What Are the Different Theories of Self-Esteem?

Theories of self-esteem usually focus on determining what measurable things impact or shape a person’s ideas about individual self worth. Some approaches claim that self-esteem is a direct product of a person’s upbringing, particularly during the adolescent years, while others try to identify how self-esteem impacts relationships and how it can predict later outcomes in interpersonal situations. The Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale (RSES), developed in the 1960s, is one of the most popular formalized rubrics and us based on assumptions that self-esteem is a direct outcome of various social and personal experiences, including but not limited to race, socioeconomic background, and family history. Most other theories are less formalized, but still try to do more or less the same thing: namely, figure out where self-esteem comes from and what impacts it. Some are purely set out as a means of understanding, but others are designed as a means of helping people overcome negative patterns and self-degradation by helping them realize where their low self-worth comes from.


Understanding Self-Esteem Generally

Self-esteem is generally understood to be a person’s overall sense of his or her own personal worth, and is usually thought to shape both how a person sees him or herself specifically as well as how he or she conceptualizes a broader place in society and the world at large. The terms "self-worth," "self-regard," "self-integrity" and other variations are commonly used interchangeably with "self-esteem” in this context. No matter what it’s called, it often impacts how willing people are to take risks in their careers and personal relationships, and is frequently also related to overall happiness and contentedness with life. There are many competing ideas about how people develop these feelings, though, as well as what can be done to change them effectively. Most agree that “high” or “positive” self-esteem is important, but how and why certain people get there while others don’t is a subject of intense debate.

The psychological research community is constantly working toward advancements in the field, which is why some theories of self-esteem have become archaic in modern literature. A more evolved definition of self-esteem and self-confidence is that self-esteem comes from being mentally and emotionally able to handle new situations, even when the outcome is unknown.

The Rosenberg Scale

The Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale (RSES) is one of the most widely used tools when it comes to evaluating a person’s level of self-esteem. It’s presented as a questionnaire with 10 multiple-choice questions and can be used as a crude indicator of how a person feels about him or herself. The rubric was designed by American psychologist Morris Rosenberg and is based largely on Rosenberg’s own scholarly theories of self-esteem: namely that it’s both an outcome of social forces and a variable that can change based on subjective traits.

As an Enduring Characteristic

There are several other broad theories at play in the literature, though few have their own tests or other defined usage parameters. Many psychologists regard self-esteem as an enduring characteristic, for instance. This basically means that it is a generally static state, however short-term it might be. According to this theory, several factors can play roles in a person's momentary self-esteem, and overall self-image can evolve as a person's perspectives or characteristics change.

As a Basic Competency

Other psychologists believe that self-esteem is more competency-based and comes from being able to cope with life's challenges and considering oneself worth of being happy. On this teaching, people can’t really control the basic self-esteem they start with any more than they can control their natural abilities in things like mathematics or grammar; with time and training, though, most can overcome hurdles and begin to see themselves in a more worthwhile light.

As an Essential Human Trait

Another popular teaching holds that the ability to develop a healthy, positive image of oneself and others is inherently human. Scholars in this school of thought commonly suggest that all humans are born with a baseline self-esteem that is at a naturally high level. The amount of people who, admittedly or not, posses low self-esteem, however, supports evidence that, if this theory is correct, then something must go awry during development to cause a deterioration in how one thinks about oneself, or that traumatic events in early childhood can “re-wire” a person during the developmental stage.

Sources of Self-Degradation

Just as there are conflicting theories of where self-esteem comes from and how it originates, the reasons why a person's self-worth decreases is also subject of debate. Most professionals of psychology agree that there are three major sources of self-degradation: self-punishment for breaking deeply instilled values; external negative influences; and a lack of compassion for others. How these factor into relationships and life in general is highly subjective, however. Like self-esteem itself, a lot of the specifics depend on the individual more then fixed psychological understanding.


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Actually 'baseline self esteem' is not something you're born with. It is a level that you become accustomed to during childhood. By the time you are 7 years old or so you've reached a 'baseline' of how you feel about yourself and how you see yourself in the world, whether on top, in the middle, on the bottom or somewhere on the continuum. You then proceed to 'keep' yourself at this level through most of your life.

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