Motivation and emotion/Book/2015/Self-esteem and motivation

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Self-esteem and motivation:
What is the relationship between self-esteem and motivation?

Overview[edit | edit source]

I welcome you to this chapter to hear a different perspective on self-esteem. This is not a perspective that bears any significant resemblance to most mainstream conceptions that one should typically find in psychological research or, more often implicitly than explicitly, in movies, books, the media, workplaces, schools, churches, general contact with other human beings. The self-esteem I present to you is not something you get from a compliment, from someone else’s approval or declarations of love for you, nor from boasting, bragging, feelings of superiority over another individual. Nor is it the sort of feeling you get from a new car, a new phone, a new TV, a new hairstyle or outfit, likes on Facebook or retweets on Twitter.

This self-esteem is the kind that follows you everywhere, that you cannot kid or fake; the kind that can only be found inside you. No sense of belonging, no amount of affirmation from someone else, no amount of proving or justifying, can substitute for this psychological need. I invite the reader to embark now on what may be a disorienting journey, to discover why our self-esteem or lack of it may be intimately bound with motivation and profoundly important to understanding why we do what we do.

We shall explore such questions as: What is self-esteem? Where does the need for self-esteem come from? How is self-esteem generated? What are some of the misconceptions of self-esteem? Why is self-esteem crucial to understanding motivation?

Introduction[edit | edit source]

When I was growing up I perpetually felt like, psychologically, I was “between a rock and a hard place.” By this I mean, I felt I could see just about everything wrong with myself and with other people, all the ways people were irrational and out of touch with the facts of reality, but when it came to assessing and living by what I thought was right I felt virtually helpless. And the ramifications for this were not merely intellectual – I was manifesting chronic tension, pain, and symptoms of anxiety and depression. If there was anything I needed, it was values, a projection of what was good, right, noble, from someone I could trust, and whatever mileage I was getting from my own ideas and the values I had learned from family members, peers, church, TV and movies, and so on, was quickly running out. This is partly what sparked my interest in psychology.

As luck would have it, one day in Grade 12, while working on a psychology assignment and looking for resources, I came across a book I had never seen on the bookshelf I had never paid attention to in our study before: The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem, by Nathaniel Branden (pictured, right). Later I would learn this Branden was known as the “father of the concept of self-esteem”, a prolific author and successful psychotherapist for several decades. I picked it up and pretty soon I had forgotten about my assignment and my whole world now revolved around this book.

Trawling through the pages, I found paragraph after paragraph of profound statements about the nature of self-esteem and its role in our lives. I had expected to find at least a few wishy-washy half-truths or something, anything, I could puncture with my reasoning and critical thinking, but the more I considered what he said the more it made sense. I knew my life here on in would never be the same. Gradually I put aside my defences and allowed myself to be inspired, to heal, to grow into a healthier, happier, more self-confident person.

The self-esteem I present to you is necessarily based largely on the ideas of Nathaniel Branden. Nevertheless, his ideas have been critiqued as rigorously and diligently as I could manage - not just over weeks or months but several years - and expanded on through my own personal understandings.

Fundamentals[edit | edit source]

Let us begin at the beginning...

Where does the need for self-esteem come from?

Nathaniel Branden’s first book, The Psychology of Self-Esteem, was published in 1969. In the first part of this book he explains the foundations of human beings’ need for self-esteem, outlining the most fundamental aspects of human nature and logically progressing through such concepts as consciousness, thinking, goals, values, emotions, mental health, till the need for self-esteem is reached. We shall follow a similar, albeit miniaturised, version of events here. This I feel is important as it establishes why the need for self-esteem is in our nature, and is not some arbitrary social construct or Western delusion.

What is science? Why do we need it?

“Science is the rational and systematic study of the facts of reality … the purpose of science is to provide man with the intellectual means of his survival.” (Branden, 1969, pp. 4) There are three basic categories of science – the first involving the study of matter – requiring physics and chemistry, the second involving the study of life – requiring biology, the third involving the study of consciousness – for which the science of psychology was born. (Branden, 1969)

What is the nature of scientific study?

To study any science the following must be established: A fact is a fact. What is, is. Reality is reality whether we like it or not, whether we understand it or not, whether we believe it or not. No matter how many people in the world do not know about or choose not to believe in gravity, for instance, the force will continue to bind us to the Earth. The same is true of any other fact of nature. But when it comes to psychology, especially in certain areas, this perspective can seem rather foreign.  

