Coaching communication skills

Coaching Ancestral Skills

Copyright by Dr. Daniele Trevisani. Article extracted with author’s permission from the book “Ascolto attivo ed Empatia. I segreti di una comunicazione efficace” (translated title: “Active Listening and Empathy: The Secretes of Effective Communication”. The book’s rights are on sale in any language. Please contact Dr. Daniele Trevisani for information at the website

Knowing how to ‘read’ people. A return to our ancestral sensibilities

In our DNA there is an inherent part of us that is interested in what others say, how they look, how they move, even how they smell.

There are several reasons for that. One is human curiosity, the other is connected to personal interest and self-preservation.

One of our main ancestral preoccupations is to understand whether or not a person is dangerous to us, based on the communication signals we receive. Another very concrete preoccupation of a more everyday nature is to understand whether or not a person is credible, whether or not we can give them credit, based on how he/she communicates, the communication channels he/she uses, the signs and signals he/she emits[1].

Knowing how to read a person in an instant, means grasping what – in that ‘frame’ of time, a second, or a few minutes – the person is ’emitting’ about him/herself. And so we will be able to capture words, but also and above all emotional states, states of mind, by reading faces, reading the body, listening to the paralinguistic messages, the timbre, the vocality, even before the words.

Even from a photo you can tell something. You can also ‘listen’ to a photo, yes. Or a painting, or a piece of music, or a landscape, or a car..

Of a person, at work, we might trust what is written on his or her business card, but we insist on looking also at his or her posture, straight or curved back, chin, shoulders, and sad or proud eyes, to understand if he or she is proud of that card is handing to you, or if it is a burden for him or her.

Let’s even say that we are curious by nature, because survival requires knowing things, understanding who is hostile or friendly, and knowing how to do it in a fraction of a second, like the real hunters/gatherers we were, by looking, observing eyes, movements, intentions.

Instinctively smelling situations comes before ‘understanding them rationally’.

This is part of that Unconscious Intelligence, a form of intelligence that in this book we are adding to the many Multiple Intelligences we have, mental and bodily resources so well exposed by Howard Gardner[2].

Freud has already spoken of unconscious intelligence (calling it ‘Unbewussten Verständnis‘, or ‘unconscious understanding’), but without highlighting it as a resource available to all of us, and the philosopher Schelling (1775-1854) speaks of it even earlier,[3] identifying it as an ‘intelligence of nature’, but once again without considering it for what it may be, our most precious resource. But we want to do it.

Gardner showed how the phenomenon of ‘intelligence’ can be broken down into a varied series of distinct human abilities, therefore of different intelligences: linguistic, musical, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinaesthetic, personal and interpersonal[4], adding later, the intra-personal level of intelligence, related to knowing oneself.

Close to Inter-personal Intelligence, we add in this volume the category of Unconscious Intelligence, which we consider here as a real skill, a trainable competence for active listening, deriving from a stronger connection and training in the dialogue between the Neocortex (a recent part of the brain development), and other ancient areas such as the reptilian brain and the pre-mammalian brain, areas very able to pick up subtle and instinctive information.

And here we are: on the animal side of man, on his ‘reading the gaze’, on his ‘listening also to the unspoken’.

Knowing how to read people, their purposes, requires a return to ancestral skills, when attraction was signalled with eyes to other eyes, and not with a social profile. Now, more than ever, it is time to learn how to read people again. Because, on the one hand, we are losing the ability to recognise ‘bad guys’ or enemies, and on the other hand, we are throwing the baby out with the bathwater and perhaps we say NO to someone who can do us no harm and may even bring us value.

Coaching listening skills becomes of the highest value, since it trains people in “perceiving more” and this can bring an extra-value to any situation, including:

  • Negotiations
  • Dating
  • Parenting
  • Friendship
  • Business
  • Social life
  • Sports
  • Performance

… and any other field of life.

[1] Weigold, Michael & Trevisani, Daniele (1993). Mass Media, image and persuasion: The indirect effect of communication channels on source credibility and message acceptance. Paper presented at the Annual meeting of the Association For Education In Journalism And Mass Communication, Kansas City, MO, USA, (1993, August).

[2] Howard Gardner (1983), Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, Edition Hachette UK, 2011.

[3] Friedrich Schelling, Vom Ich als Prinzip der Philosophie oder über das Unbedingte im menschlichen Wissen (The self as the principle of Philosophy or the foundation of human knowledge), 1795

Friedrich Schelling, Ideen zu einer Philosophie der Natur (Ideas for a philosophy of nature), 1797

[4] Howard Gardner (2010), Formae mentis. Saggio sulla pluralità dell’intelligenza. Feltrinelli, Milano.


