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What Your Junior High Health Textbook Forgot To Tell You About Self-Esteem

IMG_0200Remember those junior high health textbooks – the ones that covered all kinds of then-awkward bodily system stuff?

And how there was always a chapter about “Emotions”?  (Usually illustrated with six photos of the same face sporting different expressions.)

In that chapter, there was usually a banal paragraph about Self-Esteem, which basically said: Self-Esteem is important. You should have some.  Preferably a lot.

Okay, maybe the book had more to say than that, but that’s about all I remember.  (I was busy folding notes to pass to friends.)

But it seems like junior high textbooks and modern self-help books alike treat self-esteem like it’s some kind of single internal thermometer.

That there’s a quantifiable amount in all of us, and how good or bad we feel about ourselves moves that mercury up and down.

If this were true, then the main work of increasing self-esteem would probably be straightforward.  A list of affirmations, a successful work project, friends who send us nice notes – all these things would nudge the mercury up.

But self-esteem is not a single internal thermometer.  And thinking of it that way can actually be damaging.

As I’ve studied the psychology of self-esteem, I’ve begun to picture it as some kind of weird balloon animal – it can swell in one area and be oddly stunted in another (we’ll find out why in a minute).

It does not rise across the board at the same rate, and things that boost one area can leave another thoroughly untouched.

Creative people’s work tends to be impacted by the way they think about themselves.  

You’ve probably heard every mentor ever tell you to become “more confident.”

And you try, but confidence and self-esteem can feel elusive, because just when you feel you’re making progress in one area, WHAMMO, something unrelated happens and makes you feel terrible.

And you might start to feel like you’ll never “be” confident.

So let’s look at what we really know about self-esteem.  Because just knowing how it is set up might bring you some relief.


Psychologists have several ways of describing self-esteem, we’ll talk about the two that I find most enlightening.

The first way to look at self-esteem divides it up into three tiers….like a delicious self-esteem cake:

Global self-esteem is a broad assessment of how you feel about yourself generally.  This is probably the closest thing to what people mean when they think of a single internal thermometer, since it’s something of an average across important life situations and feelings.  But unlike a thermometer, global self-esteem is generally pretty stable in most adults, because it’s built slowly over time across experiences.

Situational self-esteem is how you feel about yourself in a particular situation.  How you feel about yourself at work can differ from how you feel about yourself at home, or at a party, or while golfing, or while having your photo taken.  Situational self-esteem can vary even if your global self-esteem is stable.

Task self-esteem (you’ve probably gathered by now) is your self-assessment on a specific task.  How you feel about yourself while doing math, or speaking German, or using off-camera-flash, or emailing a client.  Situations can be made up of several tasks.

When you look at these three layers separately, I hope a few things start to become clear.

First, things you might have observed over your lifetime now seem more predictable.  Jane feels like a failure at home, so she throws herself into her work.  Jack is usually the life of the party, but has to white-knuckle the podium to get through a public speech.

It’s not that Jane or Jack have “high” or “low” self esteem.  Humans are not that simple.

You can feel okay about yourself generally, but your judgments of yourself can still vary by situation or task.

And of course we want to spend less time doing things that make us feel lousy about ourselves.  Sometimes, we avoid them.  (Which is precisely why we might not ever get better at them.)

The more you think about it, the closer to home the implications feel –


For example, this structure explains why someone might feel like a good photographer, but then they start a business and suddenly feel like rubbish.

The situations and tasks inherent to photography (technical skills, artistry, sense of timing) are not the same situations or tasks inherent in running a business (marketing, selling, legalities, taxes).

The difference in self-esteem in those different situations might have side effects:

People can, for example, feel good about their photography, but terrible about their business skills.  So they avoid engaging too deeply with business tasks.

Then they make the mistake of attributing failure to their art being not good enough.  When in fact it was due to them not spending any time on business because it stressed them out so much.

So instead of thinking that the client didn’t hire them because their marketing pitch was hand-over-mouth-yawnworthy, they start to think that they are just a bad artist.

Side note:  For some people, it can counterintuitively be emotionally easier to say “well I guess I’m not as good of a photographer as I thought I was” and walk away, rather than spend more time doing something that made them confront the true insecurities.

Saying “I’m a bad artist” can actually be a crutch in these cases.  An internal, self-protective excuse for failure that means they never have to confront things that make them feel stupid, scared, or sweaty, like pricing or marketing.

Splitting self-esteem up into global, situational, and task components gives us a sense of why we can have high self-esteem but still feel terrible sometimes.

Self-esteem doesn’t always grow evenly, and its components do not necessarily rise in tandem with one another.  Your opinion of yourself can move or grow in fits and spurts.

As you become better at one thing, your self-evaluations can rise related to that thing, but remain low in another area.  Especially if you avoid that area because it feels like a black hole of gloom.

