Self-esteem is the cornerstone of health and of the behaviors that promote it. During the latency years, a child enters a new and crucial proving ground for self-esteem: the world outside her family. Some children, based on both temperament and early experiences, seem to race toward these new challenges with arms wide open. Others hang back and need a Mother Bear at their side who knows when to push and when to protect.
Parents and teachers talk a great deal about self-esteem, but they don’t always agree on what it means. My definition is simple: Self-esteem is the amount of respect and positive regard an individual has for herself. It starts with the healthy bonding circuits laid down during early childhood. If the young girl has basked in her mother’s loving attention, and if the connections between her orbitofrontal brain and her body are well established, it will be much easier for her to feel within herself what is right for her, and to know how to go after it. She will also have empathy for others. Self-esteem without empathy equals self-centeredness or narcissism.
Self-esteem is not based on a zero-sum model, the belief that there is only so much to go around, so that if your self-esteem is high, someone else’s has to be low. Your self-esteem does not detract from mine, and I cannot raise my self-esteem by denigrating you. (At best, we enhance one another!) Self-esteem is multifaceted, not uniform. A girl (or an adult woman) can have high self-esteem in some areas and relatively low levels in others. For example, a girl may be a highly skilled athlete but have difficulty in one-on-one relationships. As a result, her self-esteem will be great on the playing field but her long-term emotional or even physical health may suffer later in life because of her relationship Achilles’ heel. Similarly, a woman may have very high self-esteem in relationships but low self-esteem in areas concerning self-sufficiency. If she has never finished her education, has no in-depth intellectual interests, or has never learned how to earn or handle money, she is at risk for being overly dependent on others to take care of her.
Knowing that we are loved and respected by others is an essential ingredient in self-esteem, but ultimately self-esteem is an inside job. "Looking good" and putting a high polish on your self-presentation does not equal self-esteem. All the feel-good messages in the world can’t give a child self-esteem if she does not experience herself as effective, competent, and true to herself. (The "do it myself" insistence of the toddler is a claim on self-esteem as well as on independence.) It’s important that school-age girls be encouraged to develop areas of expertise and mastery that are recognized by the world beyond their immediate families. This sets up a positive self-esteem cycle. Each time she learns she can rely on herself, or relate effectively to others, or reach a personal goal, the more confidence she has for the next step in her development. And if she suffers a setback, the faster she is likely to recover and get moving forward again.
To capture the multifaceted nature of self-esteem, I’ve divided it into seven different areas. Of course, as you’ll see, they intertwine in real life.
The Seven Areas of Self-Esteem: