This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem" by Nathaniel Branden. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.
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How does self-esteem affect mental health? What are some things you can do to improve your self-esteem?
In modern times, most of us believe that improving our self-esteem is essential to our psychological health. According to psychotherapist and self-esteem expert Nathaniel Branden, low self-esteem is the underlying reason behind many psychological issues. He posits that there are six pillars of self-esteem: Live with Awareness, Accept Yourself, Take Responsibility, Assert Yourself, Live Intentionally, and Act with Integrity.
Here’s how you can improve your own self-esteem by practicing the 6 pillars of self-esteem.
Pillar #1: Live With Awareness
The first of the 6 pillars of self-esteem is to live consciously, or live with awareness. To do so, look for information about all the realities that affect your life, accept them, and act accordingly. For example, you take control of your finances by checking your bank account and adjusting your budget as needed. If you don’t look for this information, you’re not living with awareness; you’re choosing ignorance. If you learn relevant information and don’t react appropriately, you’re also not living with awareness—you’re still denying reality on some level.
(Shortform note: Consider developing a consistent system to help you pay attention to and act on the realities of your life, like the one that life coach Brendon Burchard recommends in High Performance Habits: Every week, chart your work-life balance by ranking your happiness levels in 10 areas, like work and family, then write down your goals for the next week in each area.)
Branden explains that living with awareness is the foundation of self-esteem. Every day, you make decisions that either do or don’t demonstrate a commitment to conscious living: You live with awareness by not buying a drink you can’t afford, or by not avoiding a necessary but tough conversation. Each decision either nurtures or chips away at your self-esteem—and, collectively, they determine your self-esteem.
(Shortform note: Branden’s explanation suggests that living with awareness improves your self-esteem by improving your self-efficacy: You react appropriately to your reality, so you make better decisions. With each good decision you make, you gather evidence that you’re capable—which increases your confidence that you’ll be capable in the future, and thus your self-esteem.)
Pillar #2: Accept Yourself
Branden’s second pillar of self-esteem is to accept yourself by choosing not to live in conflict with yourself. (Shortform note: Like Branden, psychologist Tara Brach argues in Radical Acceptance that accepting yourself is critical to overcoming feelings of unworthiness: You must recognize your desires and dislikes without judging yourself for them.)
Self-acceptance happens on three different levels, says Branden.
1. You’re on your own side. On some fundamental level, you’re born believing that your life is worth fighting for, and this belief propels you to make the behavioral changes necessary to improve self-esteem. (Shortform note: In You Are A Badass, success coach Jen Sincero implies that we may lose this belief as we age because we absorb messages from those around us that make us stop trusting our instincts and fill us with self-doubt.)
2. You’re willing to experience all your emotions and behavior—both good and bad—even if you disapprove of some. This is essential because you can only change what you accept: If you deny that some unpleasant reality exists, you won’t try to change it. (Shortform note: In The Power of Now, spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle also extols the importance of accepting unpleasant realities—otherwise, you’ll wish for something else, which will create pain and prevent you from moving forward. However, Tolle emphasizes accepting the situation you’re in at a particular moment—not an aspect of yourself, like self-esteem.)
3. You treat yourself with kindness by accepting your poor behavior, then empathetically questioning why you behaved poorly. (Shortform note: In Nonviolent Communication, psychologist Marshall Rosenberg recommends asking yourself, “What unmet need prompted me to act that way?”) This questioning allows you to address the root cause of your mistakes, so you’re less likely to repeat them. And by being kind, you avoid damaging your self-esteem even more than your poor behavior did already. (Shortform note: Treating yourself with kindness may also benefit the people around you: New mothers who treat themselves with kindness when they make mistakes may encourage friends who give birth after they do to do the same.)
Pillar #3: Take Responsibility
Branden’s third pillar of self-esteem is to practice self-responsibility, or take responsibility in all areas of your life. Branden explains that when you take responsibility, you take ownership of your life, behavior, and well-being. (Shortform note: In The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, Mark Manson argues that taking responsibility will make you happier because you’ll feel empowered even in the worst situation.)
To do so, face your life actively rather than passively, which manifests in the following:
1. You are productive. You understand that you must achieve independence by working. So you ask yourself: What can I do? How can I improve my current state? (Shortform note: If you hate your job and thus struggle to be productive, try redefining work as any activity you do that aligns with your purpose, as Joseph R. Dominguez and Vicki Robin do in Your Money or Your Life. Accepting that you may never get paid for your true interests motivates you to find a different job that funds them and frees you to work on them for fulfillment instead of pay.)
