S elf-esteem is a sense of confidence in your own worth or abilities. Healthy self-esteem is the wonderful feeling that comes from having a positive assessment of yourself. “Since I was little,” Tova recalls, “I felt a sense of comfort in my own skin… a kind of self-respect. It has taken me really far.”

As Tova’s comment implies, self-esteem begins to form early in one’s life and is reflected in one’s behavior. The more robust (strong and powerful) it is, the more self-assured, independent, and motivated one can be. People with high self-esteem have been known to tolerate frustration better (after all, they believe they’ll likely be successful in the long run), and often “overflow” and use their confidence and positivity to help others.

Conversely, people with low self-esteem typically avoid challenges (sadly assuming they’ll likely fail), blame others, put themselves down, and are easy to influence and sway. With so much to be gained (or lost), the importance of growing a healthy self-esteem is very clear. It is a sensitive quality that can be cultivated and then blossom, or, sadly, be disturbed and get destroyed. How is positive self-esteem obtained, and what can we gain from it in our own lives?

Sources of Self-Esteem

There are two approaches to building up one’s self-esteem that are quite interesting. One is called top-down, and the other, bottom-up.

Top-down refers to the feelings created by what others say about you (and how they relate to you). Like a watering can pouring refreshing water on a delicate tulip, nurturing compliments sprinkled on an individual will cultivate good feelings about oneself. With enough repetition, the compliment trickles down and sticks to you, and you identify with it.

Three-year-old Yoni has been told again and again that he is a “mini tzaddik.” He smiles when he hears himself called “Yoni Hatzaddik,” and responds, “Yeah, and I make Hashem proud!”

According to this idea, self-esteem develops early in life in response to others’ actions, and influences future self-evaluations (how you see yourself).

The second approach is bottom-up. Based on your direct experiences (and your thoughts about them), you come to know yourself as a certain kind of person. From the ground (your own actions) you build up a view of yourself. When you then self-evaluate, you look at those experiences and use them as proof of how worthwhile you are.

Ashira has always been a natural organizer. Even in playgroup she helped the Morah sort the toys and put them away in their correct boxes. As a first grader, she set the Shabbos table with perfect symmetry. Now in seventh grade, her aunt asks for volunteers to help decorate their succah. Knowing all she does about herself, Ashira happily blurts out, “Pick me! I’m organized! I know how to do stuff well.”

We sometimes call this type of self-esteem evidence-based, because it is built on evidence and proof from real things that have occurred. Ashira herself, as the example shows, has looked at her life, and has the evidence to prove she is a valuable person. In short, nothing quite builds self-esteem like genuine accomplishments.

So, which is stronger? Is it better that self-esteem be built from top-down, or from bottom-up? Which is more enduring?

As you might imagine, the top-down approach is impactful. Getting compliments can be a powerful motivator. However, it comes with a risk. Being dependent on others’ opinions for one’s self-worth puts one in a weak position, always in need of someone else for reassurance. In contrast, the bottom-up approach allows a person to know from an authentic place deep inside that he or she is valuable. Even in the loneliness of an unfamiliar or unfriendly environment, one can feel self-assured. (Excerpted from Teen Pages, Issue 680)