© Article translated from the book “Ascolto attivo ed empatia. I segreti di una comunicazione efficace“. copyright Dr. Daniele Trevisani Intercultural Negotiation Training and Coaching, published with the author’s permission. The Book’s rights are on sale and are available. If you are interested in publishing the book in any language, or seek Intercultural Negotiation Training, Coaching, Mentoring and Consulting, please feel free to contact Dr. Daniele Trevisani.

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Self-Esteem Coaching


Self-esteem is an individual’s subjective evaluation of their own worth. Self-esteem encompasses beliefs about oneself (for example, “I am unloved”, “I am worthy”) as well as emotional states, such as triumph, despair, pride, and shame.[1] Smith and Mackie (2007) defined it by saying “The self-concept is what we think about the self; self-esteem, is the positive or negative evaluations of the self, as in how we feel about it.”[2]

Self-esteem is an attractive psychological construct because it predicts certain outcomes, such as academic achievement,[3][4] happiness,[5] satisfaction in marriage and relationships,[6] and criminal behavior.[6] Self-esteem can apply to a specific attribute (for example, “I believe I am a good writer and I feel happy about that”) or globally (for example, “I believe I am a bad person, and I feel bad about myself in general”). Psychologists usually regard self-esteem as an enduring personality characteristic (trait self-esteem), though normal, short-term variations (state self-esteem) also exist. Synonyms or near-synonyms of self-esteem include many things: self-worth,[7] self-regard,[8] self-respect,[9][10] and self-integrity.


The concept of self-esteem has its origins in the 18th century, first expressed in the writings of David Hume. The Scottish enlightenment thinker, shows the idea that it is important to value and think well of yourself because it serves as a motivational function that enables people to explore their full potential.[11][12]

The identification of self-esteem as a distinct psychological construct has its origins in the work of philosopher, psychologist, geologist, and anthropologist William James (1892). James identified multiple dimensions of the self, with two levels of hierarchy: processes of knowing (called the ‘I-self’) and the resulting knowledge about the self (the ‘Me-self’). The observation about the self and storage of those observations by the I-self creates three types of knowledge, which collectively account for the Me-self, according to James. These are the material selfsocial self, and spiritual self. The social self comes closest to self-esteem, comprising all characteristics recognized by others. The material self consists of representations of the body and possessions and the spiritual self of descriptive representations and evaluative dispositions regarding the self. This view of self-esteem as the collection of an individual’s attitudes toward oneself remains today.[13]

In the mid-1960s, social psychologist Morris Rosenberg defined self-esteem as a feeling of self-worth and developed the Rosenberg self-esteem scale (RSES), which became the most-widely used scale to measure self-esteem in the social sciences.[14]

In the early 20th century, the behaviorist movement minimized introspective study of mental processes, emotions, and feelings, replacing introspection with objective study through experiments on behaviors observed in relation with the environment. Behaviorism viewed the human being as an animal subject to reinforcements, and suggested placing psychology as an experimental science, similar to chemistry or biology. As a consequence, clinical trials on self-esteem were overlooked, since behaviorists considered the idea less liable to rigorous measurement.[15] In the mid-20th century, the rise of phenomenology and humanistic psychology led to renewed interest in self-esteem. Self-esteem then took a central role in personal self-actualization and in the treatment of psychic disorders. Psychologists started to consider the relationship between psychotherapy and the personal satisfaction of persons with high self-esteem as useful to the field. This led to new elements being introduced to the concept of self-esteem, including the reasons why people tend to feel less worthy and why people become discouraged or unable to meet challenges by themselves.[15]

In 1992 the political scientist Francis Fukuyama associated self-esteem with what Plato called thymos – the “spiritedness” part of the Platonic soul.[16]

As of 1997 the core self-evaluations approach included self-esteem as one of four dimensions that comprise one’s fundamental appraisal of oneself – along with locus of controlneuroticism, and self-efficacy.[17] The concept of core self-evaluations as first examined by Judge, Locke, and Durham (1997),[17] has since proven to have the ability to predict job satisfaction and job performance.[17][18][19][20][21] Self-esteem may be essential to self-evaluation.[20]

In public policy

The importance of self-esteem gained endorsement from some government and non-government groups starting around the 1970s, such that one can speak of a self-esteem movement.[5][22] This movement can be used[by whom?] as an example of promising evidence that psychological research can have an effect on forming public policy.[citation needed] The underlying idea of the movement was that low self-esteem was the root of problems for individuals, making it the root of societal problems and dysfunctions. A leading figure of the movement, psychologist Nathaniel Branden, stated: “[I] cannot think of a single psychological problem – from anxiety and depression, to fear of intimacy or of success, to spouse battery or child molestation – that is not traced back to the problem of low self-esteem”.[5]:3

