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THE PILLARS OF THE SELF-CONCEPT: SELF-ESTEEM AND SELF-EFFICACY

by Monica A. Frank, Ph.D.
Tap to Listen to Article

"Instead of attributing all problems to personal failure, think of the complexity of your behavior. Take responsibility for your behavior, but don’t blame yourself."
We all have a sense of self. Whether that sense of self is positive or negative is based upon our experiences in life and our perceptions and assessment of ourself. If our self assessment was always accurate, I would have no need to write this article. However, the problem is that our perception of ourself is often distorted.

Previous experiences can distort this perception. For instance, a person growing up in a perfectionistic family may view herself as always falling short of the expectations of the family. As a result, no matter how successful she might be, she thinks of herself as a failure.

Or a boy who is constantly picked on by his older brothers: "How stupid!" or "What a dork!" He may come to believe these labels about himself. Unfortunately, people who believe certain labels will often live up, or live down, to those labels. The labels can create a self-fulfilling prophecy of expectation. He expects himself to be stupid so he never tries to prove otherwise.

WHAT IS SELF-CONCEPT?

The self-concept is a factual description of how you perceive yourself. If your perception is distorted, this description may not be an accurate depiction of you, but it IS an accurate statement of what you believe about yourself.

The self-concept is derived from self-esteem and self-efficacy. If a person has low self-esteem, the self-concept may be skewed in the direction of a negative description. Some aspects of the self-concept may be purely statements of fact such as "I have a college education" or "I don't dance" without any evaluation of whether it is good or bad.

In fact, people with a good self-esteem and self-efficacy are often able to recognize their limitations without a judgment attached. For instance, "I don't have a good sense of direction" can be just a statement of fact without feeling good or bad about it.

WHAT IS SELF-ESTEEM?

Self-esteem is the regard or respect that a person has for oneself. A person with positive feelings regarding the self is said to have high self-esteem. However, self-esteem can refer to very specific areas as well as a general feeling about the self. For instance, a person may have low self-esteem regarding physical attractiveness and high self-esteem about ability to do a job well.

WHAT IS SELF-EFFICACY?

Self-efficacy is a person's belief in their ability to accomplish some specific goal or task. It generally corresponds to the level of competence an individual feels. Competence can vary from one situation to another. For instance, a person might feel quite capable competing in a particular sport but may not feel competent speaking in front of a group. As a result, overall self-efficacy may not be completely accurate as it is assessing an individual's general feelings of competence across a variety of situations or tasks.

WHAT ARE THE CHARACTERISTICS OF LOW SELF-ESTEEM?

1) Feelings of unhappiness.
People with low self-esteem are typically unhappy. Our sense of satisfaction and contentment with life is usually derived from how we feel about ourself. For some people, low self-esteem may contribute to depression and even inability to function in life. However, some individuals who derive their happiness from some other source such as spiritual beliefs may not find their degree of happiness impacted by the low self-esteem.

2) Feelings of anxiety.
Many people with low self-esteem experience anxiety, especially social anxiety. Frequently, this is a consequence of the social evaluative aspect of self-esteem. In other words, we tend to evaluate our self based upon comparisons to other people. In addition, many people are concerned about others' evaluating them and assume that others will see the same flaws and incompetencies that they see within themselves. Such a concern leads to the feelings of anxiety.

3) Feelings of inferiority or superiority.
Most people who have low self-esteem feel inferior to others. They believe that they don't measure up to some standard that others meet. Frequently they feel that some flaw within them means that they are not worthwhile or deserving. For many people I have worked with this flaw is not something visible to others but something magnified by the person with low self-esteem due to past experiences. For example, a person who believes she is selfish because that is what she was told as a child although her behavior as viewed by others may be quite giving and compassionate.

Some people with low self-esteem may present an air of superiority. However, this may be a way of covering how they truly feel about themselves. Or, individuals who have low self-esteem but are perfectionists due to their concern about what others may think of them may appear to others as thinking themselves superior.

