Why do humans have a need for self-esteem? What happens if it goes unmet?
Scott Barry Kaufman created a new hierarchy of human needs in his book Transcend. Our need for self-esteem is a major security need in Kaufman’s hierarchy, and we need to feel valuable and confident in our lives for this need to be met.
Read on to learn why humans need self-esteem and how our lives can be affected without it, according to Kaufman.
The Need for Self-Esteem: Why It’s Important
According to Scott Barry Kaufman’s new hierarchy of human needs, our third major security need is the need for self-esteem, which he defines as a sense of self-worth and confidence in your abilities. In his book Transcend, he explains that your self-esteem largely depends on the other security needs of safety and connection—it’s difficult to feel valuable and confident if you don’t feel safe or accepted by others.
But the feelings of safety and acceptance from others don’t necessarily lead to self-esteem—it’s possible to feel safe and connected while still feeling inadequate. It’s also possible to mistake the vital need for self-esteem for unhealthy desires of superiority, power, and social status that accompany acceptance from others. However, if you feel safe and connected to others while maintaining a high opinion of yourself, you’ll have a strong foundation on which to build and grow as a person.
(Shortform note: The term self-esteem was first used in the field of psychology by William James, considered to be one of the founders of psychology as a scientific discipline. James provided a simple formula: self-esteem = success/pretensions. In other words, your self-esteem is dictated by your perceived level of success divided by your perceived potential. Thus, self-esteem, according to James, isn’t just about your successes, but how you view them. If you aren’t very successful but don’t have any pretensions about how much more successful you could be, you’ll have high self-esteem. If you’re successful but feel like you could be doing much better, you’ll have low self-esteem.)
Kaufman identifies two key components of the need for self-esteem: self-worth and proficiency.
According to Kaufman’s explanation of the need for self-esteem, self-worth makes up one component of your self-esteem because it helps you feel that you’re a good person who contributes value to the world. Although self-worth is how you feel about yourself, Kaufman points to research that shows that how you feel about yourself is strongly correlated with how others see you: Because we’re a social species, our perception of self-value is largely determined by the perception of our value within a community. Despite this, Kaufman claims that you should try to base your self-worth on your own judgments as much as possible. The more you internalize your sense of self-worth, the less you’ll be affected by the opinion of others.
(Shortform note: In The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem, Nathaniel Branden agrees with Kaufman’s notion that self-esteem is heavily influenced by others. Branden argues that your culture in particular can have a massive impact on your feeling of self-worth. For example, in patriarchal societies, women have lower self-worth because society constantly reminds them of their inferiority and subservience to men. Patriarchal societies can also affect men’s self-esteem, however, as men are largely judged by their ability to provide rather than their intrinsic worth.)
While your perception of self-worth is how you view your intrinsic value as a person, your perception of your proficiency is how you view your abilities. In other words, do you feel like a capable person who can achieve your goals? A person’s sense of proficiency is influenced by their past experiences. If you have largely been successful in progressing toward your goals, you’ll be confident in your ability to do that in the future. If you feel you’ve often failed in the past, you’ll be insecure and doubt your abilities.
While perceptions of self-worth and proficiency tend to correlate with one another, it’s possible to have one without the other. You may feel like you’re capable of achieving your goals but not have a high opinion of yourself. Alternatively, you may be pretty fond of yourself while not feeling confident in your abilities. However, both are important if you wish to have healthy self-esteem.
(Shortform note: Because feeling capable is such an important element of our need for self-esteem, people often focus intensely on their abilities and are often overly critical of themselves as a result. Self-criticism can be a helpful tool that leads to a more accurate assessment of yourself and your abilities. But many people see self-criticism as a way to push themselves to be more successful. This can lead to a mindset in which you’re preoccupied with your failures and shortcomings, damaging your self-esteem. To avoid this mindset, make sure you balance your critical side with an appreciation of your successes.)
Exercise: Examine Your Self-Esteem Needs
A core idea of Kaufman’s work is that, when your need for self-esteem is not met, it can create insecurities that hinder your ability to grow and become the best version of yourself. Let’s explore how this idea applies to your life and experiences.
- Describe a time recently when you felt insecure about yourself or your abilities. For example, maybe a friend or loved one criticized how loudly you chew.
- Now think about how you tried to cope with these feelings of insecurity. Did you try to hide them from yourself and others? Did you try to boost your ego by exaggerating your positive traits? How did your coping mechanism(s) affect your ability to perform tasks or maintain healthy relationships? Using the example above, perhaps you felt ashamed about your loud chewing, but instead of acknowledging your feelings, you got defensive.
- Now that you’ve identified how you coped with your insecurities, think about how you could have reacted differently. What are some healthy ways you might cope with your insecurities in the future? Next time someone criticizes you, perhaps you decide to acknowledge right away how that made you feel instead of denying your embarrassment.
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Here's what you'll find in our full Transcend summary:
- An updated, modern take on Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs
- An in-depth look into Abraham Maslow’s full body of work
- How to simultaneously fulfill your needs while transcending beyond them