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The Psychology of True Self-Esteem

Part One

written by Marcus Neo January 8, 2020
The Psychology of True Self-Esteem

RD&T’s contributing writer, Marcus Neo, explores the psychology of true self-esteem. 

I’ve been on both ends of human performance. I’ve been last in class and first in class in multiple disciplines in my life, from academics to martial arts, to business and relationships, among other pursuits. Through the years, I’ve always wondered, what are the key principles of high performance? Is it motivation, is it discipline, or is it willpower?

I also wanted some research behind my search for answers. I didn’t want to be one of those self-help writers who writes another cheesy post on ’10 Steps to feel better about yourself today.’

How is genuine self-esteem is actually generated? Why do some people feel like a fraud while others feel like a king? Why do some people feel deserving of things in their life, while others struggle? Why do some people boast of things they never did accomplish, and are perfectly fine with not doing so?

Initially, I bought the idea that showed that the environment shapes behavior, as opposed to willpower. However, I, later on, bought into the argument of childhood development, the Freudian approach.

High Performance has Multiple Variables

I’ll argue that high performance boils down to multiple variables from the environment and your childhood experiences. I’ll also argue that self-esteem is a key fundamental of all high-performance behavior. Your behavior boils down to your self-esteem — how much you believe you’re worth, deep down. Self-esteem leads to courage and eventually leads to an expanded life.

If you believe you’re worth it, you’ll have higher expectations of both of yourself, and others. You’ll have high boundaries, and you won’t take sh*t from anybody, including yourself.

The student who believes he’s smart is going to put in the work, whether he’s actually smart or not. I found that to be true in my short summer stint at Berkeley. I traditionally wasn’t a good student in Singapore. However, for some reason, because I had the freedom to flex my identity in another culture, I ended up performing well academically.

In my entrepreneurial career, I quadrupled my price overnight; that’s because I believed that my product and service is worth that price. Yet, it sold. Of course. However, a higher price comes higher pressure, intensity, and a willingness to make it work. It goes to show that our decisions and success in life is based on self-esteem.

The Freudian Idea: Self-Esteem Derived from Childhood

I also buy the idea that your parents f*cked you up. It’s as simple as that.

It’s hard not to notice the parallels between self-esteem and childhood experiences. It’s also not uncommon to find people with problematic childhoods growing up with self-esteem issues: self-sabotaging in academics, career, and relationships.

The issues also come often in two main spectrums: you either had it too tough or had it too easy. Hence, you lack true self-esteem.

It’s also hard not to notice that most parents have high expectations for their children, yet, they didn’t and are unable to replicate similar expectations and behaviors in themselves in the past or present. To quote Dan Pena:

Children don’t see what you tell them to do, they see what you do.

This is the similar of leadership — your troops only follow you when you’re able and willing to execute upon similar tasks. If a sales manager isn’t able to make a sales call and only makes his employees do it, he’s not going to be a manager for long!

One of the best things an upwardly mobile individual can do is to leave home. To detach himself from his family and strike out on his own. One can take that rite of passage as building true self-esteem.

Love and Friendship

I recently recalled that eight months ago, in my formal employment, I borrowed a couple of books from the little office library and finished them overnight. My superior thought I was bullsh*tting him. That I couldn’t have possibly finished them in one-night, right? Yet, on the other hand, in one of my last projects for them, they demanded that I finish a 2,000-word sales page for them in a short period of time. I managed to produce it within a day.

Other than a couple of quips that they wouldn’t give in to my requests for a more flexible working arrangement, I knew deep down that they didn’t see me the way I perceived myself. Every day that I stayed there was a detriment to my self-esteem.

In an idealistic world, your employers, friends, and family are going to recognize the best virtues in you.

However, in the real world, this often pans out in the opposite direction.

I’m not going to bore you on the cliché that you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with. However, it’s true.

To give you an example, your self-esteem is going to be compromised if you’re attempting to lose weight and the people around you don’t believe that you are capable of that.

Yet, these are the exact people that you define as ‘friends.’ It’s weird that some loosely define friendships as people that subtlety put you down. If you studied the philosophers from Plato to Socrates, friendship to them is defined as a constant open debate, growth, and introspective discussions into their lives.

Over the last couple of years, I have been increasingly ‘tough’ on the people around me. My Mum says I’m too tough on people. Some of my friends say I am too tough on myself. However, let me tell you something about having a sense of self-esteem and keeping yourself and others accountable: it works.


Self-esteem, or lack thereof, can also be expressed in our romantic life. If you choose to be with someone because they make you feel confident — a confidence that you can’t internally generate on your own — then you obviously lack self-esteem.

However, if you choose a heroine, a woman who has values that you admire, of intelligence, confidence, and strength, then that says something about your own sense of security, of a feeling of your own self-worth.

The Meaning of Self-Esteem

Self-esteem is the judgment you pass on yourself, and by the standards by which you judge yourself. If someone lacks self-esteem, they will feel driven to fake it, to create the illusion of it.

It has two interrelated aspects: it entails a sense of personal efficacy and a sense of personal worth. It is the conviction that one is competent to live and worthy of living.

The sense of efficacy is defined by an individual choosing his goals and actions — that one has to be right in the conclusions one draws and choices one makes while not demanding or expecting omniscience or infallibility.

What he needs is that which is within his power, the conviction that his method of choosing and making decisions is right in principle.

This can come in the form of sharp mental focus, seeking to bring one’s understanding to an optimal level of precision and clarity as opposed to a focus on the level of blurred approximation, in a state of passive, goalless mental drifting.

This is also through the performance of  independent thinking and judgment. You weigh the truth or falsehood of any claim or the right or wrong of any issue with the ability to accept in uncritical passivity and assertions of others.

It isn’t the conviction that one can never make an error. It is the conviction that one is competent to think to, to judge and to know and to correct one’s errors.

One Must Place Values Above Emotions

The need to be good contributes to one’s sense of self-esteem. Your character is the sum of the principles and values that guide your actions in the face of moral choices.

If you default on the responsibility of thought and reason, hence undercutting your competence to live, you’ll feel unworthy. If you betray your moral convictions, you will not retain your sense of confidence. You can never excuse yourself from making judgments and choosing your behavior.

If you don’t respect yourself, you’ll never be able to respect others. These are the people that constantly show up late, or who say one thing and do otherwise. I once told a friend that if he couldn’t respect a dollar from my pocket, I didn’t give a f*ck, I told him I wouldn’t lend it to him. It’s non-negotiable. I didn’t. He kicked up a fuss and today we aren’t on speaking terms. Today, he’s broke, and I am in a much better financial position.

We have an innate sense to understand to the best of our intellectual capabilities.

Sometimes, this the default in childhood through irrational parents, authority figures, and societal norms.

If a person develops healthily, and acquires a set of values, his mind and emotions achieving harmony, he won’t be chronically torn between knowledge and desires.

The difference between a well-adjusted individual and avoidance is that one is fleeing from reality, and the other is taking proper cognizance over it.

It feels good to be drunk. The same can be said for our emotions. However, being drunk on emotions is often followed by the misery of a hangover.

When you place values above emotions, emotions are your reward and not your nemesis.

When you have no values or standards of your own, you accept whatever values are offered to you by society.

Through setting standards and values of your own, you’re rejecting some values and standards of friends, family, and society around you. You’re building your own boundaries and values.

  • Branden, N. The Psychology of Self Esteem – a Revolutionary Approach to Self-Understanding That Launched a New Era in Modern Psychology.
  • Harris, R. The Happiness Trap.

This is Part One of a two-part series.

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