Self-esteem was believed[by whom?] to be a cultural phenomenon of Western individualistic societies since low self-esteem was not found in collectivist countries such as Japan.[23] Concern about low self-esteem and its many presumed negative consequences led California assemblyman John Vasconcellos to work to set up and fund the Task Force on Self-Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility in California in 1986. Vasconcellos argued that this task force could combat many of the state’s problems – from crime and teen pregnancy to school underachievement and pollution.[5] He compared increasing self-esteem to giving out a vaccine for a disease: it could help protect people from being overwhelmed by life‘s challenges.

The task force set up committees in many California counties and formed a committee of scholars to review the available literature on self-esteem. This committee found very small associations between low self-esteem and its assumed consequences, ultimately showing that low self-esteem is not the root of all societal problems and not as important as the committee had originally thought. However, the authors of the paper that summarized the review of the literature still believe that self-esteem is an independent variable that affects major social problems. The task force disbanded in 1995, and the National Council for Self-Esteem and later the National Association for Self-Esteem (NASE) was established,[by whom?] taking on the task force’s mission. Vasconcellos and Jack Canfield were members of its advisory board in 2003, and members of its Masters’ Coalition included Anthony RobbinsBernie Siegel, and Gloria Steinem.[5]


Many early theories suggested that self-esteem is a basic human need or motivation. American psychologist Abraham Maslow included self-esteem in his hierarchy of human needs. He described two different forms of “esteem”: the need for respect from others in the form of recognition, success, and admiration, and the need for self-respect in the form of self-love, self-confidence, skill, or aptitude.[24] Respect from others was believed to be more fragile and easily lost than inner self-esteem. According to Maslow, without the fulfillment of the self-esteem need, individuals will be driven to seek it and unable to grow and obtain self-actualization. Maslow also states that the healthiest expression of self-esteem “is the one which manifests in the respect we deserve for others, more than renown, fame, and flattery”. Modern theories of self-esteem explore the reasons humans are motivated to maintain a high regard for themselves. Sociometer theory maintains that self-esteem evolved to check one’s level of status and acceptance in ones’ social group. According to Terror Management Theory, self-esteem serves a protective function and reduces anxiety about life and death.[25]

Carl Rogers (1902–1987), an advocate of humanistic psychology, theorized the origin of many people’s problems to be that they despise themselves and consider themselves worthless and incapable of being loved. This is why Rogers believed in the importance of giving unconditional acceptance to a client and when this was done it could improve the client’s self-esteem.[15] In his therapy sessions with clients, he offered positive regard no matter what.[26] Indeed, the concept of self-esteem is approached since then in humanistic psychology as an inalienable right for every person, summarized in the following sentence:

Every human being, with no exception, for the mere fact to be it, is worthy of unconditional respect of everybody else; he deserves to esteem himself and to be esteemed.[15]


Self-esteem is typically assessed using self-report inventories.

One of the most widely used instruments, the Rosenberg self-esteem scale (RSES) is a 10-item self-esteem scale score that requires participants to indicate their level of agreement with a series of statements about themselves. An alternative measure, The Coopersmith Inventory uses a 50-question battery over a variety of topics and asks subjects whether they rate someone as similar or dissimilar to themselves.[27] If a subject’s answers demonstrate solid self-regard, the scale regards them as well adjusted. If those answers reveal some inner shame, it considers them to be prone to social deviance.[28]

Implicit measures of self-esteem began to be used in the 1980s.[29] These rely on indirect measures of cognitive processing thought to be linked to implicit self-esteem, including the Name Letter Task.[30] Such indirect measures are designed to reduce awareness of the process of assessment. When used to assess implicit self-esteem, psychologists feature self-relevant stimuli to the participant and then measure how quickly a person identifies positive or negative stimuli.[31] For example, if a woman was given the self-relevant stimuli of female and mother, psychologists would measure how quickly she identified the negative word, evil, or the positive word, kind.

Development across lifespan

Experiences in a person’s life are a major source of how self-esteem develops.[5] In the early years of a child’s life, parents have a significant influence on self-esteem and can be considered the main source of positive and negative experiences a child will have.[32] Unconditional love from parents helps a child develop a stable sense of being cared for and respected. These feelings translate into later effects on self-esteem as the child grows older.[33] Students in elementary school who have high self-esteem tend to have authoritative parents who are caring, supportive adults who set clear standards for their child and allow them to voice their opinion in decision making.

