Thursday, January 10, 2008

Key Articles on Self-Esteem: By Nathaniel Branden, PhD



Healthy Self Esteem ~ Nathaniel Branden, PhD
Originally published in Bottom Line Personal 6/30/91. Reprinted by permission.
As the world becomes more complex, competitive, challenging, self-esteem is more important than ever.

The shift from a manufacturing-based society to one based on information, and the emergence of a global economy characterized by rapid change have created growing demands on our psychological resources. Recently, the focus of my work has been to show how self-esteem principles and technology can be used to improve performance in the work place.

Self-Esteem Defined

Despite the abundance of books, studies, workshops and committees devoted to the subject of self-esteem, there is little agreement about what it means. Self-esteem has two essential components:

• Self-efficacy: Confidence in the ability to cope with life’s challenges. Self-efficacy leads to a sense of control over one’s life.

• Self-respect: Experience oneself as deserving of happiness, achievement and love. Self-respect makes possible a sense of community with others.

Self-esteem is a self-reinforcing characteristic. When we have confidence in our ability to think and act effectively, we can persevere when faced with difficult challenges.

Result: We succeed more often than we fail. We form more nourishing relationships. We expect more of life and of ourselves.

If we lack confidence, we give up easily, fail more often and aspire to less. Result: We get less of what we want.

What Self-Esteem is Not

Self-esteem is a necessary condition of well being. But it’s not the only one. Its presence doesn’t make life problem-free. Even people with high self-esteem may experience anxiety, depression or fear when overwhelmed by issues they don’t know how to cope with.

I think of self-esteem as the immune system of consciousness. A healthy immune system doesn’t guarantee you’ll never become ill, but, it does reduce your susceptibility to illness and can improve your odds for a speedy recovery if you do get sick.

The same is true psychologically. Those with strong self-esteem are resilient in the face of life’s difficulties.

It’s impossible to have too much self-esteem. People who are arrogant or boastful actually show a lack of self-esteem. Those who are truly comfortable with themselves and their achievements take pleasure in being who they are … they don’t need to tell the world about it.

Becoming successful, powerful or well liked does not automatically confer good self-esteem. In fact, talented and powerful people who doubt their own core value are usually unable to find joy in their achievements, no matter how great their external success.

Important: Self-esteem has to do with what I think of me, not what anyone else thinks of me.

The highly touted use of affirmations is also ineffective, or at best of marginal value, in raising self-esteem. Telling yourself you’re capable and lovable accomplishes little if you are operating irresponsibly in key areas of your life.

Roots of Self-Regard

Genetic inheritance may have a role in a person’s self-esteem—it’s conceivable, anyway. Parental upbringing can also play a powerful role.

Parents with strong self-esteem lay the foundation for that quality in their children. They raise them with plenty of love and acceptance, believing in their competence and setting reasonable rules and expectations.

Yet there are exceptions that we still don’t understand. Some people who have these positive factors in their backgrounds become self-doubting adults, while others who survive seemingly destructive childhoods grow up with a strong sense of self-worth.

Strengthening self-esteem is not a quick or easy process. We can’t do it directly. Self-esteem is a consequence of following fundamental internal practices that require an ongoing commitment to self-examination. I call these practices the “Six Pillars of Self-Esteem”:

Living consciously: Paying attention to information and feedback about needs and goals … facing facts that might be uncomfortable or threatening … refusing to wander through life in a self-induced mental fog.

Self-acceptance: Being willing to experience whatever we truly think, feel or do, even if we don’t always like it … facing our mistakes and learning from them.

Self-responsibility: Establishing a sense of control over our lives by realizing we are responsible for our choices and actions at every level … the achievement of our goals … our happiness … our values.

Self-assertiveness: The willingness to express appropriately our thoughts, values and feelings … to stand up for ourselves … to speak and act from our deepest convictions.

Living purposefully: Setting goals and working to achieve them, rather than living at the mercy of chance and outside forces … developing self-discipline.

Integrity: The integration of our behavior with our ideals, convictions, standards and beliefs … acting in congruence with what we believe is right.
Most of us are taught from an early age to pay far more attention to signals coming from other people than from within. We are encouraged to ignore our own needs and wants and to concentrate on living up to others’ expectations.

Self-esteem requires us to listen to and respect our own sensations, insights, intuition and perspective. For some people, learning to do this may require the help of a competent therapist. For all of us, developing the pillars of self-esteem is a life-long—and worthy—challenge.

Our Urgent Need for Self-Esteem ~ Nathaniel Branden, PhD
Originally published in Excellence 5/14/94. Reprinted by permission.
Of all the judgments we pass in life, none is more important than the judgment we pass on ourselves. That judgment impacts every moment and every aspect of our existence. Our self-evaluation is the basic context in which we act and react, choose our values, set our goals, meet the challenges that confront us. Our responses to events are shaped in part by whom and what we think we are—our self-esteem.

Competent to Cope

Self-esteem is the experience of being competent to cope with the basic challenges of life and of being worthy of happiness. It consists of two components: 1) self-efficacy—confidence in our ability to think, learn, choose, and make appropriate decisions; and 2) self-respect—confidence in our right to be happy; and in the belief that achievement, success, friendship, respect, love and fulfillment are appropriate to us.

The basic challenges of life include such fundamentals as being able to earn a living and take independent care of oneself in the world; being competent in human relationships, so that our interactions with others are, more often than not, mutually satisfying; and having the resilience that allows one to bounce back from adversity and persevere in one’s aspirations.

To say that self-esteem is a basic human need is to say that it is essential to normal and healthy development. It has survival value. Lacking positive self-esteem, psychological growth is stunted. Positive self-esteem operates, in effect, as providing resistance, strength, and a capacity for regeneration. When self-esteem is low, our resilience in the face of life’s problems is diminished. We tend to be more influenced by the desire to avoid pain than to experience joy; negatives have more power over us than positives. If we do not believe in ourselves—neither in our efficacy nor in our goodness (and lovability)—the world is a frightening place.

To women who are throwing off traditional gender roles, fighting for emotional and intellectual autonomy, pouring in escalating numbers into the workplace, starting their own business, invading one formerly male bastion after another, challenging millennium-old prejudices—self-esteem is indispensable. To be sure, it is not all that is needed for success, but without it the battle cannot be won.

For women and men alike, if we do have a realistic confidence in our mind and value, if we feel secure within ourselves, we tend to respond appropriately to challenges and opportunities. Self-esteem empowers, energizes, motivates. It inspires us to achieve and allows us to take pleasure and pride in our achievements.

High Self-Esteem

High self-esteem seeks the challenge and stimulation of worthwhile and demanding goals. Reaching such goals nurtures good self-esteem. Low self-esteem seeks the safety of the familiar and undemanding. Confining oneself to the familiar and undemanding serves to weaken self-esteem.

The more solid our self-esteem, the better equipped we are to cope with troubles that arise in our careers or in our personal life; the quicker we are to pick ourselves up after a fall; the more energy we have to begin anew. Setbacks will not stop the most self-confident of the women who, in the millions, are now starting their own businesses or otherwise struggling to rise in their professions. Nor will a disappointing marriage or love affair so devastate a confident woman’s ego that she will arm herself against intimacy to avoid the possibility of future hurt, at the cost of her vitality.

The higher our self-esteem, the more ambitious we tend to be, not necessarily in a career or financial sense, but in terms of what we hope to experience in life—emotionally, romantically, intellectually, creatively, and spiritually. The lower our self-esteem, the less we aspire to, and the less we are likely to achieve. Either path tends to be self-reinforcing and self-perpetuating.

The higher our self-esteem, the stronger the drive to express ourselves, reflecting the sense of richness within. The lower our self-esteem, the more urgent the need to “prove” ourselves—or to forget ourselves by living mechanically.

The higher our self-esteem, the more open, honest, and appropriate our communications are likely to be, because we believe our thoughts have value and therefore we welcome rather than fear the clarity. The lower our self-esteem, the more muddy, evasive, and inappropriate our communications are likely to be, because of uncertainty about our own thoughts and feelings and anxiety about the listener’s response.

The higher our self-esteem, the more disposed we are to form nourishing rather than toxic relationships. Health is attracted to health. Vitality and expansiveness in others are naturally more appealing to persons of good self-esteem than are emptiness and dependency. Self-confident women and men are naturally drawn to one another. Alas, insecure women and men are also drawn to one another, and form destructive relationships.

If you hope to achieve a happy relationship with someone, no factor is more important than self-esteem—in you and in the other person. There is no greater barrier to romantic success than the deep-seated feeling that one is unlovable. The first love affair we must consummate successfully in this world is with ourselves; only then are we ready for a relationship. Only then will we be fully able to love, and only then will we be able fully to let love in—to accept that another person loves us. Without that confidence, another person’s love will never be quite real or convincing to us; and in our anxiety we may find ways to undermine it.

Women who are struggling to build a more positive self-concept sometimes ask, “Do men want high self-esteem in a female?” I answer, “Men who have a decent level of self-esteem do value it in a woman; they do not want a frightened child for a partner. And what would a woman of self-esteem want with a man so insecure that her confidence scared him?”

Self-esteem is an intimate experience; it resides in the core of one’s being. It is what I think and feel about myself, not what someone else thinks or feels about me. I can be loved by my family, my mate, and my friends, and yet not love myself. I can be admired by my associates and yet regard myself as worthless. I can project an image of assurance and poise that fools almost everyone and yet secretly tremble with a sense of my inadequacy. I can fulfill the expectations of others, and yet fail my own; I can win every honor, and yet feel I have accomplished nothing; I can be adored by millions, and yet wake up each morning with a sickening sense of fraudulence and emptiness.

To attain “success” without attaining positive self-esteem is to be condemned to feeling like an imposter anxiously awaiting exposure. The acclaim of others does not create our self-esteem. Neither does erudition, material possessions, marriage, parenthood, philanthropic endeavors, sexual conquests, or face-lifts. These things can sometimes make us feel better about our selves temporarily, or more comfortable in particular situations. But comfort is not self-esteem.

Six Pillars of Self-Esteem

Over three decades of study and of working with people have persuaded me that there are six pillars on which health self-esteem depends.

1. Living Consciously. To live consciously is to be present to what we are doing; to seek to understand whatever bears on our interests, values, and goals; to be aware both of the world external to self and also to the world within.

2. Self-acceptance. To be self-accepting is to own and experience, without denial or disowning, the reality of our thoughts, emotions and actions; to be respectful and compassionate toward ourselves even when we do not admire or enjoy some of our feelings or decisions; to refuse to be in an adversarial or rejecting relationship to ourselves.

3. Self-responsibility. To be self-responsible is to recognize that we are the author of our choices and actions; that we must be the ultimate source of our own fulfillment; that no one is coming to make our life right for us, or make us happy, or give us self-esteem.

4. Self-assertiveness. To be self-assertive is to honor our wants and needs and look for their appropriate forms of expression in reality; to live our values in the world; to be willing to be who we are and allow others to see it; to stand up for our convictions, values, and feelings.

5. Living Purposefully. To live purposefully is to take responsibility for identifying our goals; to perform the actions that allow us to achieve them; to keep on track and moving toward their fulfillment.

6. Personal integrity. To live with integrity is to have principles of behavior to which we remain loyal in action; to keep our promises and honor our commitments; to walk our talk.

Now an Urgent Need

Our need for self-esteem has acquired new urgency. It has always been an important psychological need, but today it is also an important economic need—the attribute imperative for adaptiveness to an increasingly complex, challenging and competitive world.

We now live in a global economy characterized by rapid change, accelerating scientific and technological breakthroughs, and an unprecedented level of competitiveness. These developments create demands or higher levels of education and training. These developments also create new demands on our psychological resources. Specifically, these developments ask for a greater capacity for innovation, self-management, personal responsibility, and self-direction. This is not just asked at the top. It is asked at every level of a business enterprise.

Modern business can’t be run by a few people who think and many people who do what they are told (the traditional, military command-and-control model). Today, organizations need not only an unprecedentedly high level of knowledge and skill among all those who participate, but also a higher level of independence, self-reliance, self-trust, and the capacity to exercise initiative—in a word, self-esteem. Persons with high levels of self-esteem are now needed economically in large numbers. Historically, this is a new phenomenon, and so in a very real sense, self-esteem is an idea whose time has come.

Preface to Self-Esteem at Work
~ Nathaniel Branden, PhD
Copyright © 1998, Nathaniel Branden, All Rights Reserved
This essay is adapted from Dr. Branden’s recently-published book, “Self-Esteem at Work: How Confident People Make Powerful Companies,” to be published in 1998 by Jossey-Bass Publishers.


The theme of this book is the new importance of self-esteem in an information economy, and the practical implications of that importance for leaders, managers, and anyone seeking conscious control over his or her career.

By self-esteem I mean the experience of being competent to cope with the basic challenges of life and of being worthy of happiness. This means trust in your ability to think, learn, make appropriate decisions, and respond effectively to new conditions. It also means confidence in your right to experience success and personal fulfillment—the conviction that happiness is appropriate to you.

Self-esteem pertains to an experience of efficacy. This entails confidence in your mind at a very deep level. Not the confidence of knowing you can perform this or that task appropriately. Not confidence in how much you may know about any particular subject. Bur rather, trust in the processes by which you reason, understand, learn chose, decide, and regulate action.

It is a trust that cannot be faked. It has to be reality—based—has to be earned. How it is earned is one of the issues I will examine.

Self-esteem has always been an important psychological need, ever since we evolved the capacity for abstract self-awareness. Now, however, in a way that was not true in the past, it has become an urgent economic need.

I will consider the nature and dynamics of self-esteem and its role in behavior and motivation, both personally and professionally, in Chapter Two. We cannot understand how and why self-esteem has acquired its new importance in the workplace if we do not understand what self-esteem is and how it operates. But first, in Chapter One, I examine how the workplace has changed—what are the new and unprecedented challenges that individuals and business organizations face—and how these challenges relate to self-esteem.

Following these two chapters, I will consider the implications of the new realities for leadership, management practice, and the requirements of creating a high performance organization characterized by continuous innovation and sustained profitability—in a ferociously competitive global marketplace.

Finally, I will examine the intimate linkage between working on your own development as a human being and striving to make yourself and your organization adaptive to the challenges of an economy that seems more ruthlessly demanding with every passing year. The message here is that work itself can be approached as a path to personal growth, so that self-esteem and professional competence can rise together and reinforce each other—while one avoids the error of identifying personal worth with career success.

The net result is a guidebook for working with self and others in a business environment.

Business has often been skeptical of the intrusion of “psychology” into its domain. Understandably so. A great deal of what has been offered to the business community as “psychology” has had very little to recommend it. And some of the early attempts to introduce “personal growth work” into business—remember, for example, the early T-groups or encounter groups—led in some cases to employees feeling emotionally invaded and even damaged; it also led, in a few instances, to law suits. So if business is skeptical about the offerings of psychologists, it is wise to be—or, if not skeptical, then at least cautious and thoughtful. And yet, business cannot avoid psychology because it cannot avoid the question, “What must we do to motivate our people to give their best?”

Executives do not ask, “How can we establish an organizational culture that nurtures self-esteem?” They do ask, “How can we establish an organizational culture that supports high performance, personal accountability, and creative initiative?” The questions are different, yet the answers are essentially the same.

Although I have written a great deal about self-esteem in the past, this book assumes no familiarity with my earlier writings and is entirely self-contained. When necessary, I have permitted myself to borrow material from my previous books because I am aware I may be addressing executives who have never read anything in the field of psychology in general or self-esteem in particular.

I owe the genesis of this book, in part, to an encounter I had about fifteen years ago, before I began doing corporate consulting. I was conducting a self-esteem seminar for the general public at which six or seven business consultants were participants. It turned out they all knew one another and they invited me to lunch. I expressed interest in what had inspired them to take this particular course. Here is the essence of what they said:

“ We feel something is missing in our consulting practice. We can design a program for an organization, elicit people’s initial enthusiasm, and pretty soon they are seeing with their own eyes that the program works and produces desired results—and yet, after a while, they stop doing it and revert to their old ways. It’s as if their self-concept—the way they view themselves and what’s appropriate to them—can’t accommodate this new way of being and doing. Somehow, it’s not who they think they are. Their attitude seems to be, ‘I’m just not a person who does things this way.’ That’s an issue of self-esteem, isn’t it? So that’s why we’re here—to learn more about the principles of self-esteem and perhaps to learn if there’s any way to incorporate self-esteem ideas in our work.”

These consultants had grasped a profoundly important principle—that it is very difficult for people to act beyond their deepest vision of who and what they believe themselves to be. They may succeed in doing so for brief periods of time, but if their self-concept remains unchanged, the gravitational pull of their self-limiting beliefs will pull them back to old, familiar, and less productive ways of functioning. It was from that encounter on that I began thinking more and more about the application of my work in self-esteem to the world of business. The problem raised by these consultants, important though it is, reflects only one of the ways that issues of self-esteem show up in the workplace. There are many others.

A simple example is the fact that analyses of business failure tell us that a common cause is executives’ fear of making decisions. What is fear of making decisions but lack of confidence in one’s mind and judgment? In other words, a problem of self-esteem.

Yet another example pertains to competence at negotiating. A study discloses that whereas people with healthy self-esteem tend to be realistic in their demands, negotiators with poor self-esteem tend to ask for too much or too little (depending on other personality variables)—but in either case being less effective than they could be.

More broadly, interpersonal competence—so important in corporate settings today—tends to be adversely affected by low self-esteem. Persons suffering from deep insecurities and self-doubts tend to behave in inappropriate and counterproductive ways in their dealings with others, whether this means being overcontrolling and gratuitously combative or timid and oversolicitous. Instead of being task-focused, too often their focus is on self-aggrandizement or self-protection; either way, their relations with others are adversarial rather than benevolent. Far more than lack of technical knowledge or ability, this problem is a major cause of career breakdown.

There is virtually no aspect of business activity—from leading, to managing, to participating in teams, to dealing with customers, to engaging in research and development, to responding to new challenges and new ideas, to devising ways to stay ahead of competitors—that is not significantly affected by the level of one’s self-esteem. For this reason, everyone involved in the process of production, from CEO to the first-time employee, can benefit from an understanding of the principles and strategies that follow.

Self-Esteem in the Information Age ~ Nathaniel Branden, PhD
Copyright © 1997, Nathaniel Branden, All Rights Reserved
This essay appears in the Drucker Foundation’s collection of business essays, The Organization of the Future (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1997).
We have reached a moment in history when self-esteem, which has always been a supremely important psychological need, has become an urgent economic need—the attribute imperative for adaptiveness to an increasingly complex, challenging, and competitive world.

We now live in a global economy characterized by rapid change, accelerating scientific and technological breakthroughs, and an unprecedented level of competitiveness. These developments create demands for higher levels of education and training than were required of previous generations. Everyone acquainted with business culture knows this. What is not equally understood is that these developments also create new demands on our psychological resources. Specifically, these developments ask for a greater capacity for innovation, self-management, personal responsibility, and self-direction. This is not just asked at the top. It is asked at every level of a business enterprise, from senior management to first-line supervisor and even to entry-level personnel.

A modern organization can no longer be run by a few people who think and many people who merely do what they are told. Today, organizations need not only a higher level of knowledge and skill among all those who participate but also a higher level of independence, self-reliance, self-trust, and the capacity to exercise initiative—in a word, self-esteem. This means that persons with a decent level of self-esteem are now needed economically in large numbers. Historically, this is a new phenomenon.

Recent and emerging technological and economic realities may be driving our evolution as a species, commanding us to rise to a higher level than our ancestors. If this premise is correct, it is the most important development of the twentieth century—and in its ramifications the least appreciated. It has profound implications for the organization of the future and the values that will have to be dominant in corporate culture—values that serve and celebrate autonomy, innovativeness, self-responsibility, self-esteem (in contrast to such traditional values as obedience, conformity, and respect for authority).

The Roots of Self-Esteem

Let me begin with a definition. Self-esteem is the experience of being competent to cope with the basic challenges of life and of being worthy of happiness.1 It is confidence in the efficacy of our mind, in our ability to think. By extension, it is confidence in our ability to learn, make appropriate choices and decisions, and manage change. It is also the experience that success, achievement, fulfillment—happiness—are appropriate to us. The survival-value of such confidence is obvious; so is the danger when it is missing.

Over three decades of study have led me to identify six practices as the most essential to building self-esteem. All are relevant to the organization of the future.

1. The practice of living consciously: respect for facts; being present to what we are doing while we are doing it (e.g., if our customer, supervisor, employee, supplier, colleague is talking to us, being present to the encounter); seeking and being eagerly open to any information, knowledge, or feedback that bears on our interests, values, goals, and projects; seeking to understand not only the world external to self but also our inner world as well, so that we do not act out of self-blindness. When asked to account for the extraordinary transformation he achieved at General Electric, Jack Welch spoke of “self-confidence, candor, and an unflinching willingness to face reality, even when it’s painful,” which is the essence of living consciously.

2. The practice of self-acceptance: the willingness to own, experience, and take responsibility for our thoughts, feelings, and actions, without evasion, denial, or disowning—and also without self-repudiation; giving oneself permission to think one’s thoughts, experience one’s emotions, and look at one’s actions without necessarily liking, endorsing or condoning them. If we are self-accepting, we do not experience ourselves as always “on trial,” and what this leads to is non-defensiveness and willingness to hear critical feedback or different ideas without becoming hostile and adversarial.

3. The practice of self-responsibility: realizing that we are the authors of our choices and actions; that each one of us is responsible for our life and well-being and for the attainment of our goals; that if we need the cooperation of other people to achieve our goals, we must offer values in exchange; and that the question is not “Who’s to blame?” but always “What needs to be done?”

4. The practice of self-assertiveness: being authentic in our dealings with others; treating our values and persons with decent respect in social contexts; refusing to fake the reality of who we are or what we esteem in order to avoid someone’s disapproval; the willingness to stand up for ourselves and our ideas in appropriate ways in appropriate circumstances.

5. The practice of living purposefully: identifying our short-term and long-term goals or purposes and the actions needed to attain them, organizing behavior in the service of those goals, monitoring action to be sure we stay on track—and paying attention to outcome so as to recognize if and when we need to go back to the drawing-board.

6. The practice of personal integrity: living with congruence between what we know, what we profess, and what we do; telling the truth, honoring our commitments, exemplifying in action the values we professes to admire; dealing with others fairly and benevolently. When we betray our values, we betray our mind, and self-esteem is an inevitable casualty.

A Leader’s Self-Esteem

Leaders often do not recognize that “who they are” as people affects virtually every aspect of their organization. They do not appreciate the extent to which they are role models. Their smallest bits of behavior are noted and absorbed by those around them, not necessarily consciously, and reflected via those they influence throughout the entire organization. If a leader has unimpeachable integrity, a standard is set that others may feel drawn to follow. If a leader treats people with respect—associates, subordinates, customers, suppliers—that tends to translate into company culture.

The higher the self-esteem of the leader, the more likely it is that he or she can inspire the best in others. A mind that does not trust itself cannot inspire greatness in the minds of colleagues and subordinates. Neither can leaders inspire others if their primary need is to prove themselves right and others wrong. (Contrary to conventional wisdom, the problem of such insecure leaders is not that they have a big ego, but that they have a small one.)

If leaders wish to create a high self-esteem/high performance organization, the first step is to work on themselves: to work on raising their own level of consciousness, self-responsibility, etc. They need to address the question: Do I exemplify in my behavior the traits I want to see in our people? (Or am I like the parent who says, “Do as I say, not as I do?) This principle, of course, applies not only to CEOs but to managers on every level.

This leads to the question: How does an individual work on his or her own self-esteem? I discuss this question at length in “The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem”, but here are a few suggestions.

Working on One’s Own Self-Esteem

The practices that cultivate and strengthen self-esteem are also expressions of self-esteem. The relationship is reciprocal. If I operate consciously, I grow in self-esteem; if I have a decent level of self-esteem, the impulse to operate consciously feels natural. If I operate self-responsibly, I strengthen self-esteem; if I have self-esteem, I tend to operate self-responsibly. If I integrate the six practices into my daily existence, I develop high self-esteem; if I enjoy high self-esteem, I tend to manifest the six practices in my daily activities.

If we want to learn to operate more consciously, we need to ask ourselves, What would I do (or do differently) if I brought five percent more consciousness to my dealings with other people? If I brought five percent more consciousness to, for example, implementing our mission, rethinking strategy, creating more outlets for individual creativity and innovativeness in our organization? What facts do I need to examine that I have avoided examining?

Or again, if I operated five percent more self-acceptingly, or self-responsibly, or self-assertively, or purposefully, or with greater integrity, what would I do differently? Am I willing to experiment with those behaviors now?

If I recognize that if I brought five percent more self-esteem to my dealings with people I would treat them more generously, why not do so now? If I know that with more self-esteem I would better protect my people, why not do so now? If I understand that with higher self-esteem I would face unpleasant facts more straightforwardly, why not choose to do so now?

When we do what we know is right, we build self-esteem. And when we betray that knowledge, we subvert self-esteem.

Encouraging Self-Esteem in an Organization

A few suggestions for leaders and managers who wish to encourage consciousness in their people:

1. Provide easy access not only to the information they need to do their job, but also about the wider context in which they work—the goals and progress of the organization—so they can understand how their activities relate to the organization’s overall mission and agenda.

2. Offer opportunities for continuous learning and upgrading of skills. Send out the signal in as many ways as possible that yours is a learning organization.

3. If someone does superior work or makes an excellent decision, invite him or her to explore how and why it happened. Do not limit yourself simply to praise. By asking appropriate questions, help raise the person’s consciousness about what made the achievement possible, and thereby increase the likelihood that others like it will occur in the future. If someone does unacceptable work or makes a bad decision, practice the same principle. Do not limit yourself to corrective feedback. Invite an exploration of what made error possible, thus raising the level of consciousness and minimizing the likelihood of a repetition.

4. Avoid overdirecting, overobserving, and overreporting. Excessive managing (“micromanaging”) is the enemy of autonomy and creativity.

5. Plan and budget appropriately for innovation. Do not ask for people’s innovative best and then announce there is no money (or other resources) because the danger is that creative enthusiasm (expanded consciousness) will dry up and be replaced by demoralization (shrunken consciousness).

6. Stretch your people. Assign tasks and projects slightly beyond their known capabilities.

7. Keep handing responsibility down.

For encouraging self-acceptance:

1. When you talk with your people, be present to the experience. Make eye contact, listen actively, offer appropriate feedback, give the speaker the experience of being heard and accepted.

2. Regardless of who you are talking to, maintain a tone of respect. Do not permit yourself a condescending, superior, sarcastic, or blaming tone.

3. Keep encounters regarding work task-centered, not ego-centered. Never permit a dispute to deteriorate into a conflict of personalities. The focus needs to be on reality—“What is the situation?” “What does the work require?” “What needs to be done?”

4. Describe undesirable behavior without blaming. Let someone know if his or her behavior is unacceptable: point out its consequences, communicate the kind of behavior you want instead, and omit character assassination.

