I’ve been on both ends of human performance. I’ve been last in class and first in class, in multiple disciplines in my life, from academics, martial arts, business, relationships, and pursuits. Through the years, I've always wondered what are the key principles of high performance. Is it self-esteem, motivation, or is it discipline or is it willpower?
Secondly, I also wanted some research on the workings behind it. I didn’t want to be one of those self-help writers that publishes another cheesy post on ’10 steps to feel better about yourself today'.
How to Build Self Esteem - The Guide to Healthy Confidence
How is genuine self-esteem actually generated? Why do some people feel like a fraud and why do some people feel like a king? Why do some people feel deserving of success in their life whilst some people struggle with it? Can unhealthy self-esteem lead to people boasting of things they never did accomplish?
Initially, I bought the idea of willpower, after all, there are psychological studies that showed that environment shapes behavior, as opposed to willpower. However, I, later on, bought into the argument of childhood development: a more Freudian approach.
I’ll argue that high performance boils down to multiple variables, from the environment and your childhood experiences. I'll also argue that self-esteem is a key fundamental of all high-performance behavior. Your behavior boils down to one's self-esteem. How much you believe you’re worth, deep down. Self-esteem leads to courage and eventually leads to an expanded life.
If you believe you’re worth it, you’ll have higher expectations of both yourself and others. You’ll have stronger boundaries.
The student who believes he’s smart is going to put in the work whether he’s really actually smart or not. I found that to be true in my short Summer stint at UC Berkeley. I traditionally wasn’t a good student. However, for some reason, because I had the freedom to explore another aspect of my identity in another culture. I ended up performing academically.
In my entrepreneurial career, I quadrupled my price point overnight because I believed that my product and service were worth that price. My parents questioned that decision. Of course. Yes, a higher price leads to higher pressure, intensity and a willingness to make the product work. Yet, it sold.
However, these goes to demonstrate that a lot of our decision-making and life success is based on self-esteem.
The Freudian Idea: Self Esteem Derived from Childhood
It’s hard not to notice the parallels between self-esteem and childhood experiences. It’s also not uncommon to find people with problematic childhood growing up with self-esteem issues: self-sabotaging in academics, career and relationships.
It’s also hard not to notice that most parents have high expectations for their children. Ironically, a lot of them weren't able to replicate similar expectations and behaviors in themselves in the past or present. I personally believe that your troops only follow you when you’re able and willing to execute similar tasks. If a sales manager isn’t able to make a sales call and only makes his employees do it, he’s not going to be a manager for long!
The issues also come often in two main spectrums: you either had it too tough or had it too easy. Hence, you lack true self-esteem.
Self Esteem and Relationships
Self-esteem or the lack of can also be expressed in our relationships. If you choose to be with someone because he or she makes you feel confident, a sense of comfort or confidence that you can’t internally generate on your own, then you may lack genuine self-esteem.
However, if you choose a partner who has personal values that you admire, for example, intelligence, confidence, and strength, then that says a lot about your security as an individual, of a feeling of your own self-worth.
In an idealistic world, your employers, friends, and family are going to recognize the best virtues in you. However, in the real world, it often pans out in the opposite. I'm not going to bore you with the cliché that you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with. However, it's true. To use an analogy: your self-esteem may be challenged if you're attempting to lose weight and you have crappy friends that don’t believe that you are capable of that.
How to Build Genuine Self Esteem
Self-esteem is the judgment you pass on yourself and by the standards by which you judge yourself. If someone lacks self-esteem, they will feel driven to fake it, to create the illusion of self-esteem.
It has two interrelated aspects: it entails a sense of personal efficacy and a sense of personal worth. It is the conviction that one is competent to live, and worth living.
The sense of efficacy is defined by an individual choosing his goals and action. That one has to be right in the conclusions one draws and choices one makes. However, not demanding or expecting omniscience or infallibility.
What he needs is that which is within his power, the conviction that his method of choosing and making decisions is right in principle.
