- Self-confidence is about how well you can control certain aspects of your life.
- Self-esteem is about self-love and how you value yourself.
- Increasing your self-confidence is pretty clear-cut, but improving your self-esteem can be quite complicated.
When I tell people I’m introverted, they don’t believe me. They’ve seen me comfortably giving speeches to hundreds or thousands of people at a time, or they’ve seen me as the frontman leading large groups of people and organizations. They’ve seen my visible self-confidence; what they can’t see is my invisible self-esteem.
For a long time I thought that self-confidence and self-esteem were the same thing, but they’re not; they’re radically different. I think that self-confidence is about how well you can control certain aspects of your life. Self-esteem is about self-love and how you value yourself.
Confidence comes from the Latin word fidere which means to trust; in other words, self-confidence means we trust our knowledge, skills, and abilities. Esteem comes from the Latin word aestimare, which means to appraise, value, rate, weigh, or estimate; in other words, self-esteem is how we appraise or value our self-worth.
When I came to understand the difference between the two, I feel that it wasn’t a lack of confidence that made me want to avoid social settings; it was low self-esteem. I wondered how I got that way, so I started mentally backtracking through my life.
Discovering the Roots of My Self-Esteem
I recalled how I didn’t know how to make friends on my own. In my post Craving Connection, I wrote about Gary, who became my first best friend back in third grade: how he initiated first contact, started the first conversation, continued making contact, then suggested a transition activity that moved our relationship to the next level: friendship. Gary had social skills and courage that I did not have. It wouldn't be until adulthood that I learned the simple lessons Gary knew as a young boy.
Thinking further back, I remembered that as a young child all my friends were friendships arranged by my parents and usually with the children of their friends. There were also friends by proximity—neighbors with children my age and gender—again initially arranged by my parents. I enjoyed playing with the twin boys who lived next door, and with the little girl who lived across the street. We were all the same age, but every now and then one or more of the older kids on the block would join us, and I would get bullied.
My first four years in elementary school I was regularly bullied by older kids. I was even bullied at church by older kids. It seemed that wherever I went, I was bullied. It was as if I was walking around with a “kick me” sign taped to my back. Of course I was wearing a sign, only it was the expression of low self-esteem on my face. Bullies could see it a mile away, and I had no idea how to stop it.
Becoming Invisible Seemed to Be the Safest Tactic
So I isolated myself. It was safer to stay home and play in my yard or in my bedroom with my toy soldiers, cars, Lincoln Logs, plastic models and glue. I also read. Once I discovered novels, I lived vicariously through the characters and never needed to go anywhere. The worlds of my books were exciting and interesting and less threatening than what I might encounter in my neighborhood. I would stay in my room and read until my mother called me for dinner.
Why did I have low self-esteem? Why was I bullied so often? Because I was bullied first by my mother.
I Was Raised in an Unstable Home
Mother was narcissistic, and likely an alcoholic. Her behavior was volatile, erratic, and completely unpredictable to my child brain. Several of my friends told me (years later when we were adults) that when they came over to my house, they were always nervous as to who they would encounter: the “Nice Mrs. Wilson” or the “Scary Mrs. Wilson.”
She was very emotional and would easily get her feelings hurt. She would frequently start crying abruptly and say, “Nobody loves me!” which was my sister’s and my cue to rush over and assure her that we loved her. She was a perfectionist, who was easy to anger. As a child I could not understand the cliche “don’t cry over spilt milk” because my mother regularly punished me until I cried for spilling milk on her clean kitchen floor.
She was manipulative, and when she didn’t get her way, she made everyone around her miserable until she did. My father, who should have been protecting my sister and me from my mother’s wrath, was too busy trying to satisfy her needs to be aware of ours. Mother was not nurturing, and taking care of children (or anyone else) stressed her out; once my sister and I were old enough to fend for ourselves, and the pressure of parenting was gone, Mother became much more pleasant to be around.
In brief, I had low self-esteem because I grew up in an unstable home. I feared my mother, and often my father too because he always backed her up. That’s why I stayed in my room, or outside in the yard, until dinnertime because that was where I felt safest.
Loving, caring parents nurture and encourage self-esteem in their children. They support and praise their children as they grow and learn. They raise them to believe that the world is a good place—a safe place. When those children become adults, they will intuitively create a support group with people just like their parents who will help them preserve the positive environment they know best, and to maintain their high self-esteem. When I became an adult, I envied people who grew up in a stable loving home environment. I could see the difference it made in their lives, and how much easier success came to them.
I’m Learning How to Increase My Self-Esteem
Increasing your self-confidence is pretty clear-cut, but improving your self-esteem can be quite complicated. If you want to be more self-confident, work on developing an expertise in some area. When you can speak with authority on a subject, or perform a skill with equanimity, self-confidence will follow. If you want to increase your self-esteem—and it’s never too late—it will be more challenging, and may require assistance from a mental health professional.
I’m now learning how to re-parent my inner child, so that I can heal the wounds that have limited me in nearly every area of my life. I’m recalling the times when my mother hurt me or scared me, then I’m revisiting those memories as an adult who will love, protect, and properly parent my vulnerable child-self in those moments.
In the meantime, I’m also learning to stop comparing myself to others—that I don’t need to be perfect or know everything—it’s OK to make mistakes; that I don't need approval from others—it’s okay to put away my personas—and be my authentic self. And, I’m learning to be resilient and more accepting of uncertainty and change. It’s a difficult journey, but I highly recommend it.