5. Let your people see that you talk honestly about your feelings: if you are hurt or angry or offended, say so straightforwardly with dignity (and give everyone a lesson in the strength of self-acceptance).

For encouraging self-responsibility:

1. Communicate that self-responsibility is expected and create opportunities for it. Give your people space to take the initiative, volunteer ideas, and expand their range.

2. Set clear and unequivocal performance standards. Let people understand your nonnegotiable expectations regarding the quality of work.

3. Elicit from people their understanding of what they are accountable for, so as to assure that their understanding and yours is the same. Elicit a clear statement of what precisely they are committed to being responsible for.

4. Publicize and celebrate unusual instances of self-responsibility.

For encouraging self-assertiveness:

1. Teach that errors and mistakes are opportunities for learning. “What can you learn from what happened?” is a question that builds self-esteem, encourages self-assertiveness, expands consciousness, and promotes not repeating mistakes.

2. Let your people see that it’s safe to make mistakes or say “I don’t know, but I will find out.” To evoke fear of error or ignorance is to invite deception, inhibition, and an end to self-assertive creativity.

3. Let your people see that it’s safe to disagree with you: convey respect for differences of opinion and do not punish dissent.

4. Work at changing aspects of the organization’s culture that undermine self-assertiveness (and self-esteem). Traditional procedures, originating in an older model of management, may stifle not only self-esteem but also any creativity or innovation (such as requiring that all significant decisions by passed up the chain of command, thus leaving those close to the action disempowered and paralyzed).

5. Find out what the central interests of your people are and, whenever possible, match tasks and objectives with individual dispositions. Give people an opportunity to do what they enjoy most and do best; build on people’s strengths.

For encouraging purposefulness:

1. Ask your people what they would need in order to feel more in control of their work and, if possible, give it to them. If you want to promote autonomy, excitement, and a strong commitment to goals, empower, empower, empower.

2. Give your people the resources, information, and authority to do what you have asked them to do. Remember that there can be no responsibility without power, and nothing can so undermine purposefulness as assigning the first without giving the second.

3. Help your people to understand how their work relates to the overall mission of the organization, so that they always operate with a grasp of the wider context. In the absence of this grasp of context, it is difficult to sustain purposefulness.

4. Encourage everyone to keep measuring results against stated goals and objectives—and disseminate this information widely.

For encouraging integrity:

1. Exemplify that which you wish to see in others. Tell the truth. Keep promises. Honor commitments. Let there be perceived congruence between what you profess and what you do. And not just with insiders but with everyone you deal with—suppliers, customers, etc.

2. If you make a mistake in your dealings with someone, are unfair or short-tempered, admit it and apologize. Do not imagine (like some autocratic parent) that it would demean your dignity or position to admit taking an action you regret.

3. Invite your people to give you feedback on the kind of boss you are. (Remember that you are the kind of manager your people say you are.) Let your people see that you honestly want to know how you affect them, and that you are open to learning and self-correction. Set an example of nondefensiveness.

4. Convey in every way possible that your commitment is to operate as a thoroughly moral company, and look for opportunities to reward and publicize unusual instances of ethical behavior in your people.

The Bottom Line

In conclusion I will quote my friend and colleague, Warren Bennis, who made an observation that goes to the heart of the matter: “About any behavior that is thought to be desirable by an organization, it’s useful to ask: Is this behavior rewarded, punished, or ignored? The answer to this question tells you what an organization really cares about, not what it says it cares about.”


1. From “The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem” (New York: Bantam Books, 1994).
2. A more detailed discussion of how one creates an organizational culture of high accountability is offered in Taking Responsibility (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996).

What Self-Esteem Is and Is Not
~ Nathaniel Branden, PhD
Copyright © 1997, Nathaniel Branden, All Rights Reserved
This article is adapted from “The Art of Living Consciously” (Simon & Schuster, 1997).
Four decades ago, when I began lecturing on self-esteem, the challenge was to persuade people that the subject was worthy of study. Almost no one was talking or writing about self-esteem in those days. Today, almost everyone seems to be talking about self-esteem, and the danger is that the idea may become trivialized. And yet, of all the judgments we pass in life, none is more important than the judgment we pass on ourselves.

Having written on this theme in a series of books, I want, in this short article, to address the issue of what self-esteem is, what it depends on, and what are some of the most prevalent misconceptions about it.

Self-esteem is an experience. It is a particular way of experiencing the self. It is a good deal more than a mere feeling—this must be stressed. It involves emotional, evaluative, and cognitive components. It also entails certain action dispositions: to move toward life rather than away from it; to move toward consciousness rather than away from it; to treat facts with respect rather than denial; to operate self-responsibly rather than the opposite.

A Definition

To begin with a definition: Self-esteem is the disposition to experience oneself as being competent to cope with the basic challenges of life and of being worthy of happiness. It is confidence in the efficacy of our mind, in our ability to think. By extension, it is confidence in our ability to learn, make appropriate choices and decisions, and respond effectively to change. It is also the experience that success, achievement, fulfillment—happiness—are right and natural for us. The survival-value of such confidence is obvious; so is the danger when it is missing.

Self-esteem is not the euphoria or buoyancy that may be temporarily induced by a drug, a compliment, or a love affair. It is not an illusion or hallucination. If it is not grounded in reality, if it is not built over time through the appropriate operation of mind, it is not self-esteem.

The root of our need for self-esteem is the need for a consciousness to learn to trust itself. And the root of the need to learn such trust is the fact that consciousness is volitional: we have the choice to think or not to think. We control the switch that turns consciousness brighter or dimmer. We are not rational—that is, reality-focused—automatically. This means that whether we learn to operate our mind in such a way as to make ourselves appropriate to life is ultimately a function of our choices. Do we strive for consciousness or for its opposite? For rationality or its opposite? For coherence and clarity or their opposite? For truth or its opposite?

Building Self-Esteem

In “The Six Pillars of Self Esteem,” I examine the six practices that I have found to be essential for the nurturing and sustaining of healthy self-esteem: the practice of living consciously, of self-acceptance, of self-responsibility, of self-assertiveness, of purposefulness, and of integrity. I will briefly define what each of these practices means:

The practice of living consciously: respect for facts; being present to what we are doing while are doing it; seeking and being eagerly open to any information, knowledge, or feedback that bears on our interests, values, goals, and projects; seeking to understand not only the world external to self but also our inner world, so that we do not out of self-blindness.

The practice of self-acceptance: the willingness to own, experience, and take responsibility for our thoughts, feelings, and actions, without evasion, denial, or disowning—and also without self-repudiation; giving oneself permission to think one’s thoughts, experience one’s emotions, and look at one’s actions without necessarily liking, endorsing, or condoning them; the virtue of realism applied to the self.

The practice of self-responsibility: realizing that we are the author of our choices and actions; that each one us is responsible for life and well-being and for the attainment of our goals; that if we need the cooperation of other people to achieve our goals, we must offer values in exchange; and that question is not “Who’s to blame?” but always “What needs to be done?” (“What do I need to do?”)

The practice of self-assertiveness: being authentic in our dealings with others; treating our values and persons with decent respect in social contexts; refusing to fake the reality of who we are or what we esteem in order to avoid disapproval; the willingness to stand up for ourselves and our ideas in appropriate ways in appropriate contexts.

The practice of living purposefully: identifying our short-term and long-term goals or purposes and the actions needed to attain them (formulating an action-plan); organizing behavior in the service of those goals; monitoring action to be sure we stay on track; and paying attention to outcome so as to recognize if and when we need to go back to the drawing-board.

The practice of personal integrity: living with congruence between what we know, what we profess, and what we do; telling the truth, honoring our commitments, exemplifying in action the values we profess to admire.

What all these practices have in common is respect for reality. They all entail at their core a set of mental operations (which, naturally, have consequences in the external world).

When we seek to align ourselves with reality as best we understand it, we nurture and support our self-esteem. When, either out of fear or desire, we seek escape from reality, we undermine our self-esteem. No other issue is more important or basic than our cognitive relationship to reality—meaning: to that which exists.

A consciousness cannot trust itself if, in the face of discomfiting facts, it has a policy of preferring blindness to sight. A person cannot experience self-respect who too often, in action, betrays consciousness, knowledge, and conviction—that is, who operates without integrity.

Thus, if we are mindful in this area, we see that self-esteem is not a free gift of nature. It has to be cultivated, has to be earned. It cannot be acquired by blowing oneself a kiss in the mirror and saying, “Good morning, Perfect.” It cannot be attained by being showered with praise. Nor by sexual conquests. Nor by material acquisitions. Nor by the scholastic or career achievements of one’s children. Nor by a hypnotist planting the thought that one is wonderful. Nor by allowing young people to believe they are better students than they really are and know more than they really know; faking reality is not a path to mental health or authentic self-assurance. However, just as people dream of attaining effortless wealth, so they dream of attaining effortless self-esteem—and unfortunately the marketplace is full of panderers to this longing.

People can be inspired, stimulated, or coached to live more consciously, practice greater self-acceptance, operate more self-responsibly, function more self-assertively, live more purposefully, and bring a higher level of personal integrity into their life—but the task of generating and sustaining these practices falls on each of us alone. “If I bring a higher level of awareness to my self-esteem, I see that mine is the responsibility of nurturing it.” No one—not our parents, nor our friends, nor our lover, nor our psychotherapist, nor our support group—can “give” us self-esteem. If and when we fully grasp this, that is an act of “waking up.”

