You’re Just Not as Awesome as You Think. Fostering A Healthier Take on “Self-Esteem”

It might surprise you coming from a mental health professional, but I’m not a big fan of “self-esteem.”  Not that I want anyone to feel badly about themselves.  It’s just that what most people think of as “self-esteem”  (i.e., telling a child that  he is awesome just because he managed to draw breath without tripping over his tongue) isn’t terrifically effective and doesn’t bear terrifically good fruit.

But as much as you hear about self-esteem on children’s television and daytime talk shows, psychologists prefer to talk about “self-efficacy.”  Self-efficacy is defined as the good feelings one gets from knowing that one has ability to set and meet personal, emotional, or temporal goals.   Knowing I have the power to effect change, to achieve, to identify how to move from how I do feel to how I would like to feel, is an important component of a healthier and more authentic sense of self-esteem.

It is this second type of self-esteem, rooted in self-efficacy, that Dr. Justin Coulson, discusses in this article at the Family Studies Blog (of the Institute for Family Studies).  Dr. Coulson is an Australian parenting expert and psychologist (as well as a father of six kids).  He notes that the type of self-esteem that you usually think about and that  studies usually measure is actually related to risky, violent, and aggressive behavior as well as other problems. As an alternative, Dr. Coulson suggests instilling in kids a healthier form of self-esteem built on doing good things, using their talents, and having a solid relationship with their parents.    Its some good stuff.  Check it out!

And if you’d like to learn more about raising kids to have a healthy sense of self-esteem (instead of the narcissistic, insidious kind) check out Parenting with Grace:  The Catholic Parents’ Guide to Raising (almost) Perfect Kids.

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About Dr. Greg

Dr. Gregory Popcak directs the Pastoral Solutions Institute, an organization dedicated to helping Catholics find faith-filled solutions to marriage, family, and personal problems. Together with his wife, Lisa, he hosts More2Life Radio. He is the author of over a dozen books integrating psychological insights with our Catholic faith. For more info about books, tele-counseling and other resources, visit

  • Kim Cameron-Smith

    Interesting and important points in Coulson’s article. I want to ensure, too, that my children know they are lovable not because of anything they do or achieve, but because they are children of God. They are valuable even if they miss the mark sometimes. But this ties into Coulson’s insight: God has a specific plan for each of my children as unique, unrepeatable persons. Part of my duty as a parent is helping them figure out what that plan is and how they go about fulfilling it.

  • Tom B.

    I read an article once in the NYT magazine on the question of self-esteem building.
    One interviewed for th earticle was a social worker in a prison. He was given a program to help gang memebers to “build their self-esteem”. As the social worker put it, “the problem with these guys was that their self-esteem went right off the charts, and here I was told to build it up.”
    We need less ‘self-esteem’ in America and more others-esteem.