Self-esteem vs self-belief

Believe it or not, cultivating a "positive mental attitude" could be bad for your confidence

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Do you know the difference between self-belief and self-esteem? The answer, as I discovered on a Be You Empowerment Day (find out more about that here), is authenticity.

Think about it this way. Self-belief says, “You can do anything!” It’s a blanket approach, all about positive mental attitude and mind over matter. Which sounds great in principle, but it’s likely to knock your confidence if you’re not careful.

Just look at those poor folk on X-factor who can’t sing. They really seem shocked when Simon Cowell presses his buzzer and gives them a dose of reality. And their families are always outraged too, determined that the amount of passion or effort their son / cousin / aunt has put into their number is somehow enough to guarantee a chart topping hit.

The sad reality is that not everyone has the voice to make it as a singer, no matter how much they believe in themselves. And unless they understand that, the expectation gap is going to make them very unhappy.

Wouldn’t it be so much better if they understood what their genuine strengths were and pursued goals that had a decent chance of being attained? Adding authenticity to self-belief makes it less pie-in-the-sky and more achievable, and therefore more likely to improve our confidence. Our self-esteem can’t be based on someone we’re trying to be - it has to be based on who we are.

That’s why self-awareness is so important; there’s no hope of us loving and accepting ourselves if we don’t know who we are in the first place. And that, in turn, is why I’m so pleased to be a Psychologies Empowerment Champion, working on the Be You campaign with Packtypes. Using Packtypes is a fun, simple and effective way of gaining insight into how you operate in various roles, such as at work or in relationships, and it opens up all sorts of interesting conversations once you start using them with other people.

Incidentally, if it sounds like I’m against people having big dreams, I’m not. Self-awareness isn’t limiting; it’s not about ditching your quest for greatness and sticking within your comfort zone. Quite the opposite, in fact - self-esteem is empowering. Because when you know what you’re working with, you can play to your strengths and succeed in the areas you were meant to succeed, probably far beyond your wildest ambitions.

And, as your confidence grows, you can begin to challenge yourself to take small steps to improve in those areas where you’re less strong - not in order to be the best, but to be the best version of yourself.

Where self-belief says, “I can be anything and anyone I want to be”, self-esteem says, “This is who I am, and I’m ok with that.” I know which one feels more attractive to me.



Journalist and Psychologies 'Empowerment Champion', working with Packtypes as a pioneer on the Be You project


Go to the profile of Marty Drury
Marty Drury over 6 years ago

Well done on the piece. X factor is less about singing and more about looks and money but I get your point. I tend to practice self compassion rather than self esteem which I see (and so do many others) to be about comparing yourself to others. Self esteem can be scout judging yourself against others going through the same or similar struggles. I have no desire to put anyone else down. As a therapist, I'm out numbered by the positivity, anyone can achieve anything, negative thinking is a habit you can correct lobby. I'm more about helping people accept and process stuff and live their values.

Go to the profile of Cath Janes
Cath Janes over 6 years ago

This has really made me think about my own approach to my goals. I've always been very driven and whatever hobby I take up I push it as far as I possibly can. So when I learned to swim at the age of 30 I immediately started training and competing. When I took up running I immediately wanted to try ultra-marathons. The list goes on. During all of these time I had staggering amounts of self belief but this belief didn't exactly match my skills as a runner or swimmer. The result? I would disappoint myself by not really being able to swim the channel or catch up with Paula Radcliffe and then I would give up (because unless I am good at something I don't want to do it). So there is a lot to be said not for giving up but for understanding what you are genuinely capable of and achieving it. I'm learning that. Slowly. Although, of course, I want to learn it brilliantly and better than anyone else. Ha!

Go to the profile of Marty Drury
Marty Drury over 6 years ago

The trouble here comes from the question: if something we achieve or can achieve is only stuff we can genuinely be capable of achieving, where does challenge come into it? Will we feel challenged enough and like we've achieved something if we already kinda new we probably could achieve it. My sister has always taken a moment to be proud of herself for her achievements whatever they happen to be. I think that makes a huge difference. Especially when compared to her brother (me). My approach was often: "yes, but is what I've achieved enough?" I don't like stopping but I am mindful I may be chasing my own tail here (consistently looking for feelings of being enough that cannot actually come from external things) and that I may be making trying to achieve something rather pointless as I won't enjoy it when I have it.

I cannot abide the positive thinking crew. The Tony Robbins type seminars where you get people pumped up motivation wise in the room but then they go outside and try and interact with the real world and don't get the results they were hoping for. Courage in the face of fear and danger always has my respect. That sense of not knowing but giving things a go anyway. Of sometimes not believing but trying just in case. That's how we built things. That was where discoveries came from.