Misconceptions about Self-Esteem

When we do not understand the principles suggested above, we tend to seek self-esteem where it cannot be found—and, if we are in “the self-esteem movement,” to communicate our misunderstandings to others.

Teachers who embrace the idea that self-esteem is important without adequately grasping its roots may announce (to quote one such teacher) that “self-esteem comes primarily from one’s peers.” Or (quoting many others): “Children should not be graded for mastery of a subject because it may be hurtful to their self-esteem.” Or (quoting still others): “Self-esteem is best nurtured by selfless (!) service to the community.”

In the “recovery movement” and from so-called spiritual leaders in general one may receive a different message: “Stop struggling to achieve self-esteem. Turn your problems over to God. Realize that you are a child of God—and that is all you need to have self-esteem.” Consider what this implies if taken literally. We don’t need to live consciously. We don’t need to act self-responsibly. We don’t need to have integrity. All we have to do is surrender responsibility to God and effortless self-esteem is guaranteed to us. This is not a helpful message to convey to people. Nor is it true.

Yet another misconception—very different from those I have just discussed—is the belief that the measure of our personal worth is our external achievements. This is an understandable error to make but it is an error nonetheless. We admire achievements, in ourselves and in others, and it is natural and appropriate to do so. But this is not the same thing as saying that our achievements are the measure or grounds of our self-esteem. The root of our self-esteem is not our achievements per se but those internally generated practices that make it possible for us to achieve. How much we will achieve in the world is not fully in our control. An economic depression can temporarily put us out of work. A depression cannot take away the resourcefulness that will allow us sooner or later to find another or go into business for ourselves. “Resourcefulness” is not an achievement in the world (although it may result in that); it is an action in consciousness—and it is here that self-esteem is generated.

To clarify further the importance of understanding what self-esteem is and is not, I want to comment on a recent research report that has gained a great deal of attention in the media and has been used to challenge the value of self-esteem.

By way of preamble let me say that one of the most depressing aspects of so many discussions of self-esteem today is the absence of any reference to the importance of thinking or respect for reality. Too often, consciousness or rationality are not judged to be relevant, since they are not raised as considerations. The notion seems to be that any positive feeling about the self, however arrived at and regardless of its grounds, equals “self-esteem.”
We encounter this assumption in a much publicized research paper by Roy F. Baumeister, Joseph M. Boden, and Laura Smart, entitled “Relation of Threatened Egotism to Violence and Aggression: The Dark Side of High Self-Esteem,” published in the “Psychological Review” (1996, Vol. 103, 5-33). In it the authors write:

Conventional wisdom has regarded low self-esteem as an important cause of violence, but the opposite view is theoretically viable. An interdisciplinary review of evidence about aggression, crime, and violence contradicted the view that low self-esteem is an important cause. Instead, violence appears to be most commonly a result of threatened egotism—that is, highly favorable views of self that are disputed by some person or circumstance. Inflated, unstable, or tentative beliefs in the self’s superiority may be most prone to encountering threats and hence to causing violence. The mediating process may involve directing anger outward as a way of avoiding a downward revision of the self-concept.

The article contains more astonishing statements than it is possible to quote, but here are a few representative examples:

“In our view, the benefits of favorable self-opinions accrue primarily to the self, and they are if anything a burden and potential problem to everyone else.”

“By self-esteem we mean simply a favorable global evaluation of oneself. The term self-esteem has acquired highly positive connotations, but it has simple synonyms the connotations of which are more mixed, including … egotism, arrogance … conceitedness, narcissism, and sense of superiority, which share the fundamental meaning of favorable self-evaluation.”

“[W]e propose that the major cause of violence is high self-esteem combined with an ego threat [which is caused by someone challenging your self-evaluation].”

“Apparently, then, alcohol generally helps create a state of high self-esteem.”

Observe, first of all, that there is nothing in the authors’ idea of self-esteem that would allow one to distinguish between an individual whose self-esteem is rooted in the practices of living consciously, self-responsibility, and personal integrity—that is, one whose self-esteem is rooted in reality—and one whose “self-esteem” consists of grandiosity, fantasies of superiority, exaggerated notions of one’s accomplishments, megalomania, and “favorable 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 its analysis.

One does not need to be a trained psychologist to know that some people with low self-esteem strive to compensate for their deficit by boasting, arrogance, and conceited behavior. What educated person does not know about compensatory defense mechanisms? Self-esteem is not manifested in the neurosis we call narcissism—or in megalomania. One has to have a strange notion of the concept to equate in self-esteem the trail-blazing scientist or entrepreneur, moved by intellectual self-trust and a passion to discover or achieve, and the terrorist who must sustain his “high self-evaluation” with periodic fixes of torture and murder. To offer both types as instances of “high self-esteem” is to empty the term of any useable meaning.

An important purpose of fresh thinking is to provide us with new and valuable distinctions that will allow us to navigate more effectively through reality. What is the purpose of “thinking” that destroys distinctions already known to us that are of life-and-death importance?

It is tempting to comment on this report in greater detail because it contains so many instances of specious reasoning. However, such a discussion would not be relevant here, since my intention is only to show the importance of a precise understanding of self-esteem and also to show what can happen when consciousness and reality are omitted from the investigation.

So I will conclude with one last observation. In an interview given to a journalist, one of the researchers (Roy F. Baumeister), explaining his opposition to the goal of raising people’s self-esteem, is quoted as saying: “Ask yourself: If everybody were 50 percent more conceited, would the world be a better place?” [1] The implication is clearly that self-esteem and conceit are the same thing—both undesirable. Webster defines conceit as an exaggerated [therefore in defiance of facts] opinion of oneself and one’s merits. No, the world would not be a better place if everybody were 50 percent more conceited. But would the world be a better place if everybody had earned a 50 percent higher level of self-esteem, by living consciously, responsibly, and with integrity? Yes, it would—enormously.

Awareness of What Affects Our Self-Esteem

Self-esteem reflects our deepest vision of our competence and worth. Sometimes this vision is our most closely guarded secret, even from ourselves, as when we try to compensate for our deficiencies with what I call pseudo-self-esteem—a pretense at a self-confidence and self-respect we do not actually feel. Nothing is more common than the effort to protect self-esteem not with consciousness but with unconsciousness—with denial and evasion—which only results in a further deterioration of self-esteem. Indeed a good deal of the behavior we call “neurotic” can be best understood as a misguided effort to protect self-esteem by means which in fact are undermining.

Whether or not we admit it, there is a level at which all of us know that the issue of our self-esteem is of the most burning importance. Evidence for this observation is the defensiveness with which insecure people may respond when their errors are pointed out. Or the extraordinary feats of avoidance and self-deception people can exhibit with regard to gross acts of unconsciousness and irresponsibility. Or the foolish and pathetic ways people sometimes try to prop up their egos by the wealth or prestige of their spouse, the make of their automobile, or the fame of their dress designer, or by the exclusiveness of their golf club. In more recent times, as the subject of self-esteem has gained increasing attention, one way of masking one’s problems in this area is with the angry denial that self-esteem is significant (or desirable).

Not all the values with which people may attempt to support a pseudo-self-esteem are foolish or irrational. Productive work, for instance, is certainly a value to be admired, but if one tries to compensate for a deficient self-esteem by becoming a workaholic one is in a battle one can never win—nothing will ever feel like “enough.” Kindness and compassion are undeniably virtues, and they are part of what it means to lead a moral life, but they are no substitutes for consciousness, independence, self-responsibility, and integrity—and when this is not understood they are often used as disguised means to buy “love” and perhaps even a sense of moral superiority: “I’m more kind and compassionate than you’ll ever be and if I weren’t so humble I’d tell you so.”

One of the great challenges to our practice of living consciously is to pay attention to what in fact nurtures our self-esteem or deteriorates it. The reality may be very different from our beliefs. We may, for example, get a very pleasant “hit” from someone’s compliment, and we may tell ourselves that when we win people’s approval we have self-esteem, but then, if we are adequately conscious, we may notice that the pleasant feeling fades rather quickly and that we seem to be insatiable and never fully satisfied—and this may direct us to wonder if we have thought deeply enough about the sources of genuine self-approval. Or we may notice that when we give our conscientious best to a task, or face a difficult truth with courage, or take responsibility for our actions, or speak up when we know that that is what the situation warrants, or refuse to betray our convictions, or persevere even when persevering is not easy—our self-esteem rises. We may also notice that if and when we do the opposite, self-esteem falls. But of course all such observations imply that we have chosen to be conscious.

