we often feel alone and inept. For more information about how to tackle the pervasive existential struggles, see the gnarly article Finding Good Teachers: The Existential Whiz Kids.

You now have an advisory committee in your head that can serve you in the following ways: help gather and analyze the data streaming in from your daily life; supervise your reaction to life events; investigate the facts; expand options through open and enthusiastic dialogue; and select things to do next. It is important to remember, however, that there can be no expectation that the three of you will come up with the right answer, for there are no right answers, just good guesses.

Section Three: Make a plan

A life without a plan is a life enslaved. Think about it. If you aren’t deciding where your life is going, someone else is. The most common slave owner is contingency, for left unchecked, our day-to-day world floods us with events that demand our response and with orders to behave in proscribed ways (also known as “shoulds”). These demands swamp our internal processors, leaving us feeling like FEMA should be in charge of our lives rather than our own intentions. By this I mean, from an existential standpoint a reactive life tends to be about emergency management rather than essence creation.

How do you take control of your life and wrestle it out of the hands of contingency? You use the three big existential guns – willpower, will and will to power.

Willpower is that little biochemical starter engine in our brain that allows us to pick a plan and set it in motion. It comprises three parts: time binding, checking intentions and choosing to choose. Each of these parts is well within our existential wheelhouse, but each takes energy. We are allotted only so much willpower per day, so it is important for us to use it wisely or we can run out a little after 11 a.m. The article Willpower: The Little Engine That Could describes the three parts and covers prudent use of this important tool.

Will is our big appetite for life. But, strange as it sounds, few of us actually know what we want. Sometimes we have so many things we’re hungry for we find ourselves nibbling on the beginnings of many things, which leaves us unfed in terms of mastery. Other times we may find ourselves gorging on something that we may not really want to want but that the culture is eager to feed us. Or, perhaps, our petulance comes to dominate our lives so completely we find ourselves unable to tolerate the act of wanting at all. So, while will is a natural aspect of being a human being, it is a little tricky to engage our will well. To will is to want to do. Since we can want to do many things simultaneously but only do one thing at a time, we must develop a good grasp of what we want most. And because we can also want things that may be very difficult to achieve, we have to understand what to do about an impeded will. As you can tell, in order to have a strong will, we must be very skillful wanters. The article on will and the article on wanting present strategies for improving your ability to want judiciously.

Will to power reveals our existential soul, for at our core there is always a special version of ourselves who we are secretly wishing to become. When we can yoke our ability to choose the dream we want to pursue the most in an orthogonal pairing of high willpower and high will, we will be perfectly poised to will one thing. When we know what we are most hungry for, our will to power is insatiable and will move us surely toward this secret desire within us. This is the height of living on purpose. (I know this paragraph is inordinately jargon-heavy, but if you can take the time right now to stop and read the articles linked in this section, I believe this paragraph will chrystalize into a breath-taking description of how to live life authentically.)

You may not be able to map your own destiny, but you can absolutely decide to make your way to the trailhead of your choice. So make a new plan, Stan.

Section Four: Persist in forward progress

Let’s say we’ve done our existential job well – we’ve retreated within ourselves, created a safe internal environment with trustworthy consultants and have made and launched a good plan, are we home free? Unfortunately, no. In life there is always the element of friction working against our will to power. Like the interface between the tires and the road, our forward progress gets impeded by the physics of everyday living. These impediments include the lack of necessary psychological skills, a tendency to procrastinate too often, fear of failure, bad luck and so on. If you have uncovered what you really, really want to do and you’re still not going for it, then it behooves you to check out these potential problems.

The best way to figure out what psychological skills you may be missing is, oddly enough, to investigate what psychological strengths you have. This is because we tend to overuse our strengths and that tendency leaves us underdeveloped in critical areas. For example, if you are naturally an extremely intuitive person, you will rely on that ability to the exclusion of practicing deductive skills. When the need for deduction arises, you find yourself unprepared. The article on orthogonality (one of my most favorite psychological concepts) will outline the process of reversing this trend.

We all procrastinate some of the time because it is simply impossible to avoid putting off some of the zillions of things on our to-do lists. But frequent procrastination in the face of a clear will needs attention. Here is an article on procrastination. How about reading it right now?

Fear of failure needs two methods of attack: the ability to effectively practice the actual skills needed in order to implement your plan and the ability to face fear. We can all grind to a halt when we are attempting things that are beyond our level of competence, so sometimes it makes sense to learn the necessary skills on their own before tackling one of our big dreams. This article, for example, outlines the components of self-esteem so that you can practice them individually before reassembling them to enhance your self-confidence. There are tricks to practicing things effectively, which are described in the article Effective Practice.

