The Psychology of Self Esteem

By Robert Holmes | coaching

Feb 25

Perhaps you know someone who is self sabotaging… experiencing a glass ceiling. Maybe you’ve tried a coaching approach and it hasn’t worked… your client appears to be stuck, or depressed and will not budge. You’re probably dealing with self esteem. As their coach, you might need to develop techniques and strategies for assisting them. Self esteem is one of those human fundamentals. Altering self esteem can affect so many other areas of human behaviour, helping a client rise above circumstances they might otherwise see as impossible. Strong, or revived self esteem raises the water level, lifting the stranded boat off the rocky passage and bearing it forward.

There are many definitions of self worth, and in the public mind concepts of self worth, self respect and self esteem are fused. Let’s clear that up first.

Self worth: A baby has worth because it is alive, it breathes, it has intrinsic value.

Self respect: a sense of self based on whether you are living according to your values, living up to your standards or achieving your goals in life. You are a good person if you do well, and people applaud your accomplishments. You are a bad person if you do poorly and people do not applaud your accomplishments.

Self esteem: the experience that you are appropriate to life and to the requirements of life: confidence in your ability to think; confidence in your ability to cope with the challenges of life; and assertion that you have the right to be happy. (1)

Here’s how self esteem works:

According to psychologist Nathaniel Branden, the father of self esteem psychology, whenever we face up to what is in front of us in the form of problems, questions, issues, conflict, opportunities, and challenges and step up and do what is appropriate, then we teach ourselves that we have what it takes to deal with whatever life presents to us. This builds a core belief inside us that we are enough leads to healthy self-esteem

Whenever we avoid our reality through procrastination, laziness, distraction, game playing, dishonesty, running away, blame and excuse we inevitably experience shame, guilt and anxiety. Whenever we hide from what is in front of us, we teach ourselves that we don’t have what it takes to deal with the challenges of life. This builds a core belief that we are not enough and therefore erodes our self-esteem.

Face it or flee from it – that’s the core of self esteem

A basic model of self esteem (2)

Those who face their reality develop a strong and healthy sense of self esteem. This is the top, green triangle. Then there are two forms of avoidance. Those who avoid their reality by fleeing it develop a low sense of self esteem. This is the pink triangle to the bottom left. Those who avoid their reality by fighting it, redefining it develop a false high sense of self esteem, which is equally maladaptive. This is the bottom right triangle.

1. The person with healthy self esteem

Firstly, consider the person who, over the course of their life, has consistently faced reality. Their instinct has been honed decision by decision to believe that they face the truth, trust their own judgment, they can control their outcomes and grow from failure. Their undergirding state is therefore one of confidence, security and peaceful acceptance, come what may. Their self talk is based on their life experience – they are capable, “I can do this, I can figure this out, let’s have a go at it.” They set realistic goal that are challenging and motivating but not preposterous or too small. Their life strategies are to face up to whatever comes, be proactive about things, believe in possibility, work hard, learn, be assertive, ask great questions and gladly receive feedback.

Coaching someone with good self esteem

Let’s bring this home with some coaching strategies. You can help a person leverage off their healthy self esteem in at least four ways:

1. Build resilience. The client should continue to internally reference their worth, instead of the opinions of others.

2. Trust their instinct. They should learn to go with their gut feeling which will give them certainty about their instinct.

3. Teach them how to listen to self talk and integrate self learning.

4. Set higher and more difficult goals. Get them dreaming again. I use a technique I read from Tim Ferriss called dream-lining: they can imagine having all the money they need, all the time required and they can’t fail. Under those conditions… have them list 5 things they want to be, 5 things they want to do and 5 things they want to have.

2. Someone with low self esteem

Now let us consider the person who, over the course of their life, has consistently avoided their reality by fleeing it. They have what psychologists call low self esteem. Their instinct has been honed by repeated decisions to flee, run away, expect failure, give up before trying. They have consistently undermined their sense of self. Their undergirding state is therefore one of fear, insecurity, doubt, inferiority, inadequacy, shame, guilt and defeat. Their self talk, based on their life experience, is one of not being good enough, not having enough, saying to themselves, “I don’t measure up”. They set small, easily achievable, unproductive and uncompelling goals. Their life strategies are to hide from reality, avoid crushing feedback, procrastinate, isolate, flee and feeling overwhelmed.

Coaching someone with low self esteem

There are at least four things we can do to coach a person like this:

1. Cultivate honest self acceptance. Help your client to face the facts – the square up to reality – to be honest. A great coach will assist the client to examine the defining moments and limiting beliefs that are holding them back. Your client needs to change the meaning of key events and conversations to be more helpful and develop a range of empowering beliefs that will help them get more of what they are looking for – i.e. self love and acceptance.

