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You’ve no doubt heard teachers, parents, or coaches talking about the importance of self-esteem. Maybe you’ve even had a professor tell your class that you are all special.

This kind of thinking comes from a good place — wanting to ensure that young people have high self-esteem and feel good about themselves.

But self-esteem is an unhelpful concept with no practical value. Accepting empty platitudes does nothing and leads nowhere. You’re far better off putting in the effort to learn real skills to build self-esteem from the inside out.

Let me explain.

Why We Talk About Self-Esteem Today

In the 1980s, researchers in education noticed that children who were more successful also had higher self-esteem, meaning they agreed with statements like “I am special” and “I can do anything I put my mind to.” So, the researchers thought, if we could only boost the self-esteem of all children, then they’d be more successful.

The idea became popular in schools, self help books, and parenting guides, and it’s still common today. It became so prevalent that people think they’re entitled to that empty praise, no matter what they do.

Here’s the problem: the fact that children had high self-esteem was the result of their success, not the cause of it. Trying to boost self-esteem doesn’t necessarily result in people being more successful. It might make them puff up and feel good, but that sensation is fleeting.

What is Self-Esteem, Anyway?

One problem with projects that try to boost self-esteem is they fail to adequately define what the concept is in the first place. Self-esteem is vague and covers a whole range of different ideas, including:

  • Self-confidence: the feeling that you are capable of taking on new things and doing well at them.
  • Self-worth: the idea that all humans have inherent value which should be respected and appreciated.
  • Ego boosting:  bigging yourself up to make yourself feel better.

These concepts have their place in our lives, but mixing them up only serves to confuse people. If you want to feel self-confident, for example, pursuing bravado or boosting your ego will not help you.

Self-Efficacy is More Important

If self-esteem isn’t helpful, then what is? In both my personal experience and based on the evidence from psychology research, what really makes a difference to people’s state of mind and the way they approach life is confidence.

When I say confidence, I don’t mean bragging or hollow swagger. I don’t mean faking or pretending that you have abilities that you don’t. And I don’t mean putting other people down in order to make yourself feel better.

Real confidence is the result of competence. It comes from having faced challenges in the past which you have overcome, and from feeling that you are capable of facing new challenges in the future.

Do you remember learning how to ride a bike? Figuring out how to swim? How to do long division for the first time? Before you learned these skills they seemed scary, like something you’d never be able to do. But with practice you were able to manage them.

Once you mastered those skills, they seemed easy. You felt confident doing them. You increased your level of self-efficacy in these areas and earned self-esteem as a result.

How to Build Self-Efficacy

Self-esteem isn’t something to strive towards or look for in life, it’s the result of building self-efficacy. So, what do you do to become a more capable, more confident person? There are a few key ways to build yourself up, and they have nothing to do with empty platitudes or flat praise from teachers.

Commit to a Long-Term Process

One of the reasons that building self-esteem became so popular in schools is that it’s seemingly a quick fix that can be applied to groups of people. If you build self-esteem, there’s no need to change teaching methods or purchase expensive new equipment, no need to look at how confidence develops over years. Teachers only need to say complimentary things to their students, then they’ll do better.

The truth is that building self-efficacy takes a long time, especially if you don’t feel sure of your abilities. Building confidence is a process that takes years and requires a lot of commitment.

Learn New Skills

There’s no better way to improve your confidence than to try out a new skill. Whether it’s learning a language, trying your hand at a craft, or taking up a creative hobby, there’s immense psychological value in acquiring a new skill. When there is something you start off not knowing how to do, then practise and overcome that challenge, you feel more capable of doing new things in the future.

I have always thought of myself as someone who was good at academic tasks, but bad at physical ones. I was always terrible at sports and hated being forced to exercise as a kid. When I was an adult, though, I found myself enjoying cycling, running, and lifting weights. These skills weren’t beyond me — they were just things I hadn’t learned before. Learning them and growing my skills made me feel not only physically better, but also like a more capable person.

Learning a new skill also requires that you accept your failures. You aren’t going to be good at everything straight away. You’ll learn to see that something you’re doing isn’t working, then change your approach to something different. When you are able to accept this try-fail-retry cycle, you’ll be less intimidated by new challenges and more satisfied by your successes.

Acknowledge Weaknesses

Finally, there’s one aspect of confidence which is highly underrated, and that is acknowledging your weaknesses. This might sound counter-intuitive, as most people think those who are confident only talk about what they’re good at and don’t have any areas of weakness. In reality, that simply isn’t the case.

No one is skilled at everything. Pretending that you have strengths or skills you don’t possess won’t benefit you in the long run. If you don’t know what your weaknesses are, you can’t learn to overcome them to become more competent.

True confidence includes honest acknowledgement of both your abilities and your limitations. It involves knowing that just because you’re not good at everything doesn’t mean you can’t improve. It also doesn’t mean you have nothing useful to offer the world.

You Don’t Need Ego, You Need Competence

Building self-esteem has to be done from within. Bathing in the empty praise of others does nothing to improve you as a person, nor does it build self-confidence or self-efficacy. Feeling like you’re entitled to self-esteem is essentially saying you want people to tell you you’re great without earning those compliments.

Do you really want that? Do you really want to be told you’re talented, intelligent, and successful, or do you want to be those things through and through?

To be more successful in life, being told that you’re great won’t cut it. You need to go out in the world and learn skills, whether it’s food preparation or effective communication. That’s how you gain self-efficacy, that’s how you build self-esteem, and that’s how you improve your life in the long run.

Georgina Torbet writes for Universal Owl on a variety of topics related to psychology. She is a former academic, having done a PhD in psychology and a masters in cognitive neuroscience before deciding to pursue a career in science writing.

She is passionate about educating the public about scientific topics and believes it is never too late in life to start learning. When not writing about science, she is usually to be found tinkering with PC hardware or reading comics.


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