In the world of the future, children will be taught the basic dynamics of self-esteem and the power of living consciously and self-responsibly. They will be taught what self-esteem is, why it is important, and what it depends on. They will learn to distinguish between authentic self-esteem and pseudo-self-esteem. They will be guided to acquire this knowledge because it will have become apparent to virtually everyone that the ability to think (and to learn and to respond confidently to change) is our basic means of survival—and that it cannot be faked. The purpose of school is to prepare young people for the challenges of adult life. They will need this understanding to be adaptive to an information age in which self-esteem has acquired such urgency. In a fiercely competitive global economy—with every kind of change happening faster and faster—there is little market for unconsciousness, passivity, or self-doubt. In the language of business, low self-esteem and underdeveloped mindfulness puts one at a competitive disadvantage. However, neither teachers in general nor teachers of self-esteem in particular can do their jobs properly—or communicate the importance of their work—until they themselves understand the intimate linkage that exists between the six practices described above, self-esteem, and appropriate adaptation to reality. “The world of the future” begins with this understanding.

Working With Self-Esteem in Psychotherapy
Nathaniel Branden, PhD
Copyright © 1994, Nathaniel Branden, All Rights Reserved
Copyright © 1994, The Hatherleigh Company, Ltd.
Background Information

When I began practicing psychotherapy in the 1950s, I became convinced that low self-esteem was a common denominator in most, if not all, of the varieties of personal distress I encountered in my practice (Branden, 1969). I saw low self-esteem as both a predisposing causal factor of psychological problems and also as a consequence. This lesson will briefly outline: (a) What self-esteem is; (b) why it is an urgent need; (c) what its attainment depends on; and (d) how the clinician can nurture it in psychotherapy.

Some clients’ problems are direct expressions of an underdeveloped self-esteem. Examples include: shyness; timidity; fear of self-assertion, intimacy, or human relationships; and lack of participation in life. Other issues can be understood as consequences of the denial of poor self-esteem; i.e., as defenses against the reality of the problem. Examples of such defenses include: controlling and manipulative behavior; obsessive-compulsive rituals; inappropriate aggressiveness; fear-driven sexuality; and destructive forms of ambition. All of these consequences are driven by the desire to experience efficacy, control, and personal worth. Problems that manifest as poor self-esteem also contribute significantly to the continuing deterioration of self-esteem.

A primary task of psychotherapy is to help strengthen self-esteem. I believe that self-esteem can and should be addressed explicitly, and that it should set the context of the entire therapeutic enterprise. Even when the client is not working on self-esteem issues directly, even when therapy is focused instead on solving specific problems, problem solving can be accomplished by framing or contextualizing the process in such a way as to make it explicitly self-esteem-strengthening.

Almost all therapeutic orientations help clients confront previously avoided conflicts or challenges. My technique differs in that I typically ask questions like, “How do you feel about yourself when you avoid an issue you know, at some level, needs to be dealt with? And how do you feel about yourself when you master your avoidance impulses and confront the threatening issue?” In other words, I frame the process in terms of its consequences for self-esteem. I want clients to notice how their choices and actions affect their experience of themselves.

Definition of Self-Esteem

Self-esteem is the experience of being competent to cope with the basic challenges of life and of being worthy of happiness. It consists of two components: (1) Self-efficacy—confidence in one’s ability to think, learn, choose, and make appropriate decisions, and, by extension, to master challenges and manage change; and (2) self-respect—confidence in one’s right to be happy, and, by extension, confidence that achievement, success, friendship, respect, love, and fulfillment are appropriate for oneself (Branden, 1994).

To illuminate this definition, consider the following: If a client felt inadequate to face the challenges of life, if he or she lacked fundamental self-trust or confidence in his or her mind, a clinician would recognize the presence of a self-esteem deficiency, no matter what other assets the client possessed. The same would be true if a client lacked a basic sense of self-respect, felt unworthy of the love or respect of others, felt unentitled to happiness, or was fearful of asserting thoughts, wants, or needs.

Self-efficacy and self-respect are the dual pillars of healthy self-esteem; if either one is absent, self-esteem is impaired. They are the defining characteristics of the term because of their fundamentality; they represent not derivative or secondary meanings of self-esteem, but its essence. (For a critique of other definitions, see Branden, 1994.)

The Need for Self-Esteem

How people experience themselves impacts upon every moment of their existence. Their self-evaluation is the basic context in which they act and react, choose their values, set their goals, meet the challenges of life. Their responses to events are shaped in part by who and what they think they are—how competent and worthy they perceive themselves to be. Of all the judgments they pass in life, none is more important than the judgment they pass on themselves.

To say that self-esteem is a basic human need is to say that it makes an essential contribution to the life process; that it is indispensable to normal and healthy development; that it has value for survival. Without positive self-esteem, psychological growth is stunted. Positive self-esteem operates, in effect, as the immune system of consciousness, providing resistance, strength, and a capacity for regeneration.

When self-esteem is low, resilience in the face of life’s adversities is diminished. Clients crumble before vicissitudes that a healthier sense of self could vanquish. They tend to be more influenced by the desire to avoid pain than to experience joy; negatives have more power over them than positives (Branden, 1984).

This does not mean that they are necessarily incapable of achieving any real values. Some persons may have the talent and drive to achieve a great deal in spite of a poor self-concept—like the highly productive workaholic who is driven to prove his worth to say, a father who predicted he would amount to nothing. However clients who have low self-esteem will be less effective—less creative—than they potentially could be; it also means that they will be crippled in their ability to find joy in their achievements. Nothing they do will ever feel like enough.

Those who do exhibit a realistic confidence in their mind and value—who feel secure within themselves—tend to experience the world as open to them and to respond appropriately to challenges and opportunities. Self-esteem empowers, energizes, and motivates. It inspires persons to achieve and allows them to take pleasure and pride in their achievements. It allows them to experience satisfaction.

High self-esteem seeks the challenge and stimulation of worthwhile and demanding goals. Reaching such goals nurtures healthy self-esteem. Low self-esteem seeks the safety of the familiar and undemanding, which in turn further weakens self-esteem.

The more solid a client’s self-esteem, the better equipped he or she is to cope with adversity in their personal lives or their careers. The higher a client’s self-esteem, the more ambitious he or she will tend to be, not necessarily in a career or a financial sense, but in terms of what he or she hopes to experience in life—emotionally intellectually, creatively, spiritually. The lower the client’s self-esteem, the less he or she aspires to; moreover, he or she is less likely to achieve set goals.

Either path tends to be self-reinforcing and self-perpetuating. The higher the client’s self-esteem, the more open, honest, and appropriate his or her communications are likely to be, which reinforces a positive self-concept. The lower the client’s self-esteem, the more muddy evasive, and inappropriate his or her communications are likely to be because of uncertainty about his or her own thoughts and feelings and/or fear of the listener’s response. This, in turn, further diminishes self-concept.

The higher the client’s self-esteem, the more disposed he or she is to form nourishing rather than toxic relationships. Vitality and expansiveness in others are naturally more appealing to persons of good self-esteem than are emptiness and dependency (Branden, 1981). The healthier their self-esteem, the more inclined they are to treat others with respect, benevolence, good will, and fairness—such persons do not tend to perceive others as a threat, and self-respect is the foundation of respect for others.

Those who have healthy self-esteem are not quick to interpret relationships in malevolent, adversarial terms. They do not approach encounters with automatic expectations of rejection, humiliation, treachery, or betrayal. Contrary to the belief that an individualistic orientation inclines one to antisocial behavior, research shows that a well-developed sense of personal value and autonomy correlates significantly with kindness, generosity, social cooperation, and a spirit of mutual aid (Waterman, 1981, 1984).

Finally, research reveals that high self-esteem is one of the best predictors of personal happiness (Meyers, 1992). Logically enough, low self-esteem correlates with unhappiness.

Roots of Self-Esteem

On what does healthy self-esteem depend? What factors have an impact?

There is reason to believe that we may come into this world with certain inherent differences that may make it easier or harder to attain healthy self-esteem—differences pertaining to energy, resilience, disposition to enjoy life, etc. I suspect that in future years we will learn that genetic inheritance is an important contributing factor in the ability to develop a healthy self-concept (Ornstein, 1993).

Upbringing, of course, is critical to self-esteem development. No one can say how many persons suffer ego damage in their early years, before the ego is folly formed; in such cases, it may be all but impossible for healthy self-esteem to emerge later, short of intense psychotherapy. Research suggests that one of the best ways to have good self-esteem is to have parents who model healthy self-esteem, as Coopersmith’s “The Antecedents of Self-Esteem” (1967) demonstrates.

Children who have the best chance of acquiring the foundation for healthy self-esteem tend to have parents who:

• Raise them with love and respect
• Allow them to experience consistent and benevolent acceptance
• Give them the supporting structure of reasonable roles and appropriate expectations
• Do not assail them with contradictions
• Do not resort to ridicule, humiliation, or physical abuse as a means of controlling them
• Project that they believe in the child’s competence and goodness

However, no research has ever found the resold of healthy parenting to be inevitable. Coopersmith’s work, for example, clearly showed that it is not. His study provided many examples of adults who appeared to have been raised superbly by the standards indicated above, and yet became insecure, self-doubting adults. And there are many who emerge from appalling backgrounds, but who do well in school, form stable and satisfying relationships, have a powerful sense of their own value and dignity, and, as adults, satisfy any rational criterion of good self-esteem.

