The Business of Self-Esteem

UPDATED: May 8, 2014
PUBLISHED: May 8, 2014

About 10 years ago, I fell into the dumps. After I aired my grievances and bemoaned my crippled confidence to a friend, she said, “Amy, you were born with all the value you’re ever going to get.” She told me that no job, no relationship, no status, wealth or accolade could make me worth more. She said I was valuable just for being me.

She was a good friend, and something deep inside me recognized the truth in what she said. But no matter how much sense it made, I wasn’t acting as if I believed it. My brain kept telling me things such as: Everyone else your age already has children. If you had just finished college when you were supposed to, you’d have a decent career by now. And those people aren’t just more attractive than you—they’re better than you.

The legendary personal achievement philosopher Jim Rohn said, “Income seldom exceeds your personal development.” As businesspeople, we frequently become laser-focused on the bottom line and all it entails—marketing, sales, spreadsheets—and we ignore the most essential ingredient in our success: ourselves. If we aren’t bringing the right mindset to the table, material success is likely to be fleeting, as is well-being in our relationships, hobbies and health.

In the best-selling Get Out of Your Own Way: Overcoming Self-Defeating Behavior, co-author Mark Goulston, a psychiatrist and co-founder of Heartfelt Leadership, says, “One of the greatest tragedies you can experience is to come to the end of your life and realize that it has not been everything you’d hoped it would be. Even more tragic is to realize that your failure to fulfill your hopes and dreams was due in large part to your inability to get out of your own way.”

If our sense of self-worth is integral to achieving—and sustaining—success, how much longer can we afford to overlook it?

Take an Inventory

Psychotherapist and best-selling author of The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem Nathaniel Branden, Ph.D., defines self-esteem as “the experience of being competent to cope with basic challenges of life and of being worthy of happiness.”

So where do you fall on the scale of feeling worthy and competent?

When we have a problem in our business, we begin addressing it by taking an inventory to determine the source. Our self-esteem can be traced to a number of factors, and although we may not be able to pinpoint just one as the root of our troubles, it’s worth taking a look at what might be driving us to lose confidence.

Our upbringing has an enormous impact on our self-esteem, says Sharon Wegscheider-Cruse, family therapist, co-founder of the National Association of Children of Alcoholics and best-selling author of Learning to Love Yourself: Finding Your Self-Worth. Wegscheider-Cruse says some of us are born into “healthy and highly functional” families, a circumstance that makes the journey to self-discovery and self-esteem easy. But she says most of us come from struggling families, and “oftentimes there were limits, difficulties, and a lack of time, energy and know-how. As we navigated through the many hurdles and changes in life, we added to—and sometimes took away from—our core of self-worth.”

Wegscheider-Cruse says one of the most important lessons that parents impart to their children is to take action. “A lot happens before a child is 4 years old as to how we perceive the world,” she says. “If you start to walk and you fall down, you just pick yourself up and go again. If you try to ride a tricycle and you can’t make the wheels go around, then you try again. I think that self-worth comes from repeated actions of trying again, which means that you have to feel good enough about yourself to allow failure.”

Sam Horn, a communications strategist and best-selling author of What’s Holding You Back?, agrees. When asked once where she got her confidence, she answered, “On the back of a horse.” Horn grew up in a small Southern California town where, from about age 7 or 8, she and her friends spent most days riding horses. “Think about it,” she says. “This was before cellphones. If we were out in the middle of nowhere and my horse’s bridle broke, we couldn’t call someone to come fix it. We had to figure it out. If I got bucked off and my horse ran off, there was no one to rescue me. I had to figure it out. What that did was give me confidence I could handle just about anything.”

That kind of resourcefulness and resilience is essential to strong self-esteem. Without it, we can be severely damaged by life’s setbacks. “All of us at times will fail,” Branden says. “All of us at times will be hurt. But what separates the winners from the losers is the time it takes to accept the fact, get back on your feet and get back in the ring.”