This can come in the form of sharp mental focus, seeking to bring one’s understanding to an optimal level of precision and clarity as opposed to a focus on the level of blurred approximation, in a state of passive, goalless mental drifting.
This is also through independent thinking and judgment. An individual with self-esteem is able to weigh the truth or falsehood of any claim or the right or wrong of any issue independently of uncritical passivity and assertions of others.
It isn’t the conviction that one can never make an error. It is the conviction that one is competent to think, judge and correct one’s errors.
You Must Place Values Above Emotions
The individual's self-esteem can be said to be the sum of the principles and values that guide one's actions in the face of moral choices. If you default on the responsibility of thought and reason, hence undercutting your competence in living. You’ll feel fundamentally unworthy. If you betray your moral convictions, you'll not retain your sense of confidence.
If you don’t respect yourself you’ll never be able to respect others.
Every individual has an innate sense to understand to the best of our intellectual capabilities. Sometimes, this can be negatively influenced in childhood through irrational parenting, authority figures and societal narratives. On the other hand, if an individual develops healthily, and acquires a set of values where his mind and emotions are in harmony, he won’t be chronically torn in between.
The difference between a well-adjusted individual and avoidance is that one is fleeing from reality, and the other is taking proper cognizance over it.
For example, it feels good to be drunk. The same can be said of our emotions. However, being drunk on emotions is often ensued by the misery of a hangover. On the other hand, when you place values above emotions, emotions are your reward and not your nemesis. By setting standards and values of your own, you’re rejecting other values and standards. You're building your own personal boundaries and values.
Oppositely, if you do not have values or standards of your own, you accept whatever values are offered to you by your external environment.
Develop a Sense of Life Purpose
Self-esteem is also ostensibly tied to one’s feeling of purpose. It is an individual's desire to grow in knowledge and skills, in understanding and control. The opposite is stagnant passivity.
On any level of intelligence or ability, one of the characteristics of self-esteem is an individual's eagerness for the new and the challenging, for which one is allowed to use his abilities to the fullest extent. Productive achievement is the cause and not the result of healthy self-esteem. Simply put, people who based their self-esteem on existential achievements don’t really have self-esteem at all.
False and Pseudo Self Esteem
The lack of self-esteem can be expressed by individuals who desire to escape consciousness and the ability or need to form rational thought. This is often expressed through the senseless chase of sexual pleasure, money for the sake of money and other vices in society such as drugs or alcohol. The chase for temporary pleasure experienced from temporarily feeling helpless.
This pleasure is different from the man who uses his faculties properly that is grounded in reality.
Self-esteem is confidence in one’s ability to achieve values and not the external results of it. The former is ‘I Can’, and the latter is ‘I Have’.
The rational, self-confident man, on the other hand, is motivated by his love of values and a desire to achieve them.
On the other hand, pseudo-self-esteem is an irrational pretense at self-value. It is an avoidance of anxiety and it provides a temporary sense of security. To the individual of authentic self-esteem, there is no clash between his recognition of the facts of reality and the preservation of one's self-esteem. That is because he bases his self-esteem on his ability to act accordingly with the facts of reality as he understands them.
However, to the man of no self-esteem, reality appears to be a constant threat, as an enemy. It’s a constant choice for him. It's reality or his self-esteem.
The determinant of a man’s self-esteem is the motivation between fear and love. You can be motivated by confidence or you can be motivated by terror. To a man that lacks self-esteem, he lives negatively, defensively and extensively. He is always in psychological danger. He never reaches normality.
He takes on the values and judgment of others and never takes ownership of his own life. He has always counted on others to solve the problem of his own survival and chooses values appropriate to this manner of existence.
This can take the form of:
- The man who never makes independent thought or judgment on his own
- The man who is obsessed with being popular, who feels driven to win the approval of everyone he meets
- The woman who has no sense of personal identity, and who seeks to lose her inner emptiness in the role of a sacrificial martyr for her children, demanding that her children do the same for her.