We're designed to make mistakes yet told off when we do. Fear and negative thinking are discouraged despite being natural things in life. I don't really respect over indulged self belief (have you seen Only Way is Essex and Made In Chelsea?) but I would respect kindness and compassion in the face of fear, leading even though you're terrified and trying your best whether you succeed or fail. We have an aversion to failure in this society. But it is blind optimism and arrogance that created the recession around the world.

Failure is a part of life. Inventors and famous people the world over failed at least once and we will fail to stay alive forever. We will fail not to be hurt and that's kinda the point. We will fail not to miss loved ones. We will fail in the smallest and the biggest things and it is the person who becomes humble in response to that and tries even though they are afraid that stands well above the person who just thinks they are amazing.

Go to the profile of Tracey McEachran
Tracey McEachran over 6 years ago

'To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment' Ralph Waldo Emerson. Great quote, but obviously you need to know yourself before you can be yourself. The comment above around knowing what you are good at and pursuing that be not not being challenging, sometime the challenge is to give yourself recognition for the things you are good at instead of beating ourselves up.

I think the more people can value themselves and their own strengths the more others will respond and recognise there is real value in finding happiness as oppose to wealth and stardom. We shout more about how well people have done in terms of money and power rather than real happiness, but I guest that comes with age:-(

So let's talk about self esteem because that is set in reality, celebrate your happy days and share the little things, and be kind to yourself, listen to your inner voice, in a quest to always Be You!


Go to the profile of Rin
Rin over 6 years ago

Thanks for all your comments, it's so interesting hearing your thoughts! I definitely think challenging yourself is great - and that will look different for everyone. Personally, I try to challenge myself to be the best version of me in terms of characteristics such as patience, kindness, compassion etc rather than more tangible things like running (haha, never going to happen!) or even work or hobbies. In fact, like Cath, I have to work hard NOT to challenge myself too hard in those areas because I'm a bit of an achievement junkie and can end up pushing myself too hard.

Go to the profile of Janice Taylor
Janice Taylor over 6 years ago

An interesting distinction and I like the last line in particular, 'Where self-belief says, “I can be anything and anyone I want to be”, self-esteem says, “This is who I am, and I’m ok with that.” I know which one feels more attractive to me'.

Go to the profile of Will Murray
Will Murray over 6 years ago

Hi Rin, I am really glad you liked our self esteem message and benefitted from the Empowerment Day we ran at the Packtypes Empowerment Centre. It is amazing how positively people respond to understanding the critical difference between belief and esteem. Such a simple but powerful difference. Since I have been talking to school, NHS and Police audiences about self esteem versus self belief it has had real impact and led to tangible changes in attitude and behaviour. Interestingly less than 5% of my audiences can articulate the difference between self esteem and self belief at the start of my sessions. Anyway glad we were able to help and the more we all spread the word about the power of self awareness and the ability of Packtypes to profoundly increase self awareness and develop positive self esteem the better. Best wishes, Will

Go to the profile of Marty Drury
Marty Drury over 6 years ago

Self awareness is a bit of an odd concept. You change your molecules every seven years. Less than conscious processes go on all the time that we are unaware of and we have the ability to surprise ourselves. Self awareness is pretty darn difficult. You don't know who you are. You have a concept of who you are informed by your beliefs, stuff parents and teachers have said to you, what you think you look like in the mirror. Heck, even that is an interpretation your brain makes and is influenced also by mood. Who we are changes and is not always something we are aware of. To continually judge ourselves and what we can achieve based on our own self concept isn't send awareness. It's selling ourselves short. Add to that that self esteem is basically comparing yourself to other people. Which is bizarre because we don't know them either. We just think we do. To be fully challenged in life is to go beyond what you think you can accomplish not to stay within the boundaries of who you think you are or what you think you might be reasonably capable of. Being blindly positive us dangerous. Staying within what you think you are and can do is also dangerous. You learn things outside your map of who you think you are.

Go to the profile of Rin
Rin over 6 years ago

Thanks for your comment, Will - and for a fantastic training day!

Marty, my feeling is that self-awareness is a journey rather than a destination (sorry to use such a cliche!), and that each insight is a snapshot we can use to build a clearer and clearer picture. I don't think it's about comparing ourselves to others, but there is a level of contextualisation that comes from the fact that we are not solitary beings - and I don't think that's a bad thing. Your point about not staying within our boundaries is an interesting and valid one, and something Will addressed in his talk. I think the idea is that we do need to challenge ourselves, but we need to do so from a solid foundation of good self-esteem that is based on knowing ourselves and our capabilities. From that point, we can stretch ourselves and grow into areas where we may not necessarily excel (or where we feel that we won't excel - I agree we often surprise ourselves!).

Go to the profile of Prince Josh
Prince Josh about 4 years ago

I really love the post. Well done