Although studies thus far have reported only a correlation of warm, supportive parenting styles (mainly authoritative and permissive) with children having high self-esteem, these parenting styles could easily be thought of as having some causal effect in self-esteem development.[32][34][35][36] Childhood experiences that contribute to healthy self-esteem include being listened to, being spoken to respectfully, receiving appropriate attention and affection and having accomplishments recognized and mistakes or failures acknowledged and accepted. Experiences that contribute to low self-esteem include being harshly criticized, being physically, sexually or emotionally abused, being ignored, ridiculed or teased or being expected to be “perfect” all the time.[37]

During school-aged years, academic achievement is a significant contributor to self-esteem development.[5] Consistently achieving success or consistently failing will have a strong effect on students’ individual self-esteem.[38] However, students can also experience low self-esteem while in school. For example, they may not have academic achievements, or they live in a troubled environment outside of school. Issues like the ones previously stated, can cause adolescents to doubt themselves. Social experiences are another important contributor to self-esteem. As children go through school, they begin to understand and recognize differences between themselves and their classmates. Using social comparisons, children assess whether they did better or worse than classmates in different activities. These comparisons play an important role in shaping the child’s self-esteem and influence the positive or negative feelings they have about themselves.[39][40] As children go through adolescence, peer influence becomes much more important. Adolescents make appraisals of themselves based on their relationships with close friends.[41] Successful relationships among friends are very important to the development of high self-esteem for children. Social acceptance brings about confidence and produces high self-esteem, whereas rejection from peers and loneliness brings about self-doubts and produces low self-esteem.[42]

Adolescence shows an increase in self-esteem that continues to increase in young adulthood and middle age.[6] A decrease is seen from middle age to old age with varying findings on whether it is a small or large decrease.[6] Reasons for the variability could be because of differences in health, cognitive ability, and socioeconomic status in old age.[6] No differences have been found between males and females in their development of self-esteem.[6] Multiple cohort studies show that there is not a difference in the life-span trajectory of self-esteem between generations due to societal changes such as grade inflation in education or the presence of social media.[6]

High levels of mastery, low risk taking, and better health are ways to predict higher self-esteem. In terms of personality, emotionally stable, extroverted, and conscientious individuals experience higher self-esteem.[6] These predictors have shown us that self-esteem has trait-like qualities by remaining stable over time like personality and intelligence.[6] However, this does not mean it can not be changed.[6] Hispanic adolescents have a slightly lower self-esteem than their black and white peers, but then slightly higher levels by age 30.[43][44] African Americans have a sharper increase in self-esteem in adolescence and young adulthood compared to Whites. However, during old age, they experience a more rapid decline in self-esteem.[6]


Shame can be a contributor to those with problems of low self-esteem.[45] Feelings of shame usually occur because of a situation where the social self is devalued, such as a socially evaluated poor performance. A poor performance leads to higher responses of psychological states that indicate a threat to the social self namely a decrease in social self-esteem and an increase in shame.[46] This increase in shame can be helped with self-compassion.[47][48]

Real self, ideal self, and dreaded self

There are three levels of self-evaluation development in relation to the real self, ideal self, and the dreaded self. The real, ideal, and dreaded selves develop in children in a sequential pattern on cognitive levels.[49]

  • Moral judgment stages: Individuals describe their real, ideal, and dreaded selves with stereotypical labels, such as “nice” or “bad”. Individuals describe their ideal and real selves in terms of disposition for actions or as behavioral habits. The dreaded self is often described as being unsuccessful or as having bad habits.
  • Ego development stages: Individuals describe their ideal and real selves in terms of traits that are based on attitudes as well as actions. The dreaded self is often described as having failed to meet social expectations or as self-centered.
  • Self-understanding stages: Individuals describe their ideal and real selves as having unified identities or characters. Descriptions of the dreaded self focus on a failure to live up to one’s ideals or role expectations often because of real world problems.

This development brings with it increasingly complicated and encompassing moral demands. This level is where individuals’ self-esteems can suffer because they do not feel as though they are living up to certain expectations. This feeling will moderately affect one’s self-esteem with an even larger effect seen when individuals believe they are becoming their dreaded selves.[49]



Pyramid of Maslow.