For those who might not have that kind of get-back-on-the-horse attitude, Wegscheider-Cruse agrees that it’s all about action. “It’s in the picking up after failure that self-worth is supported and prospers,” she says. “I think what stagnates people is lack of action. You can always make a second choice. You can always remedy a mistake that has been made. You can always go in another direction. But if you don’t believe in yourself, then you procrastinate and you avoid, and that draws your self-worth down. Action will bring your self-worth up.” Some decision, she says, is better than no decision at all.

So take an honest inventory of your self-esteem. Did some aspect of your upbringing negatively impact your sense of self-worth? Have you been discouraged by a disappointment or tragedy and been unable to recover emotionally? Or has inaction caused you to stagnate and lose your self-respect?

Clean House

When you identify the problems from your inventory, regardless of the cause, the next step is to clear out what you don’t want so you can replace it with what you do want.

“Self-defeating behavior occurs when we fail to learn the lessons that life tries to teach us,” Goulston says in Get Out of Your Own Way. “It represents the victory of impulse over awareness, immediate gratification over lasting satisfaction, relief over resolution. Self-defeating behavior invariably begins as an attempt to make ourselves feel better. It is a coping mechanism.”

These are common self-defeating behaviors and negative habits that are symptoms of low self-esteem:

• Lacking self-discipline or being unprepared.
• Being envious of others.
• Staying too long in a job/relationship/situation that you should leave.
• Pretending you’re fine when you’re not.
• Taking things too personally.
• Worrying about what others think.
• Not asking for what you need.
• Focusing on your weaknesses or having low expectations.
• Being impulsive or panicking.

Entire books have been written on each of these subjects, but let’s take a look at a few.

“Confidence can be summed up in two words,” Horn says. “I can. I can handle this. I can figure this out. Lack of confidence can also be summed up in two words: I can’t. I can’t handle this. I can’t figure this out.”

If you’re facing an important job interview, client meeting or sales call and you’re worried that something might go wrong, the simple act of preparing for what might happen will give you a boost. “Panicking compromises confidence,” Horn says. “Being proactive contributes to confidence.”

There’s an old saying that applies here: You get self-esteem by doing esteemable acts. When you meet that client or deliver that speech and your preparation pays off, you feel respected and begin to respect yourself in turn.

“Lack of self-discipline isn’t a character flaw,” Goulston says. “It’s a habit that needs replacing.” So spend some time making a list of habits that sabotage your productivity and preparedness. Ask others for help if you’re brave enough to hear the constructive criticism. Then start by replacing one bad habit with one good habit. Practice it for a month and then replace the next one.

Another common sign of low self-esteem is envy. “Fess up,” Horn says. “Do you find your spirits sinking after seeing all the fabulous things your friends are doing on Facebook? Do you get depressed seeing all the books that have already been written on your topic? Does a little something inside you die when a colleague tells you how much money they’re making and that they just landed a new client?

“That’s the insidious, self-sabotaging impact of comparisons. Comparisons kill confidence because they put our self-worth on a measuring stick. Our goal is to have a constant core of confidence we carry with us wherever we go. We want a confidence that is not situational, that does not depend on where we are or who we’re with. To have that type of confidence, we must stop comparing ourselves to others.”

Instead, Horn suggests that we start admiring and aspiring.

Imagine you see that a fellow entrepreneur has just given a TED Talk. Now imagine that instead of comparing yourself to this person, you choose to admire him, saying, Good for him for being asked to give a TED Talk. Or you choose to aspire to be like him, saying, How can I be asked to give a TED Talk?

Horn says admiring and aspiring “turn envy into action.”

Wegscheider-Cruse gives simple advice to overcome inaction when faced with the fear of making a big move—out of a job, relationship or other situation. She suggests starting with a list of the rewards versus the risks. “Then weigh which risks you’re willing to take,” she says.

