Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW, QCSW, DCSW
1438 East 26th Street
Brooklyn, NY 11210
phone: 718-258-5317

What is self-esteem? This seemingly elusive term is often bandied about by professionals and laymen alike. “I have no self-esteem,” “You need to build your self-esteem,” and “My self-esteem took a hit” have become common phrases. Building self-esteem has, in many ways, become the mantra of modern society. It is spoken of in the school system and among mental health and other professionals. Parents of young (and often older) children worry about their self-esteem. What, however, do people mean when they speak of self-esteem?

Many parents tend to view their children’s sense of self as clearly linked to a specific ability or activity (i.e. athleticism or being helpful). Others view it in light of an assortment of abilities or activities. In this vein, they are constantly being defined based on their actions -– the things that others see them doing.

Many adults similarly equate their own sense of self with their sense of importance and capability (I am a powerful woman;” “I am a senior executive”). This works as a reciprocal association – if they feel important and capable, they feel good about themselves; if they feel good about themselves, they feel important and capable. As long as this association continues in a positive direction, it is sustainable. If, however, the association begins to fail, a negative cycle often begins, where the person feels less important and capable, therefore less happy with themselves, and vice-versa.

The senior executive who bases his feelings about himself almost entirely on being a senior executive will take a direct hit to his self-esteem if he gets fired, or even when he retires. Similarly, the woman who only feels good about herself because she is powerful will have self-esteem issues when her power wanes. In these instances, there is often an unconscious response that works feverishly to replace the original basis of the self-esteem with another. During this period of time, depression and anxiety often result, due both to the initial insult to their perceived sense of self and to this frenetic internal search for a new basis for sense of self.

Aside from the near inevitability of the loss of an externally-based sense of self, even those who are able to indefinitely sustain their sense of self often have a negative response. Because this aspect of their life is so crucial to their ability to feel good about themselves, there is a constant anxiety related to keeping it going. This is often the reason that very wealthy people feel the need to continually accumulate more wealth; it has become the focal point in their self-identity.

Although conventional wisdom (and indeed the DSM IV – the mental health “bible”) indicates that low self-esteem is simply a symptom of depression, in fact it appears clear that low self-esteem is what often causes depressive and anxiety disorders. It is when we do not feel good about who we are that we chase pretenses for sense of self. This is what very often causes anxiety and/or depression.

People with high self-esteem are those who know who they are intrinsically. They have a clear inner sense of the kind of person that they are. This sense is generally based on many attributes. Some attributes can be: kind, nice, interesting, funny, smart, etc. People with good self-esteem are happy with themselves because they appreciate their intrinsic qualities, not their external ones. Someone who has this intrinsic sense of self as based on various attributes does not generally need to base his sense of self on external factors, whether they are people, situations, abilities, etc.

Laymen and professionals alike tend to confuse self-confidence with self-esteem. The reason for this is that the popular notion of self-esteem is of someone who has confidence in himself (i.e. in his abilities). Sense of self that is based on externalities like abilities is not indicative of true self-esteem. Thus, self-confidence is a false form of self-esteem, since it speaks to people’s abilities rather than to their internal attributes.

It is interesting that most of us can view, and feel, about others based on who they really are, although we cannot do the same for ourselves. It may be quite easy for me to say, “Robyn is a caring person,” almost as an instinctive reaction. It requires little or no thought and is simply the way in which I see Robyn. When it comes to myself, however, it is much more difficult for me to “simply” see myself as something entirely separate from how I think others see me, what I do, my job title, etc.

The important distinction between a false sense of self-esteem and one based on true internal feelings is the basis for the feeling. If the feeling is clearly tied to external factors, it is generally not based on true internal feelings. For instance, if your attribute is “funny,” but you only feel humorous in social situations where you can monitor others’ responses, you don’t feel that “funny” is something that defines you. Rather, you feel that “funny” is something that you do.

On the other hand, someone who recognizes that he is intrinsically a funny person can sense this attribute within himself. Without relating “funny” to other people or to specific situations, he simply feels funny. That is, he recognizes aspects of himself – his thoughts and feelings – that are humorous.

Sense of self is forged, for the most part, in early childhood and reinforced throughout our lives by environmental factors. These factors include the school system, popular culture, our parents and peers, as well as many other factors. Nonetheless, our basis for self-esteem can be altered by learning to focus on who we really are inside. We have the capacity to view others for who they are and to feel good about them for their intrinsic qualities. If we could begin seeing ourselves in the same way, many of our emotional issues would start fading away.

Author's Bio: 

Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW-R, QCSW, DCSW is a NYS licensed clinical social worker. He maintains a private practice in Brooklyn, NY. He specializes in anxiety and depressive disorders. He can be contacted at

Yehuda graduated summa cum laude with a Bachelor's degree in Psychology from Touro College in New York in 1995. He received the psychology award at graduation.

Yehuda graduated with an MSW from Yeshiva University's Wurzweiler School of Social Work in New York in 1997.
Yehuda received his social work certification in 1997. His "R" certification was awarded in 2003. His QCSW and DCSW were awarded in 2005 by the National Association of Social Workers.