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Self-Esteem Is Not Earned or Deserved — It Is Foundational to Your Human Nature and Inherent Dignity

Self-Esteem Is Not Earned or Deserved — It Is Foundational to Your Human Nature and Inherent Dignity
Photo by Pawel Czerwinski

A contrarian approach to an unquestioned capitalistic concept that harms one's self-worth.

A few weeks ago, a colleague of mine posted a story on LinkedIn about a struggle he was having with self-esteem:

My coach told me that self-esteem is earned. I thought to myself, ‘Ouch, that’s a bit harsh!’

In response, I suggested he fire his coach — partially tongue-in-cheek, but something I would have certainly done.

The idea that self-esteem is earned is an inhumane approach to personal development.

I wish I knew where the expression, ‘Self-esteem is earned’ came from, but one of the problems with it is the root definition of the word, to earn.

To earn is related to what you get (usually money) in return for your labour or service. If you can only earn your self-esteem according to others, you will have to continuously compete for self-efficacy and self-worth by being rewarded for your work — you will never inherently possess what a natural aspect of your humanity is.

If you believe you must earn your self-esteem, you reduce yourself to a widget or a commodity within a capitalist framework.

The Important Difference between Esteem and Self-Esteem.

As a noun, ‘esteem’ is defined as having respect and admiration, typically for a person.

You can esteem someone highly or be held in high esteem by others. Etymologically, the root meaning of esteem includes, to estimate or appraise in the sense of worth or reputation.

When we turn the meaning of esteem inwards, we cultivate self-respect and confidence in our worth and abilities.

If you hold the above meaning of self-esteem above to be accurate, then you believe self-esteem is a part of who you are and not a quality or characteristic that someone affords you.

If you don’t feel like you have self-esteem, what can you do?

Self-esteem is a practice of habits, behaviours, and ways of thinking that cultivate self-mastery.

You can improve your self-esteem with self-compassion, self-acceptance, and lovingkindness towards yourself. This starts with accepting and believing that self-esteem is natural and normal. You don't earn it because no one can take it away from you besides yourself. If you think it is earned, you diminish personal responsibility and self-actualization by falsely allowing someone else to control your life.

No one can tell you what you're worth — you are not a commodity to be bought and sold.

You might believe them, but what they think of you is not an accurate reflection of your inherent self-worth.

Your self-esteem should never be dependent on the opinions or expectations of others. However, if you're not feeling like your best self or questioning your worth, you might seek the support of others. Having someone lift you up by empowering you to see what's unique and special about you, can make all the difference in how you feel about yourself — literally, in your own estimation of yourself.

What you do with that empowerment matters. When you internalize what someone has helped you see that you forgot about yourself, they did not grant you self-respect. What you are feeling instead is the self-awareness of your inherent worth and dignity. This in part is tied to your values and purpose — the ideals and beliefs that give your life meaning.

You cannot give or get self-esteem from someone else.

By definition, self-esteem can only be related to the self, not something or someone external to you.

No one gains self-esteem deservedly in return for their behaviour or achievements. You may believe that you deserve to be esteemed by others for who you are or what you do, but that’s more about the self-importance of your ego than it is about respect for your dignity as a human being. Perhaps this is where the expression comes from, the false belief that you need to be validated by others for your efforts.

You might rightly deserve something — like a reward, income, or recognition — by virtue of what you have done, but it doesn’t mean you will get it.

If you don’t get ‘compensation’ for what you deserve, does that mean you don’t deserve self-esteem? You don’t deserve self-esteem as a form of merit. You have it within you.

Self-esteem is found in your nature — not in the economy.