2. You think independently. You analyze others’ opinions, only repeating them if you believe and understand them. (Shortform note: When analyzing others’ opinions, don’t automatically criticize them, which educators Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren warn against in How to Read a Book. They note that, in order to have a productive conversation, you must fully understand the author’s argument before you criticize it.) Similarly, you proactively find solutions instead of waiting for instructions. (Shortform note: To find an effective solution, The Oz Principle authors recommend pinpointing the root of the issue so you’re not wasting your time on superficial aspects.)
3. You are responsible for reaching your goals. You understand that only you can develop and implement a plan to achieve your goals. (Shortform note: In Getting Things Done, productivity expert David Allen offers a six-level model of prioritizing for effectively scheduling the tasks that support your goals.)
Branden contends that taking responsibility is essential both to self-esteem and to your general well-being for three reasons.
1. If you don’t take responsibility, you won’t feel like you control your life—so you can’t feel capable or worthy, which self-esteem requires. (Shortform note: The Happiness Advantage author Shawn Achor adds that feeling control over your life is essential to happiness and success.)
2. Unless you acknowledge that your self-esteem is your responsibility, you won’t take the actions necessary to raise it. (Shortform note: One life coach lists several warning phrases that may indicate that you’re holding others responsible for your self-esteem, such as “If only” or “It’s their fault.”)
3. If you don’t take responsibility, you might wait for someone to save you instead of fixing your own life—but since this person will never appear, your life will never improve. (Shortform note: Even if someone does show up to save you, it may not improve your life. “White knights” try to “save” their romantic partners by fixing all their problems, but they often engage in harmful behaviors, like controlling their partner under the pretense of helping them.)
Pillar #4: Assert Yourself
Branden’s fourth pillar of self-esteem is to assert yourself by expressing what you want, need, and value in appropriate ways. You don’t speak or act in ways incongruous with your thoughts or beliefs—and when this involves opposing others, you express this refusal politely.
(Shortform note: While asserting yourself requires confidence, in Crucial Conversations, the authors specify that it also requires humility if you’re opposing others: You must be humble enough to realize that you don’t know everything and that your opinion is a starting point for discussion.)
Branden contends that various elements of asserting yourself improve your self-esteem. For example, since self-assertion involves thinking for yourself and acting accordingly, living with awareness (Pillar 1) is an act of self-assertion.
(Shortform note: Branden’s discussion suggests that asserting yourself in general improves your self-esteem by reinforcing its two elements: capability and worthiness. You only assert yourself if you believe that you’re capable of generating good ideas and that they’re worthy of expression.)
Pillar #5: Live Intentionally
Branden’s fifth pillar of self-esteem is to live purposefully, or live intentionally. Branden explains that when you live with intention, you don’t just react to what happens: You proactively decide what your long-term goals are, create plans to achieve them, then implement those plans.
(Shortform note: In Atomic Habits, habits expert James Clear warns that creating and following goals may be ineffective for long-term change. Once you reach the goal, you stop performing the behavior—which sends you right back to square one. Instead, Clear recommends creating identity-driven habits: Decide who you want to be, then create systems to support that identity.)
Branden explains that living intentionally improves your self-esteem by improving your confidence in your capability. You develop this confidence through the intentional process of achieving specific goals, not the achievement itself: If you win a race, your confidence rises not because you won but because you were able to create and follow a winning training plan.
(Shortform note: Working on small behavioral changes—not massive long-term goals—may give you more opportunities to live intentionally and thus have a greater impact on your self-esteem. Plus, according to The Compound Effect author Darren Hardy, consistently maintaining small changes often leads to the most dramatic results.)
Pillar #6: Act With Integrity
Branden’s sixth and final pillar of self-esteem is to act with integrity, meaning that you strive to behave in ways that reflect your values. Additionally, since you can only live by your values if you know what they are, living with integrity involves examining why you have certain values and changing them if necessary—like if you hold a value you learned from others but no longer believe in. (Shortform note: In Awaken the Giant Within, Robbins recommends creating a value hierarchy. When you’re clear on which of your values are the most important to you, you can actively pursue the ones that will fulfill you the most.)
Branden warns that when you act without integrity, you damage your self-respect and thus your self-esteem. By rejecting the behavior your own mind deemed right, you reject yourself and lose self-respect. This is true even if nobody else knows about your bad behavior. (Shortform note: In reality, how others perceive you also impacts your behavior: In Atomic Habits, Clear explains that we often behave in certain ways because we want to fit in with different groups.)
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