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Self-esteem and mental health

Self-esteem is defined as your confidence in your abilities and skills. It is your feeling of self worth. A person with high self esteem walks through life with an emotional force field protecting them from the ups and downs of life. A person with low self esteem tends to take life on the chin.

With the permission of my publisher, I am able to excerpt the first chapter of my book, Change: How to bring real change to your life: The psychology and secrets of highly effective people. [This is copyrighted material and may not be used without permission.]

Chapter 1. Understand your self-talk and your self-esteem

Self-talk is shrink speak for the stuff that goes on in our heads that only we can hear. It is that internal dialogue that we keep with ourselves. Most of us do not really think about how we talk to ourselves–—it just happens. But, self-talk is really important to understand if you wish to win in the game of life.

Self-talk is powerful. It comes from inside you. It comes from your past. It is a CD playing a familiar tune. If the tune is negative, it is hurtful in a negative way. If the tune is positive, it is helpful in a positive way.

Unfortunately, we are hard-wired to remember the negative better than the positive. Our brain lays down stronger negative memories than positive ones. Most people find that they can remember the negative events, the painful ones of their youth, more clearly than their positive memories.

Self-talk can be implanted

A lot of our self-talk is accidentally implanted. Often, self-talk is given to us by others that we feel are powerful in our lives. Mothers, fathers, spouses, teachers, friends, to name a few, give us information about ourselves that we lay down as powerful memories.

Self-talk is more believable

Self-talk is the interpretation of a situation rather than the situation itself. This interpretation influences our emotions, behaviors and even our physiology. Because self-talk comes from inside, it avoids most of the filters that we learn to use to evaluate our environment. We take the self-talk thought as a fact. Often self-talk is treated like a fact with emotional baggage. Sometimes we don’t even see the baggage, we combine it with a fact, making it an even bigger unexamined fact.

You must control your self-talk to control yourself

Thoughts that emanate from within are often stimulated by some external event. This makes your self-talk very powerful. So, if for example, your parents have called you stupid for twenty years, I suspect that when you are feeling upset or nervous you call yourself ‘stupid.’

How is self-esteem built?

Let’s start off by defining what we are talking about. Self-esteem goes by many names. Some call it self-worth, others self-confidence. The high brow academic set use words like, “the sense of self” or “ego identity.” Shakespeare said it best, “A rose, is a rose, is a rose,” or something like that. The reality is that we all know what high self-esteem or low self-esteem looks like, but it is hard to put it into words.

In a nutshell, self-esteem is the internal belief we hold about ourselves. What makes it hard to understand and put into words is that it is ever changing. We hold different internal beliefs about our abilities dependent on the situation.

For example, my five-year-old son informed me that he couldn’t pick up a hat in the side yard because of spiders. He hadn’t seen any spiders, but he was obviously uncomfortable. When he was reminded that he had touched spiders before, he said, “Yeah, but that spider was not hiding to get me!” Is this a self-esteem issue? In a way. If, at five, Joshua felt comfortable enough within himself to handle the fears that he pictured, I would not have had to pick up the hat. But, is it a self-esteem problem? It definitely is not. Josh was not saying to himself, “I’m not able to pick up the hat.” He was saying, “I’m afraid of spiders hiding under the hat and attacking me.” Often parents confuse low self-esteem with reasonable fear.

The internal belief we hold about ourselves is somewhat situational. You may feel comfortable talking to a small group, but petrified about presenting to thirty-four regional sales managers. When we talk about self-esteem, it is important to listen to our own self-talk. If we focus too much on our initial behavior we often miss the true picture.

So, when we talk about self-esteem, we are really talking about the internal balance of our beliefs of our self-worth.

When we are born we enter the world with a personal makeup. This personal makeup is usually called our temperament. You interact with your world through your temperament.

Newborns seem to be ‘pre-wired’ to investigate their world. Part of their temperament is to investigate and eventually build relationships with their new world.

Infant research has shown that newborns have the ability to “interact” with their caregivers from the first moments of birth. Their eyes are developed enough to focus on their mother’s face during the first breast feeding. Infants are able to smell and remember their caregivers.

An individual’s temperament is influential in the formation of the feeling of self-worth. We take this sense of self with us throughout our life. For example, a sixty year old can truly say that they are the same, but still a different person than they were when they were six. Our feelings of self-worth are with us for a lifetime.

The bird’s nest

Recently, my family and I watched a Discovery Channel program about birds from around the world. The narrator explained how different birds build their nests. Some birds simply moved around a patch of dirt and called it home. Other birds carried twigs and grasses up into a tree and intertwined them to make a nice basket. One swallow carried beak-full’s of mud, making a substantial “clay” pot to call home. A hyper little fellow swiped spider webs and sewed the sides of leaves together making a sturdy green hammock. The birds did all this by instinct. Each of the different birds was pre-programmed with the innate ability to build their species-specific nest. This is impressive.

