By Dr Oliver Tearle
‘Self-esteem’ is a well-known and widely used phrase. It means ‘a good opinion of oneself’ or ‘high self-regard’. The word ‘esteem’ is related to a much better-known word: ‘estimate’. So ‘self-esteem’ is one’s estimation of oneself and one’s value and worth.
An early example of the phrase appears in John Milton’s 1667 poem Paradise Lost: ‘Oft times nothing profits more / Than self-esteem, grounded on just and right / Well manag’d’.
So we talk about having high self-esteem or low self-esteem, depending on how we view ourselves and our worth to the wider world. The phrase is related to a number of other self- terms which are worth distinguishing from self-esteem. So let’s take a closer look at some of the synonyms and near-synonyms for self-esteem in order to pin down the meaning of this useful phrase.
SELF-REGARD is probably the closest synonym for self-esteem. Since esteem refers to estimation or appraisal – one forms an estimate of one’s own value as a person – and regard refers to how we view something, someone with a high self-esteem also has a high self-regard.
The difference, if you like, is between estimating and regarding, or between judging and viewing, but obviously there’s some overlap between the two.
A near-synonym, SELF-RESPECT, relates to how much one thinks of oneself, so it’s obviously related to both of the above terms. But self-respect is more likely to be used to call out someone’s behaviour when it shows a lack of self-respect.
So someone who behaves in a brazen and humiliating way – asking someone out on a date when that person has already turned them down three times, say – might be asked by their friends, Have you no self-respect?
Indeed, an extremely closely related synonym is SELF-WORTH: our own private sense of our own value.
A pair of other self- terms, SELF-ASSURANCE and SELF-CONFIDENCE, are of similar meaning, but relate to a slightly different aspect: how much confidence one feels prepared to invest in one’s character, personality, looks, abilities, and so on.
One final self- term worth mentioning is SELF-SATISFACTION. It’s not as common as the others listed above, but is close in meaning to self-esteem, but with the emphasis being on how pleased we are with our own identity, appearance, or talents.
DIGNITY is a word which most closely aligns with self-respect out of all the self- formations mentioned above. If you have lots of self-respect, you have plenty of dignity: a word which is related to esteem in that somebody who possesses dignity is esteemed and thought well of by others for their noble or honourable standing.
AMOUR-PROPRE, from the French meaning ‘love belonging to oneself’, is a rarer term denoting PRIDE in oneself. However, usually the term refers not to a healthy sense of one’s own place in the world but an excessive pride in one’s own worth: in other words, VANITY, CONCEIT, or CONCEITEDNESS.
The Latin for ‘I’ is ego, and this word provides us with a couple more terms which are linked with self-esteem, though – as with amour-propre and its related words – these ego-derived words are exclusively used to describe someone’s inflated sense of self-esteem.
So somebody who is overly vain or has an excessively high opinion of themselves can be described as having a bit of an EGO or of having fallen prey to EGOTISM.
Of course, all of this puts a bit of a downer on a quality which should be encouraged in everyone, as long as it isn’t taken to extremes: a healthy bit of self-esteem is, after all, good for us, since having too low an opinion of ourselves is unlikely to make for a happy life, either for us or for those around us.
We often talk of MORALE: the confidence, enthusiasm, or general satisfaction we have in relation to something. And such morale can be related to ourselves: having a good level of self-esteem is to have good morale.