While this sounds simple, Wegscheider-Cruse says the goal is to change the story in your head. We are the authors of whatever stories we’ve been using to justify our inaction. “There’s either a fairy tale or a realistic story in your head, and that has to be changed. Nobody on the outside can do that for you.”

Once we’ve affected the story by putting the truth on paper, Wegscheider-Cruse suggests we take baby steps. If we’re itching to leave a job, we could go out and interview while continuing to work. We could take a class to hone our skills or talk to someone in the field we want to pursue to make sure it’s a good match. “Step out a little bit and see if any of your thinking changes.” The idea is to get off what she calls “dead center.”

If our thinking doesn’t change after the list-making exercise and baby steps, Wegscheider-Cruse suggests we meet with a career or personal counselor and find out what the “don’t know” is in our life. She says the most common “don’t know” is not being sure we can get this far again. We ask ourselves, Will I ever have another relationship if I leave this one? Will I ever achieve this kind of financial security or professional accomplishment again?

She says those fears are very real, but action is the antidote. As we take even small actions and build our self-esteem, we begin to feel like we’re “enough” whether we have that dream job or not. “Then when you get a job,” Wegscheider-Cruse says, “you have something to give that attracts other people, rather than feeling desperate.”

Make an Investment

There are daily ways we can invest in our sense of worth that will have a positive impact on every area of our lives.

“Want to know a direct way to gain confidence? Get really good at something,” Horn says. “The more capable you feel, the more confident you are. It’s hard to like yourself and your life if you don’t feel you do anything well. What are you good at that you can point to?”

In one of her workshops, Horn met a woman who was very good at tennis but had stopped playing because of her demanding career as a real estate agent. Horn suggested the woman find a way to integrate what she was good at—tennis—into her work. She could visit the concierge desk at high-end hotels and offer to play a match with guests.

The woman followed Horn’s advice and was soon playing two to three times per week with out-of-town visitors. She had made several sales, as well as a few friends, and by practicing one of her best skills on a regular basis—and using it to help others—she felt her self-esteem grow.

You don’t have to empty your bank account or watch your career and relationships hit the rocks to experience symptoms of low self-esteem. Successful people have problems with feeling worthy, too.

“There’s a difference between feeling entitled and feeling worthy,” Goulston says. If you’re spending all your money to show how well you’re doing, you’re probably in the first category.

Goulston says we need to remember that worth comes from doing something meaningful with our time: “Wealth is what you take from the world; worth is what you give back.”

Horn agrees. “A primary sign of low self-worth is that no matter how much we achieve on the outside, we still feel empty on the inside,” she says. “This is often called the Imposter Syndrome, which is when someone is famous and financially rich but not wealthy in what really matters. Because what really matters is to matter. It’s to feel we are making a difference.”

When we feel we aren’t making a difference, success feels shallow. “To feel a deeply satisfying success, we must feel we’re contributing and that someone, somewhere, is better off because of us,” Horn says.

She suggests seeking an activity, whether you make it your vocation or your hobby, that gives you daily proof you’re making a difference. When you take responsibility for creating a life you’re proud of, your self-esteem will skyrocket.

“You are a power-full person,” Wegscheider-Cruse writes in her book, Learning to Love Yourself. “And just how powerful you want to be is up to you. Powerful people do not have power over; they have power from within.”

She says building healthy self-esteem takes time. “It takes putting yourself in places where people love you. Putting yourself in places where people are healthy so they have something to give you. Not letting yourself be drawn down or drained by toxic people. It’s nourishment. We do have power inside, but it needs to be nourished.

“My husband has a way of saying it that I like. Everybody should get up, look in the mirror in the morning, wink at themselves and say, ‘Wow, I really like you.’ ”

Related: Got Confidence? 16 Questions to Find Out

Amy Anderson is the former senior editor of SUCCESS magazine, an Emmy Award-winning writer and founder of Anderson Content Consulting. She helps experts, coaches, consultants and entrepreneurs to discover their truth, write with confidence, and share their stories so they can transform their past into hope for others. Learn more at and on Facebook.