However, don't make the common mistake and assume that all feelings of superiority are due to low self-esteem. There is another category of people who actually feel they are superior to others, intellectually, financially, or spiritually. However, this group is not the focus of this article. One way to make the distinction is that people who have low self-esteem and feelings of superiority will often have other characteristics of low self-esteem such as unhappiness or anxiety.

4) Impatience or irritation with self or others.
Another characteristic of low self-esteem is a tendency to be impatient or easily irritated by mistakes, flaws, or inadequacies. Most frequently this is directed at the self but it can also be directed at other people.

5) Externally oriented goals.
Individuals with low self-esteem often determine goals and direction in life based upon what others might want or need. They often feel that their needs or desires are unimportant. Such an attitude can lead to resentment due to always taking care of others while their needs are not addressed.

6) Negativity.
Low self-esteem tends to lead to negativity. This negativity may not always be externally observed but internal self-talk is usually negative. Also, external manifestations such as criticizing oneself to others or excessively apologizing or commenting about negative observations may be noticed by others. Unfortunately, people tend to avoid individuals who are excessively negative which can reinforce the low self-esteem.

WHAT ARE CHARACTERISTICS OF HIGH SELF-ESTEEM?

To clearly define the characteristics of high self-esteem, I need to make the distinction between an artificially inflated self-esteem and true self-esteem. An artificially inflated self-esteem is an effort to appear to have high self-esteem. However, such individuals don't typically show the following characteristics of people with high self-esteem. Individuals with low self-esteem may have some of the following qualities as well but those with high self-esteem have these characteristics in abundance and with consistency.

1) Responsibility.
Since individuals with high self-esteem can accept themselves completely they are able to take responsibility for themselves and the consequences of their actions without being excessively critical of themselves. Therefore, they are readily able to acknowledge mistakes and accept limitations.

2) Goal commitment.
Those with high self-esteem tend to have a strong sense of purpose and are committed to goals in life. In addition, they tend to be persistent in achieving these goals as they commitment does not fluctuate based on success or failure. As active participants in life they tend to strive for excellence not for perfection.

3) Genuineness.
People with high self-esteem can be honest with themselves and others both emotionally and intellectually. As they aren't fearful of others truly knowing them, they tend to be genuine in their interactions with others.

4) Forgiving.
High self-esteem tends to correspond with tolerance and acceptance of limitations. As a result, people who have high self-esteem are forgiving of themselves and others.

5) Internal values.
Individuals with high self-esteem tend to have internally-based values rather than externally-based values. In other words, they have a strong identity based on chosen values rather than values they believe due to the demands or expectations of others. This type of identity is usually considered an "achieved identity" in which a person has analyzed their beliefs and values to decide the set of internal principles or values that they will adhere to.

6) Positivity.
People with high self-esteem are positive with an appreciative and grateful attitude towards life. They can freely praise themselves and others and tend to look for the positive aspects of life and not dwell on the negative.

7) Self-improvement.
Generally, there is a strong tendency to strive towards self-improvement among those with high self-esteem. As they don't view the need for self-improvement as a negative quality they are able to examine themselves uncritically. In addition, they can ask for help as needed because they don't view the need for help as shameful or negative.

WHAT ARE THE CHARACTERISTICS OF LOW SELF-EFFICACY?

1) Fear of risks.
Individuals with low self-efficacy see themselves as unable to be successful. As a result, they are often unwilling to take risks or try new things because they are convinced that the result will be failure. This is particularly unfortunate because the main way to increase self-efficacy is through practice and experience.

2) Fear of uncertainty.
Low self-efficacy often is related to self-doubt and uncertainty. The individual doesn't want to try without a guarantee of success. As a result, they may never discover things at which they could be successful.

3) Feelings of failure.
Those with low self-efficacy frequently have feelings of failure. As indicated above they might avoid or not try new things due to the risk involved. Or, they might only try something half-heartedly. As a result, they are less likely to experience success and more likely to see themselves as a failure.