What is unique to the human condition? What is human psychology?

Other forms of life are essentially biologically programmed to live; their means of survival is “wired in.” (Branden, 1969) While an animal’s distinctive method of survival is perceptual, the human condition is that we live and survive by virtue of our distinctive form of consciousness, our conceptual or rational faculty. (Branden, 1969) We need to conceptualise – e.g., the word 'chair', the planet 'Mars', the number '14', which mean nothing to and have no way of being understood by any species but our own - we need to think, expand or contract awareness, create goals, decide on courses of thought or action, and such acts are volitional in nature. Human psychology is therefore properly conceived as “...the science that studies the attributes and characteristics which man possesses by virtue of his rational faculty.” (Branden, 1969, pp. 7)

What is the nature and role of self-esteem?

Emotions tell us whether a course of action is good or not, and how much so (Branden, 1969). Self-esteem is the feeling or estimate we get about the efficacy of the way we are functioning, and is implicit in all emotions we experience (Branden, 1969). It is in human nature that we have to be able to assess the validity of the way we are operating, whether we like it or not, and how we feel about ourselves is our manner of guiding us to the correct course of action. Self-esteem is a basic and urgent psychological need – a need being that which is necessary for survival and well-being (Branden, 1969). It can be viewed as the immune system of our psyche (Branden, 1994). Without positive self-esteem we are severely impaired to live the life appropriate to us as individuals and as a species, and the extent of mental health is largely contingent on the degree of its establishment.

But whereas the function of our metabolism is automatic, the function of our mind is not: to think is an act of choice (Branden, 1969, pp. 37). We can think of this or think of that, we can concentrate on things in varying degrees, expand the range of our awareness or contract it (Branden, 1969). We can bring more awareness to an assignment, the same amount, or less, just as we can with Facebook, Youtube, work – in whatever form that may be, diet and physical health, exercise, relationships with partners, friends, co-workers, and our own emotions, inner signals, thought processes – e.g., Am I doing what is best for my health, well-being, happiness? Our choices in such areas are crucial to determining the level of our self-esteem and psychological health.  

The Thinker NYC March 6, 2015-3.jpg

What is self-esteem?[edit | edit source]

  • Self-esteem is how an individual thinks and feels about him- or herself.
  • Self-esteem has two components: self-efficacy and self-respect.
  • Self-efficacy is a fundamental, generalised sense of our own competence in regards to thinking, learning, making decisions, mastering the basic challenges of life. (Branden, 1994)
  • Self-respect is confidence in our own worth and value, of being worthy of happiness. (Branden, 1994)
  • It is the result of thousands of everyday choices and actions – some which carry more weight, some less. For this reason Branden calls it “…the reputation we acquire with ourselves.” (Branden, 1987, pp. 28)
  • It is earned, not given. (Branden, 1994)
  • It is your own judgement, not someone else’s.
  • It is generated from within you. (Branden, 1994)
  • It is neither comparative nor competitive. (Branden, 1994)
  • It is grounded in a respect for reality, for the facts, for the truth. (Branden, 1994)

How is self-esteem generated?[edit | edit source]

The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem are the practices that Branden discovered over the course of many decades of work as a psychotherapist, and encompass many or all of the most crucial factors necessary for fostering an authentic sense of confidence in one's own competence and worth. Unfortunately I can only present a brief distillation here. Please follow this link to view a series of excellent videos where Branden talks about each of his practices. (In the first of these they begin talking specifically about self-esteem at 4:26 and living consciously at 10:55.)

The Practice of Living Consciously[edit | edit source]

Living consciously entails a respect for the facts of reality (Branden, 1994). It means generating a level of awareness appropriate to the task or situation. It means paying attention to your inner life as well as the external world. Paying attention to whether your actions are getting you where you want to go, and taking responsibility for modifying your actions when they are leading you in the wrong direction. Paying attention to the areas in greatest need of improvement in your life, whether that's work, relationships with partners, friends, co-workers, health, diet, your own personal development. It means operating mindfully, not on autopilot. It means thinking, even when thinking is hard, even when it could lead you far away from the mainstream (Branden, 1985). It means not denying the existence of and being attentive to thoughts or feelings that bring you discomfort or pain. The more we live consciously, the more we can respect and enjoy the function of our own mind.

