Two Keys to Self-Esteem

Carrie Steckl earned her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology with a Minor in Gerontology from Indiana University – Bloomington in 2001. She has spent over ...Read More

We’ve all heard of self-esteem, but what is it really? More importantly, how do we develop it if we feel we’re running a little low in the self-esteem department? First, it’s important to know what gives us self-esteem. This elusive concept has two aspects:

Efficacy. Effi-what? We often want to say “efficiency” when we see this word, but efficacy is a cool word in its own right. Efficacy refers to feelings of competence. When we have efficacy about something, we have an expectation and confidence that we will be able to do it. For instance, you may feel efficacy about your ability to play volleyball, to drive a car, or to bake a cheesecake.

Efficacy starts out being tied to specific activities, but it can generalize to broader feelings of competence – or incompetence. Our feelings of efficacy can also change (for better or worse) by experience.

Here’s an example: Let’s say that you feel efficacy about your driving; in other words, you think you’re a good driver and feel confident when you get behind the wheel. But then you have a car accident. This could undermine your sense of efficacy as a driver. It could also lead to generalizing so that you no longer feel confident riding a bike or steering a boat either. And these things can add up so that your self-esteem takes a hit.

A lot of us are afraid to try new activities because of past failures (myself included). We’re also quite skilled at not paying attention to our successes and improvements while we focus too much on our losses and failures. Oftentimes, we possess the necessary skills to excel at an activity, but we don’t recognize these abilities and strengths.

Self-worth. This is the other aspect of self-esteem, and it’s a biggie. Self-worth refers to the belief that you are basically good and have a right to exist. In short, it is self- approval. Pretty important, don’t you think? Self-worth represents a fundamental belief that you are either “okay” or “not okay.”

Interestingly, it’s possible to have efficacy (that is, to feel competent) in a number of skills yet still experience low self-worth. Can you relate to this? I’m sure that each one of us can think of people we know who are intelligent, attractive, and talented, yet they hold deeply ingrained negative beliefs about themselves despite their obvious competence. Who know? This may even describe you.

But there’s hope. There are ways to boost your sense of efficacy as well as increase feelings of self-worth. I’ll talk about those methods in future posts, and I encourage you to try them as ways of enhancing your self-esteem – a critical part of multidimensional wellness.


Young, M. E. (2013). Learning the art of helping: Building blocks and techniques (5th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson.

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