4) Impression management.
Impression management is the attempt to control how others might perceive you in order to be seen more positively. People with low self-efficacy feel they are not capable but may try to present a successful and competent image to others. They may put a great deal of energy into behaving in a way to obtain approval from others and experience a great deal of worry about being found out to be a fraud. For instance, they may try to hide mistakes from others rather than learn from them which prevents them from increasing their sense of self-efficacy.

WHAT ARE THE CHARACTERISTICS OF HIGH SELF-EFFICACY?

1) Self-confidence.
One of the most obvious characteristics of high self-efficacy is self-confidence. They approach tasks or situations with a sense of their ability to be successful. This self-confidence tends to lead to more experience which increases their ability which leads to greater self-confidence. This positive cycle lends itself to increasing self-efficacy even further.

2) Accurate self-evaluation.
Individuals with high self-efficacy tend to be able to accurately evaluate their performance. They are neither overly-critical nor overly positive but are able to examine themselves realistically in order to pursue self-improvement.

3) Willingness to take risks.
Those with high self-efficacy are willing to take risks because they understand that taking calculated risks increases the chances of success. As they are not fearful of failure or mistakes, reasonable risks can only increase self-efficacy.

4) Sense of accomplishment.
Generally those with high self-efficacy feel a sense of accomplishment because they are often more successful due to the willingness to take risk and to pursue interests. Even if they fail or make mistakes they feel a sense of accomplishment because they view mistakes as opportunities to improve themselves.

HOW CAN SOMEONE HAVE A GOOD SENSE OF SELF-EFFICACY BUT LOW SELF-ESTEEM?

Self-efficacy and self-esteem are similar concepts but they are not the same thing. They do tend to correspond so that a person who is low in one is more likely to be low in the other. But it is also possible to have low self-esteem and yet have high self-efficacy. In fact, since I work with a lot of perfectionists I see this combination frequently. Therefore, someone may tend to be overly-critical and negative about himself and yet see himself as quite capable in certain areas. For instance, he might see himself as uninteresting and unlikeable but see himself as a competent architect. This occurs frequently with perfectionists because they are often competent at tasks with clear guidelines but feel uncertain in situations without clear "rules" such as relationships.

HOW CAN SELF-ESTEEM BE IMPROVED?

1) Eliminate negative self-talk.
First and foremost, people with low self-esteem need to eliminate harmful self-talk. The negative labels and frequent self-criticism can only cause further damage. Eliminating negative self-talk doesn't mean you can't recognize and address problems, but it means to be careful about how you talk to yourself and to not be self-destructive.

2) Recognize strengths.
Those with low self-esteem tend to focus on their weaknesses rather than focusing on their strengths sometimes claiming that there isn't anything positive they can say about themselves. That is unlikely to be true. It is important to pay attention to strengths and to appreciate the strengths no matter how small they may seem. Once you recognize the strengths you need to reinforce the strengths through frequent focus on them.

3) Recognize self-worth.
It is important to recognize that you are a unique human being and have worth. Recognize that you deserve to take care of yourself and set limits. You deserve respect and to be treated well. Again, you need to frequently reinforce this idea by continuing to focus on your self-worth.

4) Accept mistakes.
Recognize that mistakes and flaws are part of the human condition. They don't make you less than others. Instead, you are like everyone else. You have flaws and you make mistakes. The more actively you are involved in life, the more mistakes you will make. But being actively involved allows you more opportunity for success as well. Accept yourself—flaws and all.

5) Accept rejection.
The more you can believe that everyone doesn't have to like you, the less you need to feel bad or be ashamed of your imperfections. No one can be liked by everyone! It is an impossible task. However, the person with low self-esteem often feels a failure if someone is disapproving or rejecting. Instead, congratulate yourself if someone doesn't like you because you are being a genuine person.

HOW CAN SELF-EFFICACY BE IMPROVED?

1) Develop skill set.
The most important way to improve self-efficacy is to develop the skill set you need to be effective. If you are having trouble being successful in your work, identify your areas of deficit and determine what you need to do to improve. Ask others to honestly evaluate your skills and to give specific advice regarding improvement. Once you know what you need to do, then you need to do it again and again until you feel competent. That's how competence develops. People aren't born with competence, they have to learn and practice in order to become competent.