People with a healthy level of self-esteem:[50]

  • Firmly believe in certain values and principles, and are ready to defend them even when finding opposition, feeling secure enough to modify them in light of experience.[15]
  • Are able to act according to what they think to be the best choice, trusting their own judgment, and not feeling guilty when others do not like their choice.[15]
  • Do not lose time worrying excessively about what happened in the past, nor about what could happen in the future. They learn from the past and plan for the future, but live in the present intensely.[15]
  • Fully trust in their capacity to solve problems, not hesitating after failures and difficulties. They ask others for help when they need it.[15]
  • Consider themselves equal in dignityto others, rather than inferior or superior, while accepting differences in certain talents, personal prestige or financial standing.[15]
  • Understand how they are an interesting and valuable person for others, at least for those with whom they have a friendship.[15]
  • Resist manipulation, collaborate with others only if it seems appropriate and convenient.[15]
  • Admit and accept different internal feelings and drives, either positive or negative, revealing those drives to others only when they choose.[15]
  • Are able to enjoy a great variety of activities.[15]
  • Are sensitive to feelings and needs of others; respect generally accepted social rules, and claim no right or desire to prosper at others’ expense.[15]
  • Can work toward finding solutions and voice discontent without belittling themselves or others when challenges arise.[51]

Secure vs. defensive

A person can have high self-esteem and hold it confidently where they do not need reassurance from others to maintain their positive self-view, whereas others with defensive high self-esteem may still report positive self-evaluations on the Rosenberg Scale, as all high self-esteem individuals do; however, their positive self-views are fragile and vulnerable to criticism. Defensive high self-esteem individuals internalize subconscious self-doubts and insecurities, causing them to react very negatively to any criticism they may receive. There is a need for constant positive feedback from others for these individuals to maintain their feelings of self-worth. The necessity of repeated praise can be associated with boastful, arrogant behavior or sometimes even aggressive and hostile feelings toward anyone who questions the individual’s self-worth, an example of threatened egotism.[52][53]

The Journal of Educational Psychology conducted a study in which they used a sample of 383 Malaysian undergraduates participating in work integrated learning (WIL) programs across five public universities to test the relationship between self-esteem and other psychological attributes such as self-efficacy and self-confidence. The results demonstrated that self-esteem has a positive and significant relationship with self-confidence and self-efficacy since students with higher self-esteem had better performances at university than those with lower self-esteem. It was concluded that higher education institutions and employers should emphasize the importance of undergraduates’ self-esteem development.[54]

Implicit, explicit, narcissism and threatened egotism

Implicit self-esteem refers to a person’s disposition to evaluate themselves positively or negatively in a spontaneous, automatic, or unconscious manner. It contrasts with explicit self-esteem, which entails more conscious and reflective self-evaluation. Both explicit self-esteem and implicit self-esteem are subtypes of self-esteem proper.

Narcissism is a disposition people may have that represents an excessive love for one’s self. It is characterized by an inflated view of self-worth. Individuals who score high on narcissism measures, Robert Raskin’s 40 Item True or False Test, would likely select true to such statements as “If I ruled the world, it would be a much better place.”[55] There is only a moderate correlation between narcissism and self-esteem;[56] that is to say that an individual can have high self-esteem but low narcissism or can be a conceited, obnoxious person and score high self-esteem and high narcissism.[57]

Threatened egotism is characterized as a response to criticism that threatens the ego of narcissists; they often react in a hostile and aggressive manner.[14][58][59]


Low self-esteem can result from various factors, including genetic factors, physical appearance or weight, mental health issues, socioeconomic status, significant emotional experiences, social stigmapeer pressure or bullying.[60]

A person with low self-esteem may show some of the following characteristics:[61]

  • Heavy self-criticismand dissatisfaction.[15]
  • Hypersensitivityto criticism with resentment against critics and feelings of being attacked.[15]
  • Chronic indecisionand an exaggerated fear of mistakes.[15]
  • Excessive will to pleaseand unwillingness to displease any petitioner.[15]
  • Perfectionism, which can lead to frustration when perfection is not achieved.[15]
  • Neurotic guilt, dwelling on or exaggerating the magnitude of past mistakes.[15]
  • Floating hostilityand general defensiveness and irritability without any proximate cause.[15]
  • Pessimismand a general negative outlook.[15]
  • Envy, invidiousness, or general resentment.[15]
  • Sees temporary setbacks as permanent, intolerable conditions.[51]

Individuals with low self-esteem tend to be critical of themselves. Some depend on the approval and praise of others when evaluating self-worth. Others may measure their likability in terms of successes: others will accept themselves if they succeed but will not if they fail.[62]

The three states

This classification proposed by Martin Ross[63] distinguishes three states of self-esteem compared to the “feats” (triumphshonorsvirtues) and the “anti-feats” (defeatsembarrassmentshame, etc.) of the individuals.[4][64]


