Unthinkable: What lies behind your self-esteem?

Flourishing in life starts with putting trust in yourself, argues philosopher Anna Bortolan

People have a natural tendency to judge their self-worth against external measurements. Illustration: Hong Li/Getty Creative

People have a natural tendency to judge their self-worth against external measurements. Illustration: Hong Li/Getty Creative


We all want respect, but can you desire too much of a good thing? In some social settings, being “disrespected” is considered a kind of personal assault. But should we really be bothered by other people’s impression of us?

Philosopher Anna Bortolan has grappled with such questions in the context of research on the nature of self-esteem. People, she says, have a tendency to judge their self-worth against external measurements, principally the extent to which they are appreciated by others. But this fails to capture the real nature of self-esteem which, Bortolan argues, begins with “self-trust”.

And what is self-trust? She describes it as “a threshold below which our sense of self should never fall if we are to function and flourish in the various areas of our life”.

Dr Bortolan, an Irish Research Council postdoctoral fellow at UCD, explores how phenomenology – the study of first-hand experience – can contribute to the treatment of anxiety and depression.

One conclusion she draws is that self-esteem, “despite its multifaceted nature . . . is still to be conceived as a unitary experience” that can’t be considered as just an “episodic emotion”, such as pride, embarrassment or guilt.

“Self-esteem is rather a specific form of affective experience which deeply influences our cognitive and practical life, structuring the way in which we think and feel about ourselves, others, and the world.”

How is self-esteem best understood?

Anna Bortolan: “The psychologist Nathaniel Branden suggested that there are two constitutive aspects to self-esteem. On the one hand is ‘self-efficacy’, or what might be called ‘self-trust’, and on the other ‘self-respect’. In my current research, I explore from a philosophical perspective the possibility of conceiving of self-esteem as so structured.

“The former component of self-esteem is often characterised as a form of confidence in one’s own cognitive, emotional and agentive abilities, and, more specifically, in one’s capacity to deal with the demands, opportunities, and setbacks of everyday life. This is a very basic form of experience, which possesses a distinct bodily dimension and appears to be prior to and partially independent from how we judge ourselves and are viewed by others.

“Self-respect, on the other hand, can be defined as a belief in one’s own value, the conviction that one’s features and achievements are worthwhile, and that one is living up to certain ethical or other standards. This, I believe, is a more complex form of reflective and narrative self-understanding, which is dependent on one’s self-evaluation, and the recognition and positive feedback received from other people.”

Are there treatment implications from this analysis? Do we focus too much on gaining self-respect when, really, learning to trust in our own judgment is more important?

“Various scholars, both in philosophy and psychology, have argued that self-esteem depends primarily on the way in which we are treated and assessed by others. However, the idea that self-esteem is determined entirely through intersubjective dynamics is problematic in various ways.

“In the first place, there appear to be various cases in which one’s self-esteem is impervious to social feedback. An example of this is the so-called ‘impostor syndrome’, which can be described as the inability to recognise one’s achievements as deserved. People who feel like impostors rather tend to explain their successes as the product of luck or other people’s mistakes, and are inclined to think that sooner or later the fact that they are a ‘fraud’ will be discovered.

“Secondly, relying completely on other people’s judgment in order to determine one’s self-esteem can be at the origin of various forms of mental distress, and may be an aspect of certain forms of psychopathological experience.

“In my research, for example, I explore the idea that excessive reliance on comparative and interpersonal assessments of one’s performances and a diminished trust in one’s self-experience and self-conception play a central role in some forms of depression and social anxiety disorder.

“Self-esteem, therefore, does not and should not depend exclusively on how positively we are judged by other people. Our view of ourselves, informed by the knowledge we have of our own story, characteristics and values, is of primary importance in the constitution of self-respect.”

Is it possible, or desirable, to have a sense of self that’s completely independent of other people’s judgments?

“Like relying entirely on other people’s views in order to determine one’s value, also prescinding from interpersonal feedback when assessing oneself can be highly problematic and, I believe, ultimately impossible.

“Our experience is from the very beginning structured and shaped through a variety of intersubjective relationships, and self-awareness and self-knowledge are essentially rooted in interpersonal interactions.

“In addition, due to a number of factors, our view of ourselves can be partial or distorted in various ways, and the dialogue with other people can be of primary importance in the processes through which we build or restore a more accurate self-conception.”

Do you have a moral duty to hold yourself in high esteem?

“I believe that there is an important connection between self-esteem and moral experience.

“Emotions are not merely subjective feelings, which may or may not accompany our thoughts and actions and have no content of their own. Many philosophers have rather drawn attention to the fact that emotions are very closely related to the way in which we evaluate ourselves, others and the world.

“For example, integral to the anger I experience upon discovering that my bike has been stolen is a more or less explicit assessment of that instance of stealing as harmful, threatening or morally wrong in some respect. Emotions, in other terms, are fundamentally connected to our value judgments.

“Being a particular form of affective experience, self-esteem is also fundamentally connected to evaluation. In particular, due to its specific structure, self-esteem appears to have the power to significantly constrain the ways in which we judge ourselves and various aspects of our life.

“For example, as shown by the case of the ‘impostor syndrome’ I mentioned earlier, people who experience low self-esteem might find it difficult to give a positive evaluation of their successes – and, for that matter, to even accept them as such.

“Self-esteem also modulates the way in which we see others, and what we expect or demand them to do. For instance, when self-esteem is low, it might be difficult to trust one’s judgment about others’ intentions and behaviours, and to ask them to take responsibility for their actions.”


Question: Is it important to be happy?

Voltaire replies: “Life is a shipwreck, but we must not forget to sing in the lifeboats.”

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