Although we may not know all the biological or developmental factors that influence self-esteem, we know a good deal about the specific (volitional) practices that can raise or lower it. We know that an honest commitment to understanding inspires self-trust, and that an avoidance of the effort has the opposite effect. We know that people who live mindfully feel more competent than those who live mindlessly. We know that integrity engenders self-respect and that hypocrisy does not. We “know” all this implicitly, although it is astonishing how rarely psychologists discuss such matters.

Clinicians cannot work on self-esteem directly because self-esteem is a consequence—a product of internally generated practices. If clinicians understand what those practices are, they can work with others in such a way as to facilitate or encourage their actualization. Interventions can be designed with that end in view. But the practices themselves can arise only within the client and can only be caused by the client.

“The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem”

What, then, are these practices? More than three decades of study have convinced me that six practices are crucial and fundamental:

• The Practice of Living Consciously
• The Practice of Self-Acceptance
• The Practice of Self-Responsibility
• The Practice of Self-Assertiveness
• The Practice of Living Purposefully
• The Practice of Integrity

When these practices are absent, self-esteem necessarily suffers. When and to the extent that they are an integral part of a person s life, self-esteem is strengthened.

The Practice of Living Consciously:

If clients lives and well-being depend on the appropriate use of their consciousness, then the extent to which they honor “sight over blindness” is the single most important determinant of their self-efficacy and self-respect. One cannot feel competent in life while wandering around (at work, dealing with superiors, subordinates, associates, customers, or in marriages or in relations with one’s children) in a self-induced mental fog. Those who attempt to exist unthinkingly and evade discomforting facts suffer a deficiency in their sense of worthiness. They know their defaults, whether or not anyone else does.

A thousand times a day, each person must choose the level of consciousness at which to function. Gradually, over time, a person establishes a sense of the kind of person he or she is, depending on the choices made and the degree of rationality and integrity exhibited. If, at the end of therapy, a client functioned no more consciously than at the beginning, we would have to question the efficacy of the therapeutic enterprise. In therapy, one can encourage consciousness by:

• Creating an environment in which thought and exploration are safe
• Using a wide repertoire of interventions that remove obstructions to awareness (Branden, 1973, 1983, 1984, 1987, 1993, 1994)
• Making the client aware of the self-destructive consequences of willful blindness
• Specific exercises aimed at energizing consciousness (Branden, 1994)

Tom, age 44, who was the CEO of an insurance benefits business, said that his business was growing rapidly, that he needed to hire a new high-level consultant, and that he was afraid of hiring someone who might be more brilliant than himself. Rather than work on the problem in my office, I gave him a home-work assignment: for the next two weeks, he was to write six to ten endings everyday for the incomplete sentence, “If I bring a higher level of consciousness to my fear of hiring a brilliant consultant—.” At the end of two weeks, he reported that he had resolved the issue to his complete satisfaction; he proceeded to hire a brilliant consultant with whom he continues to have an outstanding working relationship.

The exercise I gave Tom, by its repetitiveness, and by the implications of the words in the stem, stimulated his creativity and problem-solving abilities. A further benefit was that the solution was entirely his own, which enhanced his self-esteem.

The Practice of Self-acceptance:

At the deepest level, self-acceptance is the virtue of commitment to the value of one’s own person. It is not the pretense at a self-esteem one does not possess, but rather the primary act of self-value that serves as the basis for dedication to achieving self-esteem. It is expressed, in part, through the willingness to accept—to make real to oneself without denial or evasion—that we think what we think, feel what we feel, have done what we have done, and are what we are.

Self-acceptance is the refusal to regard any part of ourselves—our bodies, our fears, our thoughts, our actions, our dreams—as alien, as “not me.” It is the willingness to experience, rather than disown, whatever may be the facts of one’s being at a particular moment. It is the refusal to engage in an adversarial relationship with oneself. It is the willingness to say of any emotion or behavior, “This is an expression of me—not necessarily an expression I like or admire—but an expression of me nonetheless, at least at the time it occurred.” It is the virtue of realism—of respect for reality—applied to the self. Thus, if I am confronted with a mistake I have made, in accepting that it is mine, I am free to learn from it and do better in the future. I cannot learn from a mistake I cannot accept having made. Self-acceptance is the precondition of change and growth.

Mary, age 39, a lawyer, became indignant at the idea of self-acceptance and said, “I’ve got lousy self-esteem! And you’re asking me to accept that?” I responded, “If you don’t accept that you have the problem, how do you plan to solve it? Self-esteem begins with respect for reality.”

Can therapy can be called successful if the client fails to grow in self-acceptance? One of the ways we can teach self-acceptance in therapy is by dealing with total acceptance—no condescension, no sarcasm or ridicule, no quarreling with clients’ feelings—absolute, relentless (and unsentimental) respect.

An important aspect of my work, unfortunately beyond the scope of this lesson, is the identification and integration of the client’s subpersonalities (Branden, 1994). This can be viewed as a field within the broader field of self-acceptance, but is actually something of a specialty in its own right. Many clinicians have observed that whenever one learns to own and integrate a previously unrecognized or denied “part,” one feels stronger and more complete; self-esteem is strengthened.

The Practice of Self-responsibility:

To feel competent to live and be worthy of happiness, the client needs to experience a sense of control over his other existence. This requires that the client be willing to take responsibility for actions and the attainment of goals—which means that he or she takes responsibility for his or her life and well-being. The practice of self-responsibility entails these realizations:

• I am responsible for the achievement of my desires.
• I am responsible for my choices and actions.
• I am responsible for the level of consciousness I bring to my work.
• I am responsible for the level of consciousness I bring to my relationships.
• I am responsible for my behavior with other people—coworkers, associates, customers, spouse, children, friends.
• I am responsible for how I prioritize my time.
• I am responsible for the quality of my communications.
• I am responsible for my personal happiness.
• I am responsible for choosing the values by which I live.
• I am responsible for raising the level of my self-esteem.

In my opinion, one of the most important moments in therapy occurs when the client finally realizes (however this is achieved) that no one is coming: No one is coming to redeem their childhood; no one is coming to make them happy; no one is coming to rescue them. If they wish their life to improve, they will have to do something different themselves. One day in group therapy, a client with a sense of humor challenged me: “You always say that no one is coming. But you came!” “Correct,” I admitted, “but I came to say that no one is coming.”

The Practice of Self-assertiveness:

Self-assertiveness is the virtue of appropriate self-expression—of honoring one’s needs, wants, values, and convictions, and seeking rational forms of their expression in reality. Its opposite is the surrender to timidity, which consists of consigning oneself to a perpetual underground where everything that one is lies hidden or still born. The client who is not self-assertive usually seeks to avoid confrontation with someone whose values differ, or wants to please, placate, or manipulate someone, or is trying simply to “belong.”

Healthy self-assertion entails the willingness to confront rather than evade the challenges of life and to strive for mastery. When the client expands the boundaries of his or her ability to cope, he or she expands self-efficacy and self-respect. A continuing refrain in my work with clients is: “Your wants are important. Your life is important. Whether or not you are happy is important.”

This message (like everything else I do) is always underscored and amplified by sentence-completion exercises. (I explain this process in detail below.) The sentence stem, “If someone had taught me my wants were important—” typically elicits such endings as: “I’d care more about them; I’d take them more seriously; I’d think about them; I’d exert more energy on my own behalf; I’d be more assertive; I’d treat myself with more respect.”

Repetitive exercises of this kind stimulate shifts of consciousness and behavior that are experienced by the client as originating entirely from within. Clients are helped to identify what their most important wants are and then to develop action plans for their attainment (if possible).

A typical group therapy exercise that I use asks all members of the group to identify some important desire in their life. Sitting in groups of three, they are asked to work with the question, “If I were to convert this desire into a conscious purpose, what would I need to do?” Action plans develop out of the group’s brainstorming.

The Practice of Living Purposefully:

Life has been defined as a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action (Rand, 1961). Purpose, then, is the very essence of the life process. Through our purposes, we organize our behavior, giving it focus and direction. Through our goals, we create the sense of structure that allows us to experience control over our existence. To live purposefully is to use your powers for the attainment of goals we have selected, such as: studying, raising a family, earning a living, starting a business, bringing a new product into the marketplace, solving a scientific problem, or building a vacation home. Our goals lead us forward; they call for the exercise of our faculties and energize our existence.

To observe that purposefulness is essential to folly realized self-esteem should not be understood to mean that the measure of a client’s worth is his or her external achievements. We admire achievements—in others and in ourselves—and it is natural and appropriate for us to do so. But this is not the same thing as saying that achievements are the real measure (or grounds) of self-esteem. The root of self-esteem is not tangible achievements, but those internally generated practices that, among other things, make it possible to achieve.

By way of teaching purposefulness, I typically ask clients to explore the following ideas:

If you were to operate 5% more purposefully on the job—or in your marriage—or in your relationship with your children—or in therapy itself—what do you imagine you might do differently? Would there be advantages for you in doing that? What might the obstacles be? Would you be willing to experiment for, say, 30 days with operating more purposefully in order to discover what happens and whether you like it?

(Why 5%? Because it is not intimidating. Anyone can accomplish 5%!)