The individual does not regard themselves as valuable or lovable. They may be overwhelmed by defeat, or shame, or see themselves as such, and they name their “anti-feat”. For example, if they consider that being over a certain age is an anti-feat, they define themselves with the name of their anti-feat, and say, “I am old”. They express actions and feelings such as pity, insulting themselves, and they may become paralyzed by their sadness.[63][65]


The individual has a generally positive self-image. However, their self-esteem is also vulnerable to the perceived risk of an imminent anti-feat (such as defeat, embarrassment, shame, discredit), consequently, they are often nervous and regularly use defense mechanisms.[65] A typical protection mechanism of those with vulnerable self-esteem may consist in avoiding decision-making. Although such individuals may outwardly exhibit great self-confidence, the underlying reality may be just the opposite: the apparent self-confidence is indicative of their heightened fear of anti-feats and the fragility of their self-esteem.[4] They may also try to blame others to protect their self-image from situations that would threaten it. They may employ defense mechanisms, including attempting to lose at games and other competitions in order to protect their self-image by publicly dissociating themselves from a need to win, and asserting an independence from social acceptance which they may deeply desire. In this deep fear of being unaccepted by an individual’s peers, they make poor life choices by making risky decisions.[64][65]


People with strong self-esteem have a positive self-image and enough strength so that anti-feats do not subdue their self-esteem. They have less fear of failure. These individuals appear humble, cheerful, and this shows a certain strength not to boast about feats and not to be afraid of anti-feats.[64][65] They are capable of fighting with all their might to achieve their goals because, if things go wrong, their self-esteem will not be affected. They can acknowledge their own mistakes precisely because their self-image is strong, and this acknowledgment will not impair or affect their self-image.[65] They live with less fear of losing social prestige, and with more happiness and general well-being.[65] However, no type of self-esteem is indestructible,[citation needed] and due to certain situations or circumstances in life, one can fall from this level into any other state of self-esteem.[63][65]

Contingent vs. non-contingent

A distinction is made between contingent (or conditional[66]) and non-contingent (or unconditional[67]) self-esteem.

Contingent self-esteem is derived from external sources, such as what others say, one’s success or failure, one’s competence,[68] or relationship-contingent self-esteem.

Therefore, contingent self-esteem is marked by instability, unreliability, and vulnerability. Persons lacking a non-contingent self-esteem are “predisposed to an incessant pursuit of self-value”.[69] However, because the pursuit of contingent self-esteem is based on receiving approval, it is doomed to fail, as no one receives constant approval, and disapproval often evokes depression. Furthermore, fear of disapproval inhibits activities in which failure is possible.[70]

“The courage to be is the courage to accept oneself, in spite of being unacceptable…. This is the Pauline-Lutheran doctrine of ‘justification by faith.'” Paul Tillich[71]

Non-contingent self-esteem is described as true, stable, and solid.[72] It springs from a belief that one is “acceptable period, acceptable before life itself, ontologically acceptable”.[73] Belief that one is “ontologically acceptable” is to believe that one’s acceptability is “the way things are without contingency”.[74] In this belief, as expounded by theologian Paul Tillich, acceptability is not based on a person’s virtue. It is an acceptance given “in spite of our guilt, not because we have no guilt”.[75]

Psychiatrist Thomas A Harris drew on Tillich for his classic I’m OK – You’re OK that addresses non-contingent self-esteem. Harris translated Tillich’s “acceptable” by the vernacular OK, a term that means “acceptable”.[76] The Christian message, said Harris, is not “YOU CAN BE OK, IF”; it is “YOU ARE ACCEPTED, unconditionally”.[77]

A secure non-contingent self-esteem springs from the belief that one is ontologically acceptable and accepted.[78]


Abraham Maslow states that psychological health is not possible unless the essential core of the person is fundamentally accepted, loved and respected by others and by oneself. Self-esteem allows people to face life with more confidence, benevolence, and optimism, and thus easily reach their goals and self-actualize.[79]

Self-esteem may make people convinced they deserve happiness.[79] Understanding this is fundamental, and universally beneficial, since the development of positive self-esteem increases the capacity to treat other people with respect, benevolence and goodwill, thus favoring rich interpersonal relationships and avoiding destructive ones.[79] For Erich Fromm, the love of others and love of ourselves are not alternatives. On the contrary, an attitude of love toward themselves will be found in all those who are capable of loving others. Self-esteem allows creativity at the workplace and is a specially critical condition for teaching professions.[80]