But there’s hope here, too.

Knowing that self-esteem can vary by task or situation gives you permission to step back and say “okay, I feel bad right now, but not always.”  You can explicitly put negative feelings back into perspective.

You might feel terrible about yourself when you sit down to figure out WordPress, because maybe it brings up your insecurities about technology or writing.  But knowing these feelings tend to be specific to the task at hand means you can give yourself an emotional heads up going into it (“okay this brings up some terrible feelings”) and help you limit those feelings (“but it’s just this – there are lots of other things that I feel confident at, and if I keep doing this, I will at this too”).

We’ll get more into that good stuff next time.  For now –

There’s one more way to look at self-esteem that I think we should peek at:


Take what we learned above and set it aside for a moment.  We can also think of self-esteem in two components:  Implicit and explicit.

Implicit self-esteem refers to your automatic, unconscious feelings about yourself.

Explicit self-esteem, then, would be the way you consciously think about yourself.  The answers you would give if I asked you to stop and think about your self-esteem.

Since implicit self-esteem is unconscious, as you can imagine, it’s harder to study.  But it can be indirectly measured in interesting ways.

For example, people with higher implicit self esteem tend to think more highly of things associated with themselves.  Even random things.  Like if your birthday is August 13th 1970, you would probably think more fondly of August, and even just the numbers 8/10/70.  It’s not about the numbers really, that’s just a funny, visible example of how deeply and pervasively these unconscious, automatic mechanisms can influence your opinion about yourself and things relating to you.

Here’s where it gets interesting:  Some people can have LOW implicit self-esteem, but HIGH explicit self-esteem.

Meaning that their unconscious, automatic thoughts about themselves are negative.  But consciously, they try and maintain that they’re just fine.

As you can imagine, people who feel this way find that their self-esteem is unstable.  It takes a lot of work for them to feel explicitly good about themselves when unconsciously, they don’t.  Thus, this mismatch is known as “defensive self-esteem” because they feel the need to frequently re-validate themselves and defend their explicit self-esteem against any perceived attack.

People with defensive self-esteem tend to seek a lot of external positive feedback and are greatly concerned with maintaining a good opinion of themselves.  They don’t deal well with criticism and tend to be less forgiving.

But if you ask them, they say they feel good about themselves.  Tricky, huh?

And what’s more, people are terrible at estimating their level of implicit self-esteem, so people with low implicit self-esteem would probably never even guess that they had a self-esteem problem.

People can also have high implicit, but low explicit self-esteem.

In this case, people do think well of themselves unconsciously, and that can be good – it can creates a lot of optimism and hope for the future.

Sometimes, however, this can go hand in hand with high levels of perfectionism – people set high goals for themselves that they cannot actually reach.  Then the mismatch between how they feel about themselves and the reality makes them feel terrible.  This can damage their explicit self-esteem, and can sometimes result in despair, loneliness, and even depressive symptoms.

Even though their implicit self-esteem is high.

So is the self-esteem picture always bleak?  Not at all.


Next time, we’re going to talk about raising self-esteem.  As a creative human, you have both a personal and professional vested interest in doing so.

But I wanted to give you a sense of what we’re looking at before we launched into that.

For now, I hope you’ve appreciated some of the glorious complexity of humans.

That self-esteem can at once be high and low.  And the particular combination of high/low-ness can produce some terrifically different results.

And it’s important to understand that before we talk about raising self-esteem.

Because I COULD claim I have the silver bullet magic for raising self-esteem, but I would be lying.  

And now you know why – because there is not even a single target to hit.

Different self-esteem-raising tactics raise different aspects of self-esteem, and what works for someone else might not work for you.  Not because the advice is bad, but because you needed help in a different area.

So, between now and next time, I invite you to mull these things over.  Watch throughout the week how you’re feeling about yourself, even.

Are there specific tasks where you feel good or bad about yourself?  Do you find yourself engaging or avoiding as a result?

And, for example, does understanding that situational self-esteem differs from global self-esteem help you feel better about yourself when something goes poorly?

Something to keep an eye on.

If you’re feeling brave, let me know if you uncover anything interesting in the comments.

See you next time.


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  1. Leeanne on July 9, 2015 at 7:41 am

    Nicely said, clearly written
    I understood it all.
    I’m beginning to trust your judgement
    And let you guide me.

    • Jenika on July 10, 2015 at 5:55 pm

      Thanks for the kind words Leeane 🙂

  2. Steve on July 9, 2015 at 7:43 am

    Thanks a much for this article. Fantastic! So many people really need to read and digest this message.

    • Jenika on July 10, 2015 at 6:08 pm

      Thanks Steve! I agree, I think a lot of people could benefit from a bit of info here…feel free to pass this post on if you encounter someone 🙂

  3. Annie on July 9, 2015 at 11:01 am

    FASCINATING! A book mark and read over and over again later when you need a little reminder about yourself!