The ability to face fear, aka courage, is inherent in all of us. If our level of specific courage relative to a specifically daunting task is too low, however, we will need to do a little Cowardly Lion maneuver on our psyche. We do this when we remind ourselves of the truths about courage: that it is not the absence of fear, that we can handle a higher level of fear than we realize, that we can stay focused on the potential positive outcomes of our brave actions and that, most of all, we just have to keep breathing. Courage is discussed in more detail in the article on the complete list of awful. And remember, it is easier to act bravely when we know we can retreat to the safety of our skull environment as needed.

Finally, all of us are extremely vulnerable to the inertia that Fate can create within us. Because we all know that bad luck can crush our forward momentum like our windshield can take out a bug, we will often protect ourselves from that anticipated misfortune by refusing to attempt. We also all know the old adage: A ship is safe in a harbor, but that not what a ship is built for. The best way to urge your ship out into the treacherous open sea is to challenge yourself with the beliefs that underlie the article on how difficult life is, and then balance that challenge with the support of the article that helps us truly understand our tendency to let petulance freeze us in place.

If you can mitigate these impediments that block your forward progress, you will be in a position to rally to Nietzsche’s cry: “Believe me! The secret of reaping the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment from life is to live dangerously!”

Section Five: Solicit and accept help from others

Because there can be no meaning to our life without having others to share it with us, because the self is developed and maintained in relationship with others, because we need confirmation from our world that our self-esteem is based on actual impressive behavior, and because maintaining forward progress is difficult without stipulation, we have to venture out of our retreat back into the social world. But we know that other people can be dangerous to us, so we don’t want to venture out unprotected. The final skills needed to create solid self-esteem provide us with that social protection and are well-built psychological defenses and differentiation.

As described above, well-built psychological defenses are those that allow us to take in outside information about how we are doing in this game of life at a rate that is informative rather than overwhelming. Few of us can handle a flood of criticism but nor can we grow when we are indulgently self-referencing.

Differentiation is the ability to maintain our emotional and intellectual self while staying in psychological contact with the world within which we live, meaning we can hold on to our own beliefs and our own emotions without needing everyone around us to agree with us or feel the same way we do. Others can continue to influence us but not control us. This maturation process balances the natural tendency to go our own way, make up our own mind, and trust only ourself with the equally natural tendency to want to rely on others, to share our life deeply and to want someone else to take care of us from time to time.

Differentiation is accomplished by balancing autonomy and intimacy in an orthogonal relationship. (To understand the structure and the power of an orthogonal binding, see the article What to Change About Yourself: It’s Not At All What You Think It Is.) When you have a high level of autonomy, you are able to reside independently within yourself, referencing your own values and priorities. When you are capable of great intimacy, you are able to maintain close relationships with people who matter despite the obvious danger that comes with caring deeply for another. Optimal differentiation comes, obviously, with high levels of both autonomy and independence.

You may recognize here an echo of the two parental voices from the section above on growing up. If you are not clear about how to strengthen either autonomy or intimacy, look to the balance of these two voices. If the supportive voice in our minds is too dominant, we will struggle to act independently. If the challenging voice is too dominant, our ability to handle intimacy well is compromised. Two books that can deepen your understanding of these concepts are: Passionate Marriage by Richard Schnarch and Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman.

When you have confidence in your ability to differentiate, you will be in a good position to ask for help, seek out and enjoy the energy available in connection and swim happily in the social milieu.

Sometimes, however, we need a rescue plan that involves soliciting help from others when we are not differentiated. When we find ourselves in this position, it helps if we can remind ourselves that there are fifteen million reasons why reaching out for help is an appropriate thing to do. To list just a few: everyone needs help sometimes; people feel good when you need their help; just because you need help it doesn’t mean you’re helpless; you can always pay them back or pay it forward; it’s appropriately humbling to be reminded we need others; need is the glue that holds communities together, and on and on. So when your starter motor won’t start, look around for someone with emotional jumper cables who can help you get moving again. It’s good for everyone when everyone is moving forward in life.

In conclusion

Outlined in this article are the many basic psychological skills that, when synthesized, create a conviction within us that we are taking effective steps toward a robust future and that triumph is a very real possibility. Once we have worked our way through this self-construction process to build a solid foundation of self-esteem and we understand each of the steps we have taken along the way, we will be able to return to any areas that start to trouble us, do any repair work necessary and keep our self-esteem well maintained. The stakes are high and the odds are good.

© Copyright 2024 Jan Iversen. All rights reserved.