José-Vicente Bonet claims that the importance of self-esteem is obvious as a lack of self-esteem is, he says, not a loss of esteem from others, but self-rejection. Bonet claims that this corresponds to major depressive disorder.[15] Freud also claimed that the depressive has suffered “an extraordinary diminution in his self-regard, an impoverishment of his ego on a grand scale….He has lost his self-respect”.[81]

The Yogyakarta Principles, a document on international human rights law, addresses the discriminatory attitude toward LGBT people that makes their self-esteem low to be subject to human rights violation including human trafficking.[82] The World Health Organization recommends in “Preventing Suicide“,[83] published in 2000, that strengthening students’ self-esteem is important to protect children and adolescents against mental distress and despondency, enabling them to cope adequately with difficult and stressful life situations.[84]

Other than increased happiness, higher self-esteem is also known to correlate with a better ability to cope with stress and a higher likeliness of taking on difficult tasks relative to those with low self-esteem.[85]


From the late 1970s to the early 1990s many Americans assumed as a matter of course that students’ self-esteem acted as a critical factor in the grades that they earned in school, in their relationships with their peers, and in their later success in life. Under this assumption, some American groups created programs which aimed to increase the self-esteem of students. Until the 1990s, little peer-reviewed and controlled research took place on this topic.

Peer-reviewed research undertaken since then has not validated previous assumptions. Recent research indicates that inflating students’ self-esteems in and of itself has no positive effect on grades. Roy Baumeister has shown that inflating self-esteem by itself can actually decrease grades.[86][87] The relationship involving self-esteem and academic results does not signify that high self-esteem contributes to high academic results. It simply means that high self-esteem may be accomplished as a result of high academic performance due to the other variables of social interactions and life events affecting this performance.[5]

“Attempts by pro-esteem advocates to encourage self-pride in students solely by reason of their uniqueness as human beings will fail if feelings of well-being are not accompanied by well-doing. It is only when students engage in personally meaningful endeavors for which they can be justifiably proud that self-confidence grows, and it is this growing self-assurance that in turn triggers further achievement.”[88]

High self-esteem has a high correlation to self-reported happiness; whether this is a causal relationship has not been established.[5] The relationship between self-esteem and life satisfaction is stronger in individualistic cultures.[89]

Additionally, self-esteem has been found to be related to forgiveness in close relationships, in that people with high self-esteem will be more forgiving than people with low self-esteem.[90]

High self-esteem does not prevent children from smoking, drinking, taking drugs, or engaging in early sex.[5] One exception is that high self-esteem reduces the chances of bulimia in females.[5]


In research conducted in 2014 by Robert S. Chavez and Todd F. Heatherton, it was found that self-esteem is related to the connectivity of the frontostriatal circuit. The frontostriatal pathway connects the medial prefrontal cortex, which deals with self-knowledge, to the ventral striatum, which deals with feelings of motivation and reward. Stronger anatomical pathways are correlated with higher long-term self-esteem, while stronger functional connectivity is correlated with higher short-term self-esteem.[91]

Criticism and controversy

The American psychologist Albert Ellis criticized on numerous occasions the concept of self-esteem as essentially self-defeating and ultimately destructive.[92] Although acknowledging the human propensity and tendency to ego rating as innate, he has critiqued the philosophy of self-esteem as unrealistic, illogical and self- and socially destructive – often doing more harm than good. Questioning the foundations and usefulness of generalized ego strength, he has claimed that self-esteem is based on arbitrary definitional premises, and over-generalized, perfectionistic and grandiose thinking.[92] Acknowledging that rating and valuing behaviors and characteristics is functional and even necessary, he sees rating and valuing human beings’ totality and total selves as irrational and unethical. The healthier alternative to self-esteem according to him is unconditional self-acceptance and unconditional other-acceptance.[93] Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy is a psychotherapy based on this approach.[94]

“There seem to be only two clearly demonstrated benefits of high self-esteem….First, it increases initiative, probably because it lends confidence. People with high self-esteem are more willing to act on their beliefs, to stand up for what they believe in, to approach others, to risk new undertakings. (This unfortunately includes being extra willing to do stupid or destructive things, even when everyone else advises against them.)…It can also lead people to ignore sensible advice as they stubbornly keep wasting time and money on hopeless causes”[95]

False attempts

For persons with low self-esteem, any positive stimulus will temporarily raise self-esteem. Therefore, possessions, sex, success, or physical appearance will produce the development of self-esteem, but the development is ephemeral at best.[96] Such attempts to raise one’s self-esteem by positive stimulus produce a “boom or bust” pattern. “Compliments and positive feedback” produce a boost, but a bust follows a lack of such feedback. For a person whose “self-esteem is contingent”, success is “not extra sweet”, but “failure is extra bitter”.[70]