2. Practice showing up to your story. I once heard an attorney in Texas observe that, “90% of the time the case is lost because the client never shows up to the court.” Sometimes that’s physical, but mostly they sit there saying, “This isn’t fair,” or, “Why is this happening to me,” instead of facing the reality – they’re being sued! They play the victim instead of showing up for a fight.

3. Develop a track record with themselves. They are enough for the circumstances of life. I often use the “Circle of control, circle of concern” from Steven Coveys’ “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”. Bring the client’s approach back to things they can control.

4. Work on strategies to assist them to deal with what’s in front of them. Some examples include keeping a diary of how they feel, working on their self talk and using positive affirmations.

3. Someone with a false high sense of self esteem

Finally, let us consider the person who, over the course of their life, has consistently avoided their reality by responding with denial. This person has an over engineered sense of self – a false high. Their instinct has been honed by repeated decisions to fight, protect themselves, be right, expect the best for themselves even when they do not deserve it. Their undergirding state is one of entitlement, arrogance, pride, over confidence, superiority, defensiveness, aggression and denial of reality. Their self talk, based on their life experience is, “I am better than them, they can’t tell me what to do, they can’t treat me like that, I deserve better.” They set unrealistic goals, unachievable, irresponsible and damaging. Their life strategies are to fight reality, redefining it, reacting against things, anger, blame, obfuscation, denial and ignoring other people’s feedback.

Recall the Tiger Woods during his from grace after his affairs were revealed. He exhibited what is termed “entitlement”. Tiger believed that the rules didn’t apply to him – that he was better than everyone else. This is a form of self deception.

An entitled person, someone with a falsely high sense of self esteem, they exhibit what the Japanese call Kotei-no meaning “stuck, set in your ways.” They always want to look smart, they are the standard, they are the best. As their coach you can:

Coaching someone with a false high self esteem

There are at least four things you can do to coach a person with a false high sense of self esteem.

1. Help them adopt a growth mindset. Help the client to change their internal rules, and become more flexible in their thinking. This is what the Japanese call Kyosei, or “ongoing, continuous improvement.”

2. Hold them accountable to change. This will usually mean creating a means of accountability, and it may also mean confrontation. In Tiger’s case it required public humiliation.

3. Coach your client to move from anger (the fight response) to assertiveness (the face it response).

4. People with an overblown sense of self esteem are almost always right fighters. It may be helpful to use Karpmann’s relationship drama triangle as a conversation piece.

To summarise

Self worth means you are valuable because you are alive

Self respect is based on what you have achieved: whether are living according to your values, living up to your standards or achieving your goals in life.

Self esteem is the experience that we are appropriate to life and to the requirements of life.

Because self esteem is essentially built by how we deal with reality, it creates three variants:

  • healthy (you face reality),
  • low (you flee reality), and
  • false high (you fight reality).

Great questions to reflect on

If you were to be totally honest about your life and stop pretending that everything is OK, what is your reality right now?

What are you teaching your children? Do you want your children to feel good about themselves or not?

Are you willing to face up to your reality, or are you going to hide, pretend or run away?


1) Nathaniel Branden, “What is Self Esteem?” Paper, International Conference on Self-Esteem (1st, Oslo, Norway, August 9, 1990).

2) Nathaniel Branden, “The Psychology of Self Esteem,” Jossey-Bass, 2001, chapters 4 & 5. Adapted by Robert Holmes. Branden actually starts with the concept of reality, and works his way up, using psycho epistemology to explain the apprehension of facts – either in an unobstructed and objective view of reality or an obstructed and subjective view. One leads to a clear and true connection, the other to an unclear and untrue connection. He then builds up from there to a rational and irrational foundation for self esteem.


  • Dr. Michael Edelstein. “Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy.” Wise Counsel Podcast. Episode 99.
  • Jaemin Frazer. “Coach Training Manual” Session 7- self love
  • Matt M Starcevich, “Breaking the Entitlement Cycle”

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About the Author

Robert is an expert in the science of human behaviour and performance enhancement with a passion for neurology, leadership and the psychology of potential. He believes it is important to bring hard science to coaching, and that coaching practices be evidence based and research backed. Robert is a founding partner at Frazer, Holmes Coaching and current Director of Brand and Marketing for the International Coach Federation Australasia (ICFA). Robert is a professionally certified coach (PCC) with over 20 years of business experience and an ICF Accredited Mentor Coach. He is an Associate at the National Speaker's Association, a member of the Coaching Psychology interest group at the APS, a certified Action Learning Coach, a Member of the Australian Institute of Management Consultants.