We all build our self-esteem in a similar fashion. We pick and choose from our environment to form our belief of who we are. Our temperament tends to initiate the direction of what we notice. Then, as time goes by, our temperament is intertwined with our experiences to form the “self.” Most researchers believe that the self is pretty much built by age two. Then, by age three, we start an internal dialogue with ourselves and we develop our opinion about who we are.(1,2,3,4) This is the onset of self esteem.(5)

Three Basic levels of self-esteem

Most people think of self-esteem as either high or low. It is important to understand that self-esteem is a continuum.(6,7) No one really has a high self-esteem; rather they tend to possess mostly high feelings of self-worth and an understanding about their limitations. Similarly, individuals with low feelings of self-worth believe poorly about themselves in most situations, but are able to get by and outwardly function in their world. They perceive themselves through low esteem glasses, reaching medium esteem in a few limited areas of their life. Figure 1 illustrates the continuum of self esteem.

There are three basic levels of self-esteem — high, medium, and low.


Figure 1: The Three basic levels of self-esteem


High self-esteem

A person with high self-esteem feels comfortable in most situations. She tests her beliefs and has had experience trusting her belief system. She is self-confident. She is aware that she thinks well on her feet. She knows that even well developed plans often need minor corrections. She is internally assured that she can deal with life’s ups and downs. She is aware that she does not have all the answers while, at the same time knowing, deep in her soul, that she can figure out most of the answers she will need.

An example of high self-esteem:

Ellen is twelve years old. She is a hard working student who is somewhat bored in school. She is happy most of the time. Her parents are sure that she is a ‘good kid’ who tends to be argumentative with them. “She is always testing my limits,” her mother told me. “But then again, she plans to rule the world.” Ellen feels good about herself and safe within her relationship with her parents. She has goals and dreams. She practices her growing skills on her parents. She chooses to back down when her parents give her firm limits.

Medium self-esteem

People with medium self-esteem are constantly questioning themselves. They know that they have done well, but are never really sure if it was their doing, or maybe just simple dumb luck. These people tend to have a hollow drive. It is not so much a quest for challenge, as in the high self-esteem person, it is a never-ending test of themselves, to see if they can cut the mustard. This need to prove themselves tends to be very taxing, removing much of the potential enjoyment from even doing well. Individuals with medium self-esteem are constantly in self-doubt.

An example of medium self-esteem:

Summer is an outgoing, happy go lucky twenty-six year old. She has worked at the same office for three years. She doesn’t really like her job, but she never seems to get organized enough to look for a better one. She would like to go to college, but has been unable to sign up at the junior college down the street. She seems to want help constantly. She needs others to direct her. She tends not to follow these directions, preferring to muddle her way through. She puts a lot of energy into almost getting things done, into almost taking control of her world.

Low self-esteem

People with low self-esteem are positive that they are doomed. They believe that any thought they have will prove to be stupid. Self-hate is the reality of people with low self-esteem. Self-hate leads to the use of societal anesthesia. This anesthesia tends to take the form of one or more of the following: social isolation, alcohol abuse, drug abuse, sexual promiscuity, or severe risk taking. Their mantra is, “I don’t care.” And it is true for them. This internal pain drives them to wish out of a relationship, even with themselves. They often mistreat caring individuals in their world. They take the attitude, “If you care for me, you deserve whatever I do to you.”

People with low self-esteem have no respect for themselves and only contempt for anyone who cares about them.

Two examples of low self-esteem:

Dougie was a chubby man of thirty-six, married eighteen years, with three teenaged children. He came to see me because his wife was having her fourth affair. “Every now and then she just gets mean. She stops taking care of the kids and starts going out drinking. She doesn’t even hide it any more.”

Dougie has worked the same union job since high school. When I asked him about his chances of advancement he said, “Why bother to apply, they won’t give me the job.” Dougie was polite and talkative. He spoke of his dreams and goals. It was quickly apparent that he was positive, at the core of his being, that he would never come close to any of his dreams.

Arty was a muscular tattooed man of fifty. I was asked by his attorney to meet with him. For almost two hours he regaled me with stories of drinking, fighting and cheating on his two wives. He had a forty year history of doing what he wanted and not caring about anyone but himself. He had spent a total of 15 years in prison. He had held hundreds of menial jobs that he either quit, or got fired from. Anyone who cared for him he eventually alienated.

When I asked him what he thought about his life, he looked at me and said softy, “It don’t matter: I was born to die.” I could feel his despair. All of his stories could not cover his self-loathing.

Now for the good news... self-esteem is not carved in stone

It is important that we seek the best building material available for growing our own self-esteem. Just as the bird forages for twigs, grasses, or mud, we search our environment for the stuff of self-esteem. At first, our information gathering process occurs mostly with our parents. In time, we become solely responsible for availing ourselves of safe, self-esteem nurturing, environments.

Research has shown us that newborns ‘pick up’ on the feelings in their home.(8,9,10) We know that children who are physically cared for, but whose home is in emotional turmoil, tend to be prone to stomach unrest, headaches, and sleep disturbances.