The Practice of Self-Acceptance[edit | edit source]

When it comes to the need to accept things about ourselves, it can be very difficult to generate the appropriate level of awareness. "Stated in the negative, self-acceptance is my refusal to be in an adversarial relationship to myself." (Branden, 1994, pp. 90) Self-acceptance is not merely acknowledgement - though it is partly that. It is making real to ourselves that I did what I did, I feel what I feel, I think what I think, I am what I am. Even when it's painful, even when it's hard. Self-acceptance means being for yourself, not against yourself. We have to be our own internal support system in this sense, treating ourselves like a good friend would. Self-acceptance does not mean liking or condoning, and neither does it mean giving up a desire to change. In fact, self-acceptance is essential for change. "I cannot forgive myself for an action I will not acknowledge having taken." (Branden, 1994, pp. 93) Self-acceptance is saying this is me right now, whether I like it or not. It means refusing to deny or disown, refusing to be at war with ourselves.

The Practice of Self-Responsibility[edit | edit source]

We are properly responsible for all those areas of our lives that involve volition or choice. When we deny or avoid responsibility for things within our control, self-esteem suffers. When we own and take responsibility for aspects of our lives that are properly our responsibility this nurtures self-esteem, and we develop a greater sense of control over our life, well-being and general existence.

Self-responsibility entails such things as (Branden, 1994):

  1. Taking responsibility for our thinking, the awareness we generate in various areas of our life
  2. Taking responsibility for our choices and actions
  3. Taking responsibility for the values we choose to accept and live with
  4. Taking responsibility for our personal happiness
  5. Taking responsibility for raising and lowering our self-esteem

It means refusing to cling to images of ourselves as victims. It requires that we relinquish dreams of a rescuer, of someone who will come and make things right for us and take away the burden of having to be responsible for our own existence. For this reason Branden likes to teach people "No one is coming." (Branden, 1994)

The Practice of Self-Assertiveness[edit | edit source]

Self-assertiveness is to do with expressing ourselves authentically. One may not readily equate self-assertiveness with authenticity, though this is very important to understanding it. It means living with our values as best we can around others, even if they do not like them, even when it's hard. It requires that we do not fake who we are or present ourselves as someone we are not. It requires that we treat ourselves with respect and decency in human encounters and express ourselves in appropriate ways and appropriate contexts. (Branden, 1994) It means standing up for ourselves--appropriately. It does not mean being belligerent, arrogant, condescending, or attacking another person's character or self-worth. It means trying your best at communicating what it is you want or need to express, e.g., I feel this way, I think this, I like this, I do not like that. It means being who you are and respecting yourself--in action.

The Practice of Living Purposefully[edit | edit source]

Living purposefully being in charge of the direction our lives are going in (whenever we have control over it), refusing to drift through life aimlessly. It means, to a large extent, living productively. It means taking personal responsibility for getting what we want. That means taking responsibility for formulating goals. Living with purpose demands that we stay in high mental focus in those areas of life most important to us - not merely work, but personal relationships, our own intellectual or psychological development, and so on. It means monitoring our actions, in case we may be going off the track we need to stay on to achieve the desired outcomes. It means paying attention to results. And perhaps most importantly, it requires that we persist and persevere when we know the course we are on is serving our best interest.

The Practice of Personal Integrity[edit | edit source]

Personal integrity is congruence between ideals and behaviour (Branden, 1994). It requires that we choose our own values and commit in action, to living by them. It also requires that we pay attention to whether such values are beneficial or harmful, for your life, well being, self-esteem, happiness, and taking responsibility for modifying them accordingly. It means adopting our own moral code, not merely adopting the same as others. It entails a commitment to truth. It means not lying to ourselves or others; approaching life with authenticity. It can be tempting, under pressure or fear, to do something that goes against our own values or standards or moral code, perhaps in order to garner someone else's approval. We may tell ourselves "only I will know." (Branden, 1994) But since self-esteem is rooted in facts, rooted in what we know about ourselves, such actions will only diminish one's stature in one's own eyes - self-esteem will inevitably suffer.

Misconceptions of self-esteem - or what self-esteem is not[edit | edit source]

In this section we shall discuss some popular misconceptions of what self-esteem is, and some of the ways the term and meaning of self-esteem has historically been misrepresented or misused.

Self-Esteem Scales[edit | edit source]

The problem with so much research on self-esteem is that it is not actually self-esteem being measured, or it is only measured superficially. The most commonly used scale – the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale (1965) – is, I submit, logically flawed, ambiguous in what may be interpreted from the statements, and inadequate for addressing the most important factors self-esteem depends on. Regrettably I cannot show my critique of this and my own working proposal for a new self-esteem scale in the main article, though one may find them in Appendix A.