    • Jenika on July 10, 2015 at 6:07 pm

      Thanks for bookmarking! I find this stuff fascinating too, glad others do, too.

  4. Rick Bartrand on July 9, 2015 at 12:09 pm

    That opened up a lot of information that filled in some, much needed, missing peices. Thank you for posting.

    • Jenika on July 10, 2015 at 6:05 pm

      Thanks for the kind words, Rick.

  5. Joe Hymes on July 9, 2015 at 1:12 pm

    I just wanted to say thank you for the post on self esteem. It was just what I needed to read this morning as I deal with some issues in my life. It really helped shine a light on some things I need to work on. I look forward to reading you next post. Keep up the good work. Thanks again.

    Joe Hymes

    • Jenika on July 10, 2015 at 6:03 pm

      Thanks for coming to read the post, Joe! I’m honored by your comment. Notes like yours are what make writing this blog so rewarding. Thanks.

  6. Dawn on July 9, 2015 at 2:23 pm

    Jenika, this post is brilliant. I’ve read a lot of self-help type books but never one about self esteem. And I had never given self-esteem a lot of thought. You explained these concepts very well.

    When I read this part,

    “And of course we want to spend less time doing things that make us feel lousy about ourselves. Sometimes, we avoid them. (Which is precisely why we might not ever get better at them.)”

    I couldn’t help but smile to myself. I have a confession to make. I am not great at keeping the upstairs of my house tidy. This is the kids’ domain and it overwhelms me, even when I’m not up there. So I’ve avoided deep cleaning the two rooms for a long time.

    But, this week, one child moved rooms (which included our painting the purple room a Teenage Boy Blue) and we assembled a monstrous IKEA bed for the other child. To accomplish all that, I had to face a situation that made me feel awful about myself – my seeming powerlessness about keeping the upstairs in order.

    The kids and I spent hours and hours going over ever little item in their rooms. We sorted, we threw away, we organized. The rooms are 95% done and they look tidy and neat. I can hardly believe it. What surprised me about doing all that is that by confronting the problem that I tried to ignore, I feel empowered. It truly feels as if a weight has been lifted off my shoulders.

    Thanks again, Jenika! I look forward to your next post.

    • Jenika on July 10, 2015 at 6:07 pm

      Thanks for this fabulous story, Dawn! Oh, how that principle applies to so many things. And half the time when I start to do something I’ve been avoiding, I find it’s not as hard as I dreamed it to be. Or that I can manage it if I ask for help with the tough parts. We are capable of so much more than we typically seek to accomplish, it’s just amazing. Anyway, hope the final bits of the home makeover go well! Sounds awesome! Enjoy your home + family.

  7. Michelle on July 9, 2015 at 4:02 pm

    You explained it in simple enough terms but it *feels* much more complicated and dependent on inside and outside forces beyond our control. I haven’t thought about self esteem as something I could consciously improve overall.

    • Jenika on July 10, 2015 at 6:02 pm

      Oh it is complicated, for sure, and there are a lot of forces at work. The good news is you can take some control though. There are some legitimate, empirically-validated ways to do it, too. Hope you come back for the next post. 🙂

  8. Amanda on July 9, 2015 at 6:04 pm

    This was enlightening. Looking back I can definitely see how this works in my mind. Thank you. I’m looking forward to hearing how to raise self esteem.

    • Jenika on July 10, 2015 at 6:01 pm

      It’s cool, I think, when you learn some definitions or structure for something, and it helps you see past experience in a new light. See you again next time!

  9. Daniel on July 10, 2015 at 2:14 am

    I think this article really helped me to get a different point of view of myself. Right now I’m just in that crucial moment of becoming a photographer (after quitting to my engineering office work for 10 years) and feeling very bad about thinking that I may not be a good artist. However, after analyzing the reasons, I realized that at least for me, it is very important to have a good feedback from others about my work, and specially those who I consider professionals photographers. And that’s the case with this social media page (500px) where I been trying (and somehow failing) to get a good score on my work. It is really depressing to post something that you consider as a very good work and get such a bad review… How ever, I understand that I may not have a good rate when it comes to woman body and sunset pictures but at the end of the day, photography is not just about that but many other topics. Maybe Robert Capa wouldn’t had have any good score at 500px as well, who knows… And this somehow raise my mood, but not for long.

    • Jenika on July 10, 2015 at 6:00 pm

      Hey Daniel – thanks for sharing some of your experience with us. Good on you for seeking feedback – that’s a great way to improve. (And don’t worry, if you were *overly* concerned with good feedback, you probably wouldn’t post anything at all, it would feel like too big of an emotional risk, so well done). You might find a few different outlets for feedback, too, just to get a spread of ideas and suggestions. Sometimes running with one crowd only can get you just a narrow set of thoughts, good to have a variety, I think. Keep at it! Thanks for your note.