As narcissism

Life satisfaction, happiness, healthy behavioral practices, perceived efficacy, and academic success and adjustment have been associated with having high levels of self-esteem (Harter, 1987; Huebner, 1991; Lipschitz-Elhawi & Itzhaky, 2005; Rumberger 1995; Swenson & Prelow, 2005; Yarcheski & Mahon, 1989).[97]:270 However, a common mistake is to think that loving oneself is necessarily equivalent to narcissism, as opposed for example to what Erik Erikson speaks of as “a post-narcissistic love of the ego”.[98] People with a healthy self-esteem accept and love themselves unconditionally, acknowledging both virtues and faults in the self, and yet, in spite of everything, is able to continue to love themselves. In narcissists, by contrast, an ” uncertainty about their own worth gives rise to…a self-protective, but often totally spurious, aura of grandiosity[99] – producing the class “of narcissists, or people with very high, but insecure, self-esteem… fluctuating with each new episode of social praise or rejection.”[2]:479

Narcissism can thus be seen as a symptom of fundamentally low self-esteem, that is, lack of love towards oneself, but often accompanied by “an immense increase in self-esteem” based on “the defense mechanism of denial by overcompensation.”[100] “Idealized love of self…rejected the part of him” that he denigrates – “this destructive little child”[101] within. Instead, the narcissist emphasizes their virtues in the presence of others, just to try to convince themself that they are a valuable person and to try to stop feeling ashamed for their faults;[15] such “people with unrealistically inflated self-views, which may be especially unstable and highly vulnerable to negative information,…tend to have poor social skills.”[2]:126

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  98. ^Erikson, Erik H. (1973). Childhood and Society. Harmondsworth: Penguin. p. 260. ISBN 978-0140207545.
  99. ^Crompton, Simon (2007). All about Me. London: Collins. p. 16. ISBN 978-0007247950.
  100. ^Fenichel, Otto (1946). The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis. London. pp. 407–10.
  101. ^Symington, Neville (2003). Narcissism: A New Theory. London: Karmac. p. 114. ISBN978-1855750470.

Further reading

  • Baumeister, Roy F. (2001). “Violent Pride: Do people turn violent because of self-hate or self-love?,” in Scientific American284, No. 4, pp. 96–101; April 2001.
  • Branden, N. (1969). The Psychology of Self-Esteem. New York: Bantam.
  • Branden, N. (2001). The psychology of self-esteem: a revolutionary approach to self-understanding that launched a new era in modern psychology. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001. ISBN0787945269
  • Burke, C. (2008) “Self-esteem: Why?; Why not?,” New York: 2008
  • Crocker J.; Park L. E. (2004). “The costly pursuit of self-esteem”. Psychological Bulletin. 130(3): 392–414. doi:1037/0033-2909.130.3.392PMID 15122925.
  • Franklin, Richard L. (1994). “Overcoming The Myth of Self-Worth: Reason and Fallacy in What You Say to Yourself.” ISBN0963938703
  • Hill, S.E. & Buss, D.M.(2006). “The Evolution of Self-Esteem.” In Michael Kernis, (Ed.), Self Esteem: Issues and Answers: A Sourcebook of Current Perspectives.. Psychology Press:New York. 328–33. Full text
  • Lerner, Barbara (1985). “Self-Esteem and Excellence: The Choice and the Paradox,” American Educator, Winter 1985.
  • Mecca, Andrew M., et al., (1989). The Social Importance of Self-esteemUniversity of California Press, 1989. (ed; other editors included Neil J. Smelser and John Vasconcellos)
  • Mruk, C. (2006). Self-Esteem research, theory, and practice: Toward a positive psychology of self-esteem(3rd ed.). New York: Springer.
  • Rodewalt F.; Tragakis M. W. (2003). “Self-esteem and self-regulation: Toward optimal studies of self-esteem”. Psychological Inquiry. 14(1): 66–70. doi:1207/s15327965pli1401_02.
  • Ruggiero, Vincent R. (2000). “Bad Attitude: Confronting the Views That Hinder Student’s Learning” American Educator.
  • Sedikides, C., & Gregg. A. P. (2003). “Portraits of the self.” In M. A. Hogg & J. Cooper (Eds.), Sage handbook of social psychology(pp. 110–38). London: Sage Publications.
  • Twenge, Jean M. (2007). Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled – and More Miserable Than Ever Before. Free Press. ISBN978-0743276986