Other scales typically talk about “global” self-esteem, where it is to do with relative competence and achievement in certain domains. But having positive self-esteem is not the same as liking everything about yourself, and nor is it relative to others. “The root of our self-esteem is not our achievements but those internally generated practices that, among other things, make it possible for us to achieve.” (Branden, 1994, pp. 135) Self-esteem is to do with a general sense of one's own competence, more aligned with intellectual self-trust.

Popular “feel good” notions of self-esteem[edit | edit source]

Self-esteem is not the feeling you get from gold stars, a compliment, a new hair-do, or blowing yourself a kiss in the mirror. Nor is it the same thing as feeling good. In fact, “Genuine self-esteem is what we feel about ourselves when everything is not alright.” (Branden, 1994, pp. 300) Branden’s point is, what happens when people disagree with you, do not praise you or approve of you – what happens when you have to rely totally on your own judgement, your own resources, your own, isolated view of yourself? That is when self-esteem is most conspicuous.

Too much self-esteem?[edit | edit source]

One common fallacy about self-esteem is that you can have too much of it. Roy F. Baumeister has done more than most psychologists to distort and deface with research papers the true meaning of the term self-esteem. One such self-esteem-damning paper was called Threatened Egotism to Violence and Aggression: The Dark Side of High Self-Esteem, by Roy F. Baumeister, Joseph M. Boden, and Laura Smart (1996). The researchers claimed that it is not so much low-self-esteem as high self-esteem that leads people to aggressive and violent behaviours, and liken high self-esteem to arrogance, conceitedness, narcissism, saying its existence is burdensome and problematic for other people, and indicating that the condition of high self-esteem may be infused by alcohol.

Branden counters their views eloquently in The Art of Living Consciously, saying, “Observe ... that nothing in the authors’ idea of self-esteem would allow one to distinguish between an individual whose self-esteem is rooted in the practices of living consciously, self-responsibility and personal integrity ... and one whose “self-esteem” consists of grandiosity, fantasies of superiority, exaggerated notions of one’s accomplishments, megalomania, and “favourable global self-evaluations” induced by drugs and alcohol. No definition of self-esteem or piece of research that obliterates a distinction of this fundamentality can make any claim to scientific legitimacy. It leaves reality out of the analysis.” (Branden, 1997, pp. 173-4)

One cannot have self-esteem that is too high - the higher the better. It would be absurd to hear someone say you have too much physical health. The same principle applies.

Let us now examine two quotes from which we can gauge a further understanding about what is and what is not self-esteem. (Further quotes may be found in Appendix B.)

1. "I have this weird self-esteem issue where I hate myself, yet I still think I'm better than everyone else." - Anonymous

Even though this is intended as a bit of humour it says something really telling about the nature of self-esteem. “It would be hard to name a more certain sign of poor self-esteem than the need to perceive some other group as inferior.” (Branden, 1994, pp. 12) Self-esteem is not about how you compare to others – rather it is your own personal evaluation of yourself developed by the way you live your life.

2. "Humility is the midpoint between low self-esteem and high self-esteem." - Anonymous

To be humble or modest means to undercut one’s own importance. Self-esteem requires that we do not present ourselves as less than we are, but nor do we present ourselves as more than we are. “This is me, a fact is a fact, my strengths are what they are, my weaknesses are what they are.” Not being humble does not mean being narcissistic, self-absorbed, self-indulgent, overly self-congratulatory, unconcerned with respect, kindness and good will, or hinting at one’s omniscience or omnipotence. (Branden, 1994) By the same token, arrogance, boasting, bragging are NOT the same as high self-esteem – rather they are defences against acknowledging a lack of self-esteem. (Branden, 1994)  

Textbook Critique[edit | edit source]

Johnmarshall Reeve in Understanding Motivation and Emotion 6th Edition makes some bizarre claims about self-esteem that require some examination. One such claim is “self-esteem is not a causal variable.” (Reeve, 2015, pp. 8) I do not understand how one can reach such a conclusion even with the most superficial knowledge of what self-esteem is. Even if one’s self-worth depends on someone else’s affirmations of love and approval for them, for instance, what does this imply about causation? Are they really not going to be motivated to seek these values out? I cannot think of any value that does not cause some sort of response (physical, cognitive, emotional) from the individual who values it.