2) Modeling.
One way to learn the necessary skills is to observe others. You can observe successful completion of tasks to learn how to achieve success. When you observe others being rewarded for their performance or successful completion of a task, you are more likely to be able to model yourself after their behavior.

3) Focus on specifics.
To improve self-efficacy, it is best to focus on specifics. If someone gives you general feedback especially if it is negative you are less able to make changes than if someone can provide specific feedback. For instance, if you want a child to learn how to do dishes you don't say “These dishes aren't clean,” instead you say “Let me show you how to load the dishwasher to get the best results.”

4) Reinforcement.
The more behavior is reinforced, the more likely it will continue. If you want to improve your self-efficacy focus on what you do well and reinforce it by giving yourself specific praise.

DON'T MISTAKE POSITIVE THINKING FOR CHANGING THINKING.

A common error that people make when trying to increase self-esteem or self-efficacy is what I call the "Saturday Night Live" phenomenon. Most people are acquainted with Al Franken's rendition of Stuart Smalley's self-improvement statements: "I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!"

The problem with this type of positive thinking is that it is not believable, therefore it cannot change the self-esteem. My challenge as a therapist working with people with low self-esteem is to develop believable statements. Otherwise my clients are likely to respond with "You're just saying that because you are my therapist." If I make a statement that is believable they are more likely to accept it and use it. And, very simply, a believable statement is one that is true.

So the challenge for you in improving your self-esteem is to develop believable statements. Telling yourself "I'm wonderful in every way" is not likely to help. However, you are more likely to change self-esteem if you are able to identify particular strengths such as "I'm a person who is willing to learn about myself and make improvements" or "I have courage because I am facing something that is very difficult for me" or "I am persistent. Even though happiness has eluded me I keep trying."

Notice with these statements there are specifics attached to them. They are not general and overly positive. Instead, the statements are realistic with specific reasons why they are true. To change self-esteem, it is necessary to create these types of statements. So, how is this done?

STEPS TO CREATE BELIEVABLE STATEMENTS

1) Write a negative statement you use to describe yourself. Try to be as fully descriptive as possible with the statement.

2) Identify what is true and what is false about the statement. People will often have difficulty with this step because they don't fully expand the statement. As a result the statement may appear to be true on the surface when it is actually false.

Such statements are false because they are implying more that what is actually being stated. So, for example, if you write "I'm fat" you might argue "That statement is true. According to the standards of obesity, I am fat." However, more is being implied by the statement. If this statement affects how you feel about yourself, then your full statement is probably something like "I'm fat and I'm undesirable because I'm fat" or "I'm fat which means I'm weak-willed" or "I'm fat and worthless."

As you can see, when the full statement is written out, then it is possible to identify what is true or false about the statement. For example, many people are fat and yet are still desirable. In fact, when I ask people "Have you ever known an overweight woman who is so confident and engaging that she attracts men like flies to honey?" most people respond "Yes, I have." Therefore, we have just demonstrated that being fat doesn't in and of itself cause a person to not be desirable so the idea that being fat makes you undesirable is false. However, the belief that you are not desirable because you are fat is likely to cause you to be undesirable because that belief affects how you relate to others.

3) Re-write your statement using facts. Once you have determine what is false, leave that part out of your statement and add in what is true. Also, it is best to not use negative labels because of what they imply. Instead of using the word "fat" use "overweight" or instead of "stupid" use "lack knowledge." Instead of saying "I'm fat (and all that implies)" you can say "I may be overweight but I present myself well." Or, "I might lack knowledge about that subject but I'm still an intelligent person."

4) Evaluate the statement. A well-written statement should be something with which you can agree or believe, and yet, it makes you feel good about yourself. Once you have evaluated the statement you can use it as an affirmation to help improve your feelings about yourself. The more frequently you use the affirmation, the more quickly you will come to see yourself that way. And the more believable the affirmation, the more likely you are to use it.