  10. Moira on July 10, 2015 at 8:29 am

    Your posts never disappoint. xxx

    • Jenika on July 10, 2015 at 5:56 pm

      Aww, thanks! <3

  11. Charlotte Reeves on July 10, 2015 at 8:29 am

    Jenika, as always, you’ve made me think! I’m going to pay more attention to how I’m feeling and thinking about things on a daily basis and see if I can identify my self esteem types/levels etc. I will try and remember to report back!

    • Jenika on July 10, 2015 at 5:56 pm

      Major hugs to you Charlotte. Hope you’re having a good week.

  12. Carol Yamada on July 10, 2015 at 4:50 pm

    Thanks – this is a though-provoking post that ties into things I’ve been pondering lately. Eager for the next one!

    • Jenika on July 10, 2015 at 5:56 pm

      Glad to provoke some thoughts, haha. 🙂 See you again here soon, then!

  13. Kelli + Daniel Taylor Photography on July 10, 2015 at 6:58 pm

    Thanks so much for tackling this common but rarely discussed issue for artists. Can’t wait for the next installment.

  14. Allison on July 11, 2015 at 3:04 pm

    Great post, as always! So relevant to every part of life, and to everyone, not just creatives. I shared it on my personal FB page because there are lots of people who need to know this stuff about self esteem. Can’t wait for part 2!

    • Jenika on July 13, 2015 at 5:20 pm

      Great to hear from you Allison, and thank you for sharing! You’re the best. <3

  15. Larissa Bernardes on July 14, 2015 at 2:37 pm

    Once again, you nailed it! I’ve been avoiding.
    Will keep an eye on my feelings, relating them to what you wrote.


  16. tanya smith on July 15, 2015 at 7:32 pm

    Oh, I’m totally high implicit, but low explicit self-esteem! I can’t wait to hear what you have to say on how to improve it. 🙂

  17. Angelique on July 16, 2015 at 3:04 pm

    Hi Jenika,

    Thank you for another thought provoking and highly valuable post. It couldn’t have come at a better time, as I’ve been working on improving my self esteem for the past week. I never knew just how complicated it can be, and I love that it’s not as Black and White as I originally thought.

    Thanks again! Have a lovely day. 🙂

  18. Annabel on July 17, 2015 at 3:56 am

    This article brought me such relief to begin to understand that it’s perfectly normal to have such swings in emotions about myself!

  19. abbie on July 18, 2015 at 2:16 pm

    what an interesting article.I think a lot of us would like that magic wand, but it’s not thre, at least I have never found t!

  20. Carol on July 30, 2015 at 3:02 am

    Jenika, this piece brought into sharper focus for me an exploration of the continuous, unsettling feeling of seismic shifting I experience between feeling I’m worthy/not capable/not, creative/not, and on and on.

    The unconscious is one sneaky bastard. I sometimes feel that if I could only bring its dark, mysterious machinations to the light of the conscious I could figure out how to exorcise my demons and burst forth into a field of unbounded imagination, enthusiasm, and joy.

    Coming from a spiritual perspective helps somewhat to feel less locked in and hopeless, but what a liberation it would be to learn how to use knowledge about the unconscious to provide an alternate route to freedom; after all, it knows the deepest, darkest, truly important things about me. I’ve often heard it said that when we unintentionally do something that feels good but ultimately sets us beside our proclaimed path of intention (like downing a shot of tequila 20 minutes before a speech to a group of investors) that we are sabotaging our efforts. I don’t think so. I think that what we are doing is more linear and comprehensible: filling a deeper, more primal need — to feel safe (even if somewhat anesthetized), invulnerable and secure. So I suspect that in some way, understanding our unconscious, even indirectly (like a deer’s hoof prints in the snow tell of its visit), may be helpful in shining light on our behaviors, anxieties, and challenges.

    I know this is rambling and getting off topic, but I want to say that I love this article and line of inquiry you are on, and your exploration about self esteem and the role the unconscious plays in it. I hope you will continue with your archaeology of the subconscious and unconscious, for I find you a most lucid, artful, and articulate writer about these things that really matter. I mostly want to know: how can I utilize this treasure chest of all my deepest and darkest truths in a way that leads me to light and clarity rather than simply as a fall guy for my most unwanted fears and behaviors?

    Love and respect to you.

  21. Marina on August 5, 2015 at 10:40 am

    Hi, Thanks for posting this article. Art and especially photography for me is a real remedy for peace and joy. PicsArt is a place where a lot of people find ways to express themselves and raise their self-esteem. Hope you will check the following link and will find what you were looking for:

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