Moreover, someone who manifests dispositional timidity will typically display behaviours such as a quiet voice, downcast eyes, and consistently avoid the attention of others, while a non-timid person will not. If a difference in self-esteem is not in effect here, what is? What of the bully or the racist or the sexist who puts others down as a way of bringing themselves up? What of the man driven to prove himself to the dismissive, uncaring father of his youth? What of the football supporter who resorts to abuse, threats, violence, after their team’s embarrassing loss? What of the teenage girl who feels every new look, new accessory, new hairstyle must be shown on Facebook or Instagram – and is devastated when it does not generate the desired “likes” or positive comments? What of the youth who joins a criminal gang and carries out increasingly horrendous acts of violence in order to “belong?" You may find an extension of my critique of this text in Appendix B.

Pseudo Self-Esteem[edit | edit source]

When we lack an authentic sense of our own competence and value we are likely to experience a certain degree of pain, self-doubt and anxiety. It can be very frightening having to operate in a world where we do not like or trust ourselves. A lot of us, under pressure and without appropriate guidance, will develop an image of self-esteem that we present to the world that belies what we feel inside, in order perhaps to protect ourselves from negative judgements from others or the daily challenges of life with which we feel unfit to cope. This is what Branden terms "pseudo self-esteem." (Branden, 1994) One familiar example of this is the schoolyard bully, who feels the need to make himself appear superior, who cannot tolerate anyone else's genuine self-regard and thus seeks to level the playing field by undermining the self-worth of others. Any threat to his sense of dominance, any threat to his image of being "tough" is treated as his most urgent priority.

However, pseudo self-esteem may come across in all sorts of ways:

  • Some people cling to the image of themselves as being popular or likeable, while behind closed doors feeling a deep sense of inadequacy
  • For a lot of people it's any mark of their success - bank accounts, material acquisitions, proficiency in some area
  • Some people look for self-esteem in relatively innate qualities such as intelligence, physical attractiveness, even height
  • It may manifest in manipulative or controlling behaviour
  • It may manifest in arrogance, conceitedness, boastfulness
  • For some people it is how self-sacrificing or "selfless" they are

What appears to be a common denominator in manifestations of pseudo self-esteem is that it is not the individual's own judgement of themselves but other people's judgements of them that is treated as the authority in their self-evaluation. Perhaps this is why one of Branden's favourite quotes is "It's not what they think. It's what you know." (Branden, 1994)

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

We have seen that our need for self-esteem is evident in our nature, what practices it depends on, and what it is and is not. But what, specifically is the relationship between self-esteem and motivation? What is the motive force that drives the bully to bully - or the achiever to achieve?

What is the relationship between self-esteem and motivation?[edit | edit source]

To the extent we lack self-esteem our lives tend to be ruled by fear. Fear of the unknown, of being and asserting ourselves, of arousing disapproval, and so on. The desire to avoid pain may commandeer our life. Self-esteem requires that we face such fears, little by little. Respect them, hear them, but do not let them rule you. Remember this though: Self-esteem is not easy to generate. It requires will, courage and perseverance. We have to be willing to see more, to know more, not to avoid, deny or reject. But if we persist, over time we will become stronger, healthier, happier, more self-confident people. It must be love, confidence, joy - not fear - that drives us. Love, for our own life, is the seventh pillar of self-esteem. (Branden, 1994)

References[edit | edit source]

Baumeister, R. F., Smart, L., & Boden, J. M. (1996). Relation of threatened egotism to violence and aggression: the dark side of high self-esteem. Psychological Review, Vol 103(1), Jan, 1996. pp. 5-33.

Branden, N. (1969). The Psychology of Self-Esteem. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.

Branden, N. (1985). Honouring the Self. New York: Bantam Books.

Branden, N. (1987). How to Raise Your Self-Esteem. New York: Bantam Books.

Branden, N. (1994). The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem. New York: Bantam Books.

Branden, N. (1996). Taking Responsibility. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Branden, N. (1997). The Art of Living Consciously. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Reeve, J. (2015). Understanding Motivation and Emotion: 6th Edition. USA: Wiley.

Rosenberg, M. (1965). Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale. Retrieved from

See Also[edit | edit source]

Appendix A: Critique of Rosenberg Scale & Proposal for New Self-Esteem Scale

Appendix B: Various Extra Items