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Understanding self-esteem and why it is important

According to the online Etymology dictionary (n.d.), the verb “esteem” originates from 14c Latin meaning “to value, determine the value of, appraise”. Based on this definition, to self-esteem is to self-appraise and to consequently establish one’s own self worth. Nevertheless, in psychological research, the concept of self-esteem is a much disputed one. It encompasses other key terms such as self concept (the awareness a person has about themselves), and self-efficacy in relation to the status quo (the way a person assesses their own abilities and skills; Mahendran, 2015).  Is self-esteem a cognitive attitude or a relational phenomenon? Some of these terms will be explored further below, in order to analyse the psycholinguistics and psychodynamics of everyday self-appraisal, and how this reveals the way someone understands and relates to the world around them. 

Self-esteem is an everyday psychological phenomenon that permeates all aspects of a person’s life. Psychologists have at times described this concept as one that encompasses all types of attitudes an individual has about themselves (Mahendran, 2015, p. 159). Now, in order to understand how this concept might influence everyday executive functions, it would be helpful to first elucidate what is meant in psychology by the word “attitude” in relation to “self”. According to Mahendran (2015), an attitude has three core components: the cognitive component encompasses the way in which an individual sees their own object, that is, themselves. The affective component explores the feelings an individual has towards their own object. And third, the behavioural component encompasses the general views an individual has about their own identity, and how this perceived identity shapes the person’s behaviour within the public environment. The following paragraphs will elaborate on the cognitive and relational aspects of self-appraisal as an attitude and behaviour. Furthermore, labelling theory proposes that the ‘self’ is socially constructed, and such construal determines what is labelled as ‘deviant’ or ‘criminal’, or ‘normal’  (Blackburn, 2005). This would suggest that by evaluating one’s understanding of the self-concept (including its historical biography), and its relations to the world around it (the episodic map); one can gain a more accurate understanding of what it means to self-esteem. Furthermore, Tafarodi and Milne (2002) cited in Mahendran (2015, p. 178) described self-esteem as having two main components: self-competence and self-liking. Based on this construct, it can be said that a person’s subjective definition of competency, and the mores shaping their milieu and SUPEREGO; contribute to what a person considers worthy, desirable, and acceptable. In correlation, James (1952) cited in Mahendran (2015, pp. 171-173) saw self-esteem as essentially having four components: the material self (the body and possessions), the social self (the personality presented to other people), the spiritual self (the stream of consciousness, and the observer of subjective experience); and the pure ego (a person’s individuality and self-concept in solitude). Furthermore, Branden (1988) cited in Mahendran (2015, p. 161) defined the term self-esteem as having two main feelings: “personal competence” and “personal worth”. 

After the self-esteem political movements of the 1980s and 1990s, and after Baumeister cited in Mahendran (2015, p. 162) officially promoted self-esteem as being the key to health and happiness, more and more people began to get in touch with this aspect of themselves consciously. Moreover, the concept of self-esteem gained a collective status, and became a central focus of social psychology. It was realised that self-esteem has intricate environmental and socio-cultural factors which are not always in the control of an individual (that is, that self-esteem  is at times a correlational phenomenon). All of this public attention to the subject led eventually to further concerns about whether collective self-esteem could be raised at all without first challenging the status quo. But why would this concept of self-love be relevant to forensic psychology? Branden (1988) cited in Mahendran (2015, pp. 160-161) described self-esteem as being the root of all psychological evils; including crime, mental health problems, social problems, poor wellbeing, and even suicide: “I cannot think of a single psychological problem […] that is not traceable, at least in part, to the problem of deficient self-esteem”. What this perspective suggests is that self-esteem should be considered a basic need in civil society, rather than a privilege of  a selected few, or a future project. Moreover, Bull et al. (2012) explains that sexual offenders, for example, can often be motivated to offend by their low self-esteem (in psychoanalysis, the ID); and often rely on cognitive biases to self-justify their behaviours and autobiographical discourses (impaired or deficient SUPEREGO). In view of such evidence, it is not surprising therefore that at some point a self-esteem deficit was considered to be a security risk, and this is why in 1986 the Task Force for Self-Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility was established in the US California State Department cited in Mahendran (2015, p. 162), which promoted the deterrence and desistance from crime through interventions designed to increase morality and self-esteem levels in individuals. 

