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Self-esteem, self-image and self-confidence

I think we often get confused about all the things we are supposed to be, or have.  Like self-confidence, self-esteem, self-image - and I’ll add another few things – self-worth, self-respect and self-regard.

Are they all the same thing?  And what is the difference between them?

Carl Jung once said, “The things that worry us the most are the things we don’t understand”.  Perhaps if we understood the difference between self-esteem and self-confidence and all the other "selfs", we’d come to the wonderful realisation that we are actually healthy in all our "selfs" except one – so at least we can work on that one and not spend pointless time worrying about all the others.

I think we get all of these confused and we lump them all in the same barrel, so in the pursuit of understanding I think it’d be useful to define what we’re talking about here ...


Your self-image is what you think about yourself and what you tell yourself about what and who you are. It’s also severely affected by what you think other people think of you – your weight, attractiveness, intelligence etc.

Once you’ve decided on your self-image it’s a bit hard to change it.  You form a rigid picture or "schema" about yourself. I and other practitioners can help you to change it but in the end it’s really up to you.

What do you think about yourself? What do you believe people think about you (like friends and especially parents)?

Genes come into it too. For instance if you got the "fat" gene, if the amount of exercise you do and  what you eat doesn't change your size, and if "plump" isn’t in at the moment (which it isn’t) you’ll probably have a body image problem.


First let’s take a look at the word esteem – which means to like, admire, hold in high regard. Self-esteem is the ability to do this for yourself: to like, admire, and value yourself. What other people say might be hurtful at times but it doesn’t affect your core belief in yourself as a likeable and worthwhile person.

There’s an old saying “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me”. People with good self-esteem live out this old saying. They like themselves no matter what, and they think they deserve happiness.

I think it has something to do with resilience – the ability to ‘bounce back’. There’s a gene for reslience – lucky are those to whom it comes naturally. But it can be learned. Words can only hurt you if you choose to let them, setbacks in life can only break your spirit if you allow them to.

The famous American psychologist and philosopher William James rejected the term self-esteem because he perceived that if you didn’t achieve, you couldn’t have self-esteem - it is dependent on achieving. He even made up a formula for it (I hope this right, if not apologies to him and all his issue).

	Self-Esteem = ———————————————————————
	              Aspiration (goals etc.)

If you believe this is a reasonable premise, then you can only feel good about yourself, "esteem" yourself if you have achieved your goals. I think having goals and achieving them is important, but it isn't crucial to whether you like yourself or believe in yourself.


Self-worth is often how we perceive ourselves compared to others, for example in terms of skills, wealth, attractiveness and so on. William James’s equation is, I think, more an accurate appraisal of self-worth than self-esteem. Many of us feel worthy if we achieve, live a certain lifestyle, or even if we are "good people" who contribute and help, sit on boards and committees or volunteer.

We might feel "worthy", but it’s often useful to challenge our motives for doing good or for accumulating possessions or status. If we lose the things we base our self-worth on, we can become bitter and disillusioned. I’m reminded here of the line from Max Ehrman’s wonderful poem "Desiderata":

If you compare yourself with others you may become vain and bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.


Being self-confident is trusting in your own abilities to perform, whether the circumstances are familiar to you or not. Self-confident people are seldom fearful. They are courageous, whether it’s exploring unknown territory, braving embarrassment by standing up to speak, or standing up for what they believe in. People often have self-confidence because they accumulate knowledge of the situation to prepare themselves, and this helps them to make the most of their faith in their abilities. Self-confidence is not the same as brashness, or recklessness.

Different types of self-confidence have been described as "social confidence", "physical presence", "stage presence", "status confidence" and "peer independence".

However, self-confidence is not always accompanied by self-esteem. People can be full of self-confidence but not necessarily like, or "esteem" themselves.


Self-respect is unconditional and independent of how others see us, or any mistakes we might have made. Self-respect is acceptance of ourselves just as we are, as opposed to self-esteem, which is dependant on our liking ourselves. Liking ourselves often requires judgement of whether we are "good" or "bad".

We might not like everything we do or are, but we can still respect who we are by accepting and forgiving ourselves, and because we respect ourselves, striving to be a better person.


This is a "self" I’m particularly fond of, and in this case I’ll leave the definition to the man who invented it, Albert Bandura of Stanford University in the U.S.

Perceived self-efficacy is defined as people's beliefs about their capabilities to produce designated levels of performance that exercise influence over events that affect their lives. Self-efficacy beliefs determine how people feel, think, motivate themselves and behave. Such beliefs produce these diverse effects through four major processes. They include cognitive, motivational, feeling and selection processes.

A strong sense of efficacy enhances human accomplishment and personal well-being in many ways. People with high assurance in their capabilities approach difficult tasks as challenges to be mastered rather than as threats to be avoided. Such an efficacious outlook fosters intrinsic interest and deep engrossment in activities. They set themselves challenging goals and maintain strong commitment to them. They heighten and sustain their efforts in the face of failure. They quickly recover their sense of efficacy after failures or setbacks. They attribute failure to insufficient effort or deficient knowledge and skills which are acquirable. They approach threatening situations with assurance that they can exercise control over them. Such an efficacious outlook produces personal accomplishments, reduces stress and lowers vulnerability to depression.

Albert Bandura, Stanford University,

So which "self" do I prefer? I’m going for self-respect, because it can be unconditional in the sense that you can respect and regard yourself well without the pressure of having to achieve, or be good looking, or flattered, or have "stage presence" or anything – you can just respect yourself for being you, warts and all – because you’re worth it. But that’s my choice. I really like self-efficacy too. The great thing about knowing about these "selfs" is that you have a choice. So maybe you’re good in all the "selfs" except self-image – then you only have to work on that one thing.

How do you work on it? Watch this space!