The Practice Of Integrity:

As a person matures and develops his or her own values and standards (or absorbs them from others), the issue of personal integrity assumes increasing importance in self-assessment. Integrity is the integration of ideals, convictions, standards, beliefs, and behavior. When behavior is congruent with professed values (when ideals and practice match), a person is said to have integrity. Those who behave in ways that conflict with their own judgment of what is appropriate lose face in their own eyes. If the policy becomes habitual, they trust themselves less or cease to trust themselves at all.

When a breach of integrity wounds self-esteem, only the practice of integrity can heal it. At the simplest level, personal integrity entails such questions as, “Am I honest, reliable, and trustworthy? Do I keep my promises? Do I do the things I say I admire, and avoid the things I say are despicable?”
To understand why lapses of integrity are detrimental to self-esteem, consider what a lapse of integrity entails. If I act in contradiction to a moral value held by some one else but not by me, I may or may not be wrong, but I cannot be faulted for having betrayed my convictions. If, however, I act against what I myself regard as right, if my actions clash with my expressed values, then I act against my judgment. I betray my mind. Hypocrisy, by its very nature, is self-invalidating. A default on integrity undermines me and contaminates my sense of self. It damages me as no external rebuke or rejection can damage me.

Rebecca, age 40, was a physician with a suburban practice affiliated with a small local hospital. If the combined days her patients spent in the hospital annually passed a certain number, Rebecca and her husband were rewarded by the hospital with a luxurious cruise. When she knew their insurance was adequate, she often found her self recommending a longer hospital stay for her patients than was strictly necessary. She came to therapy because of mysterious bouts of anxiety and depression. “I’ve got a wonderful husband—we’ve got a great home and a great life—I don’t know what’s the matter with me.”

When I learned of Rebecca’s arrangement with the hospital, I inquired how she felt about it. Instantly, she became defensive, and, in fact, canceled her next two appointments. When she returned to my office, she complained of a new problem: insomnia. When I reopened the question of her dealings with the hospital, she said angry, “Well, I suppose I do feel a little guilty, it’s stupid to feel guilty. I mean, who am I really hurting?”

Although symptoms such as Rebecca’s could have many possible causes, I suspected her anxiety, depression, and insomnia were mostly rooted in this issue. She was violating her deep sense of right and wrong, and no rationalization could protect her self-esteem. Therapy did not proceed easily.

At one point, Rebecca wondered aloud if perhaps she should drop therapy and attack her problem with tranquilizers and antidepressants. The break through occurred when I proposed an experiment: “Would you be willing—for the next 2 months—to prescribe only hospital stays you’re convinced are medically necessary? And let’s see what happens.” She agreed. Within 10 days, her symptoms began to disappear.

Psychologists do not talk much about integrity. In today’s world, many people find the word incongruously old-fashioned. It does not sound “scientific.” And yet, we do need principles to guide our lives, and the principles we accept must be reasonable, because if we betray them , our self-esteem will suffer. Integrity is one of the guardians of mental health.

The Self-Esteem Sentence-Completion Program

Central to all of my work is a self-esteem-building program I designed, which integrates the six pillars and which is given to most of my clients. Sentence-completion work is a deceptively simple yet uniquely powerful tool for raising self-understanding, self-esteem, and personal effectiveness. It rests on the premise that all of us have more knowledge than we normally are aware of—more wisdom than we use, more potentials than typically are displayed in our behavior.

Sentence completion stimulates insight and integration, and can be used for many different purposes. The purpose here is to use a 30-week program to build self-esteem—and, concurrently, to improve overall effectiveness at work and in relationships. A rather complex set of premises and assumptions about motivation are embedded in this exercise; during the course of therapy, most of these are made explicit sooner or later.

The procedure essentially consists of the client writing an incomplete sentence (a “stem”) and adding different endings; the sole requirement is that each ending be a grammatical completion of the sentence. The client should work as rapidly as possible, with no pauses to “think.” The therapist should tell the client that any ending is fine. The client can work with a notebook, typewriter, or computer.

First thing in the morning, before proceeding with the day’s business, the client should sit down and write the first stem. Then, as rapidly as possible, without pausing for reflection, the client should write as many endings for that sentence as he or she can in 2 or 3 minutes. The therapist should instruct the client not to worry if the endings are literally true, make sense, or are “profound”; the purpose is to write anything … but write something. The client should complete the remaining stems in the same fashion.

The therapist should instruct the client to proceed with the day’s business after all stems have been completed. The exercise should be completed every day, Monday-Friday for the first week, always before the start of the day’s business. The client should not read what was written the day before. Naturally, there will be many repetitions, but new endings inevitably will occur.

In doing this exercise, the client should empty his or her mind of any expectations concerning what will happen or what is “supposed” to happen. The therapist should instruct the client to invent an ending if his or her mind goes absolutely blank, but not to stop with the excuse that he or she cannot do the exercise. An average session should not take longer than 10 minutes. If it takes much longer, the client is “thinking” (rehearsing, calculating) too much.

At some point each weekend, the client should reread what has been written for the week, and then write a minimum of six endings for this stem:

If any of what I wrote this week is true, it might be helpful if I—

If the client finds this program helpful, it is often useful to start it over again. Some of my clients use this program three or four times, always with new results.

Discussion of Sentence Completion:

When a client is given a sentence stem and asked to keep repeating it (either orally or in writing), the process tends to act as a stimulant to new associations and integrations, both of which lay the groundwork for subsequent shifts in feelings and behavior. It is not uncommon for a client to say something like, “My pattern became so clear to me—and its futility or destructiveness so devastatingly obvious—that I found I could no longer continue it. I had to try something different. I found myself driven to experiment with these new learnings.”

The value of having a client work with the same set of stems for a week (or longer) is that the repetitiveness helps to counteract the inclination to dismiss unpleasant realities; it also encourages and facilitates absorption of the insights that “spontaneously” tend to surface. When working with sentence completion with the client in the office rather than as a homework assignment, the therapist should offer new stems that are inspired by significant endings to previous ones, so that the client develops an awareness that goes progressively deeper. (Branden, 1983, 1987, 1993).
For example, exploring the influence of a client’s mother in his or her development, the therapist might offer a chain of stems as follows:

Mother was always—
With Mother I felt—
Mother always seemed to expect—
One of the things I wanted from Mother and did not get was—
Mother speaks through my voice when I tell myself—
One of the ways I’m still trying to win Mother’s love is—
If it turns out I am more than my mother’s child—
I am becoming aware—

This last stem often is used at the end of a chain to facilitate integration and the articulation of insights. Alternates to accomplish the same end include:

I’m beginning to suspect—
If any of what I’m saying is true—
What I hear myself saying is—


If a therapist perceives the building of self-esteem as central to his or her work, specific issues must be addressed. They can be summarized in the form of questions:

• By what means do I propose to assist my client to live more consciously?
• How will I teach self-acceptance?
• How will I facilitate a higher level of self-responsibility and autonomy?
• How will I encourage a higher level of self-assertiveness?
• How will I inspire greater integrity in everyday living?
• What can I do to nurture autonomy?
• How can I contribute to the client’s enthusiasm for life?
• How can I help liberate blocked potentials?
• How can I assist the client to deal with conflicts and challenges in ways that will extend his or her field of comfort, competence, and mastery?
• How do I assist the client in freeing himself or herself from irrational fears?
• How do I assist the client in freeing himself or herself from the lingering pain of old wounds and traumas?
• How can I assist the client to recognize, accept, and integrate denied and disowned aspects of the self?

If one’s aim is to build self-esteem in psychotherapy, perhaps the first step is to become aware that these are questions the therapist needs to ask—and answer.


Branden, N. (1969). “The Psychology of Self-Esteem.” Los Angeles: Nash Publishing.
Branden, N. (1973). “The Disowned Self.” New York: Bantam Books.
Branden, N. (1981). “The Psychology of Romantic Love.” New York: Bantam Books.
Branden, N. (1983). “The Psychology of Romantic Love.” New York: Bantam Books.
Branden, N. (1984). “Honoring the Self.” New York: Bantam Books.
Branden, N. (1987). “How to Raise Your Self-Esteem.” New York: Bantam Books.
Branden, N. (1993). “The Art of Self-Discovery.” New York: Bantam Books.
Branden, N. (1994). “The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem”.” New York: Bantam Books.
Coopersmith, S. (1981). “The Antecedents of Self-Esteem” (2nd ed.). Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press, Inc.
Ornstein, R. (1993). “The Roots of the Self.” San Francisco: Harper Collins Publishers.
Meyers, D. C. (1992). “The Pursuit of Happiness.” New York: William Morrow.
Rand, A. (1961). “For the New Intellectual.” New York: Random House.
Waterman, A. S. (1981). “Individualism and Interdependence.” The American Psychologist, 36(7), 762-773.
Waterman, A. S. (1984). “The Psychology of Individualism.” New York: Praeger Publishers.
Contact Us

In addition to conducting psychotherapy in person in Los Angeles, Nathaniel Branden also consults worldwide with clients via telephone. He can be reached at (310) 274-6361.

Correspondence may also be sent to:
Nathaniel Branden
10390 Wilshire Blvd., #1003
Los Angeles, CA 90024

Devers Branden has her own independent practice as a Life Coach and Personal Consultant. She can be reached at (310) 271-6719.

Note: Posted for strictly community educational purposes, not for profit. ~PSL

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