Mrs. Rodriguez was going through a messy divorce with her abusive husband. Her family doctor saw her six-month-old daughter three times in one week for diarrhea and concerns of dehydration. Mrs. Rodriguez told me, “The doctor said all the tests came back normal. My baby was just fine. Then he whispered to me, ‘Mary, I’m just a country doctor, but how about you send the baby to your mother’s. Maybe she is all tied up in knots because of the family problems.’ I told him that my husband and I don’t argue in front of the baby, but I sent Alexa to my mother’s anyway. You know, it was a miracle; she slept on the couch for the first fourteen hours. She got as big as a horse in just a week.”

I think there is a lot to be said for country doctoring. Babies and young children are so dependent on their caregivers that it makes sense to me that they are critically attuned to them and their emotional states.

I once asked a young man, who just got an acceptance letter to college, how his mother reacted to the good news. He said, “She is very happy. But, she always told me I was special.” “Special?” I questioned. “Yeah, she always told me I was special, you know, that I could put my mind to something and figure it out.” “When did she tell you that you were special?” I continued. “Boy, knowing my mom, she probably patted herself on her belly and said, ‘Whoever you are ... you’re special to me.’” He smiled a big proud smile and I knew he was special. Why? Because I believed his mother.

How do you build your own self-esteem?

The simple answer is you control your environment. No matter where you are on the self-esteem continuum; low, medium, or high, you build your self-steam by controlling the situations around you.

Who do you spend most of your time with? Are they good for you? Do you feed yourself a consistent diet of healthful thought? Do you read good uplifting books? Do you listen to uplifting music? Do you treat others well? Are you kind? Are you respectful?

What materials are in your world for you to build your self-esteem with? You have choices - are you making them? Who are you letting influence you?

Over the years, many amazing individuals have influenced me in a positive way. As an example, let me tell you about one such person, Dr. Jeffrey Smith. I was fortunate to take a course in graduate school from Jeffrey Smith, a celebrated psychologist and long time professor at Stanford University. When I showed up to my first class I had no idea who the instructor was. He arrived a few minutes before class was scheduled to begin and very slowly walked to a chair at the front of the room. He sat slowly. He spoke softly. He explained that he was an old man. He had a terminal disease and he hoped to be alive long enough to teach this 18 week course. He apologized for his frailty. He explained that he would understand if anyone would like to transfer to another instructor. He spoke about looking forward to meeting all of us young people. (Most were in their thirties.)

Dr. Smith captivated the class. It was obvious to us that he wanted to die as he lived, a teacher. He let us know that we were special to him, that his world had greater meaning because we were a part of it.

Dr. Smith allowed us to experience his love. Soon after the course ended, Dr. Smith died. His wife mailed us back our final exams. Until the end, Dr. Smith taught. He took the time to write a note on each final exam. My note was hard to read. The hand that penned it was weak. He wrote, “I like to think of you, by contrast, with your strong, positive spirit, working with children, Jeffrey”

I tucked Dr. Smith’s belief in me into to my self-esteem nest. I have often thought about how honored I felt being in his class, and when I teach, I try to emulate Dr. Smith’s love and respect for his students.


Change: How to bring real change to your life: The psychology and secrets of highly effective people.  By Philip Copitch, Ph.D. Used with permission (Second edition, 2012)









1- Winnicott, Donald W. (1960). Ego distortion in terms of true and false self. In The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment. London: Hogarth and Institute for Psycho-Analysis, 1965.

2- Klein, Melanie. (1959). Our adult world and its roots in infancy. In Envy and Gratitude and Other Works 1946-1963. London: Hogarth, 1975.

3- Piaget, J. (1954). “The construction of reality in the child”. New York: Basic Books.

4- Wadsworth, Barry J. Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive and Affective Development: Foundations of Constructivism, 5th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Allyn & Bacon, 2003.

5- Mruk, C. (2006). Self-Esteem research, theory, and practice: Toward a positive psychology of self-esteem (3rd ed.). New York: Springer.

6- Branden, N. (1969). The psychology of self-esteem. New York: Bantam.

7- Mecca, Andrew M., et al., (1989). The Social Importance of Self-esteem. University of California Press, 1989.

8- Carlson, Elizabeth A.; Alan Sroufe, L.; Egeland, Byron, The Construction of Experience: A Longitudinal Study of Representation and Behavior. Child Development, v75 n1 p66-83 Jan 2004.

9-Carlson, Elizabeth A.; Sroufe, L. Alan; Collins, W. Andres Early Environmental Support and Elementary School Adjustment as Predictors of School Adjustment in Middle Adolescence. Journal of Adolescent Research, v14 n1 p72-94 Jan 1999.

10-Ward, Mary J.; Carlson, Elizabeth A. Associations among Adult Attachment Presentations, Maternal Sensitivity, and Infant-Mother Attachment in a Sample of Adolescent Mothers. Child Development, v66 n1 p69-79 Feb 1995.




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