Furthermore, in psychoanalysis the self is often referred to as a relational object, which has a personality that is presented to the outside world (the EGO; Eysenck, 2000); where identity is socially constructed  (Mahendran, 2015, pp. 188-190). A culture’s social norms and definitions of what is termed as “desirable” and “acceptable” impact on a person’s SUPEREGO*, and therefore their process of self-identification, as well as their object-relations are shaped by the dynamics between ID, EGO, and SUPEREGO. Burkitt (2008) cited in The Open University (2019) reinforces this idea about the self being relational within the social sphere: “Our self-worth is dynamic; it changes as we move through the world with our individual biographies”. One of the most influential approaches to understanding self-esteem was proposed by Rogers (1951) cited in Mahendran (2015, p. 174), who understood ‘self-fulfilment’ as the gap between the actual self (who we are) and the ideal self (who we want to be). By the same token, James (1952) cited in Mahendran (2015, p. 171) proposed a model claiming that self-esteem could be developed by manifesting the potential of one’s actual self into the ideal self, finding this way congruence within. Subsequently, Rogers also posited how in order for a person to mind this gap between the actual and ideal selves, they would have to let go of societal expectations and stereotypes. What all the above mentioned suggests is that self-actualisation, also known as self-realization (the capacity to reach one’s current maximum potential) relies on the individual challenging the status quo (Mahendran, 2015, p. 175). Indeed, exposure to unrealistic media stereotypes, for instance,  can influence individual and societal constructions of object identities and relations by setting manufactured personas as standards for what is desirable and competent (Kennedy, 2007). Blindly following or measuring oneself against such stereotypes can result in self-object dissatisfaction and therefore low self-esteem as a byproduct of the existing levels of inequalities, which reproduce all types of distortions related to the ontology of self-image presentation, and representation. Calogero (2013) cited in Mahendran (2015, pp. 192) proposed the system justification theory which sees activism as a healthy manifestation of self-love, because a person challenges the disproportionate general standards of what is considered nice. In other words, the way in which someone internalises the world around them- including the social, environmental, cultural, political and economic dimensions- influences self-esteem (Mahendran, 2015). 

This would support the approach to understanding self-esteem as a cognitive attitude (e.g. internalisation of circumstances), and yet this would not be mutually exclusive with the idea of self-esteem as relational phenomena. Leary (2003) cited in Mahendran (2015, p. 180) proposed the sociometer theory, which posited that self-esteem levels can sometimes be attributed to external, rather than internal inputs. This theory highlights the importance of understanding object-relational dynamics. On the other hand, there are several cognitive biases which prevent people from maintaining a healthy level of self-esteem (Mahendran, 2015). For instance, an individual can make a fundamental attribution error if they assume that self-esteem is all about personal attitudes and has nothing to do with the milieu they live in (Mahendran, 2015, p. 180). This is why self-esteem should not be interpreted as belonging only to one single aspect of reality, but rather, it should be seen as a phenomenon that really permeates every aspect of a person’s life at all times; and is therefore subject to both, interoception and exteroception. Nevertheless, Pyszczynski et al. (2004) cited in Mahendran (2015, p. 181) proposed a somewhat nihilistic account of self-esteem where self-love is presumably used as a defence mechanism derived from denial about the brutal reality of death. What this suggests is that all approaches to understanding self-esteem have been a byproduct of the subconscious fear that the human individual has about the imminent probability of dying. Maslow’s and James’ models, for example, would be a byproduct of the subconscious need to distract the mind from the imminent reality of mortality. Consequently, Mruk (2006) cited in Mahendran (2015, p. 169) proposed a phenomenological definition of self-esteem which focused on the way in which a person tries to make sense of their day to day world, supporting the approach to understanding self-esteem as a cognitive attitude in relation to reality. He described it as a status which is lived, and which can be developed through time. This goes hand in hand with some of the approaches developed through humanistic psychology on the topic, such as the phenomenological accounts offered by Rogers, which focused on the holistic aspect of qualia (Mahendran, 2015, p. 174). 

To summarise, there are several approaches to understanding self-esteem, and these are not always mutually exclusive. As it has been demonstrated, there are several different aspects that make and remake a person’s self-concept. Therefore, based on the above evidence, it can be said that self-esteem is both a cognitive and a relational phenomenon with direct relevance to forensic psychology when trying to understand the underlying causes of offence culture and offending behaviour.


Blackburn, R. (2005) The Psychology of Criminal Conduct, West Sussex, John Wiley & Sons, pp. 87-110.

Bull, R., Cooke, C., Hatcher, R., Woodhams, J., Bilby, C. and Grant, T. (2012) Criminal Psychology: Beginners Guides, London, Oneworld Publications, pp. 186-207.

Eysenck, M. W. (2000) Psychology: A Student’s Handbook, East Sussex, Psychology Press Ltd., pp. 16-41.

Kennedy, B. M. (2007) ‘THINKING ONTOLOGIES OF THE MIND/BODY RELATIONAL’, in Kennedy, B. and Bell, D. (eds) CYBERCULTURES, 2nd edn, Oxon, Routledge, pp. 773-787.

Mahendran, K.  (2015) ‘Self-esteem’, in Turner, J., Hewson, C., Mahendran, K. and Stevens, P.  (eds), Living Psychology: From the Everyday to the Extraordinary, Milton Keynes, The Open University, pp. 155-194.

Online Etymology Dictionary (n.d) Esteem (v) [Online]. Available at (Accessed 22 November, 2019).

The Open University (2019) ‘5.1 Beyond managing self-esteem’, DD210-19J Week 7: Self-esteem [Online]. Available at (Accessed 22 November 2019).

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