- The man that is aggressively, unconfidently masculine, whose concerns are entirely subordinated to filling a hole in his life through validation from women, one that derives lesser pleasure from the act of sex as opposed to boasting about it to other men
People That Experience a Crisis of Self Esteem
People experience pathological self-esteem crises when their values clash internally. There are absolutes expressed in their cognition: ‘I must not’ and ‘I am willing to’.
This can come in the form of a woman who has been brought up in an over-religious childhood or a restrictive culture. She then finds herself engaging in overtly sexual activities. There’s a clash of internal values. On one hand, sex feels good and natural. Yet, one the other, she was brought up to believe otherwise. This cognitive dissonance engages one's sense (or lack) self-esteem... leads to a crisis of self-esteem.
Sigmund Freud maintained that anxiety is triggered by forbidden sexual desire that breaks through the barrier of repression and causes the ego to feel overwhelmed and threatened. The unblocking of one anxiety is also known to unblock and stir up other conflicts that are anxiety-provoking.
How to Build A Positive Sense of Self Esteem
Ultimately, a positive sense of self-esteem is the product of two things: the ability to form independent judgment and thoughts, and the cultivation of an integrated set of values.
For everyone, the responsibility of thought and judgment is different for everyone. The responsibility and judgment required from a child are different from one of an adult. One has to accept one’s responsibility to choose a set of values, pass judgment, define goals, at some point in his life.
The acceptance of responsibility is a choice, and it’s not automatic nor wired into one’s brain by nature. It is a challenge to you how you can respond, with acceptance or rejection. To be motivated by terror or love.
The result of being motivated by love and challenge is a positive sense of self-esteem. The result of running away from responsibility thought and judgment will be a sense of pain and a lack of self-esteem.
It’s a man’s values that determine and becomes an extension of himself, as an integral part of his identity. The individual's self is a cumulative result of years and years of irrationalities, failures, successes, actions and values.
Self-esteem or the lack of is the reputation a man acquires with himself.
There's No Such thing as 'High Self Esteem' or 'High Confidence'
Finally, there's no such thing as 'high self-esteem' or 'high confidence'. Self-esteem is an opinion about the person you are. Ultimately, self-esteem is a mere bunch of thoughts about whether or not you're a 'good person'. It's not an unchangeable fact.
The problem comes in when you constantly have to justify and prove to yourself that you're a good person or that you have 'high self-esteem'. You constantly have to justify the 'you're good enough' opinion. The act of constantly needing to prove yourself and justifying takes up a huge amount of time and effort.
If you stopped exercising for a few days, your mind says: 'see? I know you wouldn't last. If you lose your temper with a friend or make a slight mistake at work... there goes your 'high self-esteem'.'
Early on, when I was a lot more immature, I was constantly worried about how confident I was on a day-to-day basis. The truth is that some days I feel confident, some days I don't. It’s just human to feel that way. You're already enough, as I commonly mention to my clients as a dating coach.
The more you try to justify your high self-esteem, the need for perfection. The more it kills you inside. The better approach is to let go of the idea of high self-esteem altogether. You don't need high self-esteem. What you actually just need is self-esteem. Plain, and simple.
How to Build Self Esteem: Closing Thoughts
If you feel like you 'lack self-esteem' here are the possibilities: 1) you probably lack standards for yourself 2) the people around you probably lack standards and expectations in themselves and standards and expectations for you.
Ultimately, the expectations and standards you set for yourself are going to largely fall to the quality of people around you. For a lot of us, you're going to spend most of your time with your family and close friends.
This is why getting a role model can be a possible solution. Someone that you look up to. This can come in the form of a formal paid coaching relationship, a good friend, an older brother or perhaps your boss.
Self-esteem is the foundation of all success, and also for one to become a better human being. He or she must first respect him or herself, build fundamental self-esteem that leads to personal integrity and accountability.
Branden, N. The Psychology of Self Esteem - a Revolutionary Approach to Self-Understanding That Launched a New Era in Modern Psychology.
Harris, R. The Happiness Trap