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Let’s Stop Preaching Self-Esteem–We Need Something Else

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Instead, we need to be teaching self-efficacy.


January 30, 2022


Self-esteem relies on external approval.

I hear, “You look great today!” and my self-esteem soars. But tomorrow, when I hear, “Hmm, “You cut your hair,” with no ‘it looks great’ follow through, my self-esteem plummets. “Oh no, it must look awful. I must look awful.”

Hit a home run and the cheers and accolades are intoxicating! Strike out and not only have we disappointed the vast audience that loved us yesterday but is booing us today, we also believe we suck.

How is it we take credit when somebody likes our blouse? It has nothing to do with us, yet we crave that approval.

What is it about others’ approval that makes us lose ourselves and beg for scraps of reassurance from people who really don’t give a rat’s a** about us? They’re just showing us who they are.

Anthony DeMello, Jesuit priest, writer, teacher, and mentor, in his book Awareness, said that it’s better to acknowledge the reality that I’m an ass, and you’re an ass, than to pretend that we’re all okay just as we are.

We’re neither not okay, nor okay. We’re just us.

If everyone loves us right now for who we are it’s simply because we fit some current trend, not because it means we’re okay.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think DeMello meant to shame us for the silly stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. He wanted us to wake up to the fact that we must stop depending on the approval of other people who have no more idea of how to live well than we do.

If they did, if we’re all so okay, how come we have wars, divorces, substance abuse, human trafficking, raging depression and anxiety, and a planet burning and melting in front of our eyes? DeMello thinks it’s because most people go from birth to death asleep. He implores us to wake up, so that we can walk to the tune of a different drummer.

This is where I believe teaching self-efficacy comes in. As Victor Frankl said, “Everything can be taken from me but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Here’s the thing. We’ve been taught that other people’s opinions about us matter more than our own.

Well, I beg to differ.

Self-esteem represents a false sense of confidence.

Self-efficacy, unlike self-esteem, is an inside job.

A sense of self-efficacy is a belief in ourselves and our own ability to accomplish something. Regardless of what others think.

Shunryu Suzuki, one of the most important Buddhist teachers of our time, said, “We are all perfect; and we can all use a little improvement.”

That’s what we need to be teaching. That we’re not perfect. We never will be. And we need to stop looking to others to make us feel worthy. We need to wake up and do the work to create a strong sense of who we are and what we’re capable of.

One of my favorite Alain DeBotton stories encourages us to change our first date approach. Instead of asking banal ‘what’s your favorite whatever’ questions, we should lay our cards on the table: “Here are all the ways I’m crazy. And I’m working on improving in these areas. What are your crazies?” We’d save ourselves a lot of time and anguish if we just acknowledged that I’m an ass, and you’re an ass, and we’ve got some work to do to arrive at a place where we are adding to the world, rather than waiting for the world to tell us we’re okay.

I know banning books is anathema to anyone who loves them like we do. But I swear people, if I see one more book teaching children to raise their self-esteem, I’m going to lose it.

Please, no more self-esteem articles, books, classes!

We need to help our children shift their focus of attention from impressing others to impressing themselves.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that we teach our children to be independent egomaniacs. We all need help. Most of us want to feel like we are a part of something bigger than ourselves.

am suggesting that first and foremost, children and adults, we need to figure out that we’re more capable than we ever imagined, before we twist ourselves into pretzels to please everyone else.

Self-efficacy and confidence are not the same.

Self-efficacy is not the same as confidence, but they work together.

Confidence is about the strength of your conviction or belief in something. It’s neither positive nor negative. You can have confidence that you will succeed or have just as much confidence that you will fail.

When you have developed a sense of self-efficacy, you know that you can take care of yourself, and you don’t need to depend on others to convince you you’re worthy. When you are confident that you can accomplish something, you are better able to stand on your own two feet and manage yourself in healthy ways.

Self-efficacy is the personal awareness that you can figure things out. That you can achieve a goal through perseverance, resilience, and discipline.

We develop self-efficacy by building a history of falling, getting up and trying again until we achieve a particular goal, and then we do it again over and over. We learn through experience that failure is a teacher if we’re open to learning from it rather than lamenting or grieving it.

We learn we can stay the course through obstacles and barriers that always accompany difficult undertakings.

It becomes clear that others’ approval of us has little or nothing to do with us. Other than to indicate they agree with us, or they happen to be in a good mood that day. Likewise, their disapproval has little to do with us, and lots to tell us about them.

We’ll always be human.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m as susceptible to flattery as anybody else. But I am awake to the reality that my response of exhilaration is smoke and mirrors. When the crash comes, which it inevitably does, I’m less susceptible to falling into a state of depression or anxiety. Or at least, I don’t stay there as long as I used to.

I hope you’ll see this as a wake-up call to pay attention to what feels true and right to you, rather than how well you fit in with the norm. Not to hold the norm in contempt — contempt never satisfies for long — but to find your own voice and place in the world. A voice that has never been nor will ever be again. The world needs you.

I’d love to hear if this idea had an impact on you and how you might apply it in your life.

Much love,


  1. Ryan says:

    Loved the article. It makes so much sense and in the end, you don’t have to be this or that, you just have to be. That is enough. Awesome idea!

  2. Ed Gorman says:

    Good afternoon ! Have read this blog numerous times and found inspiration in it . The lines about peoples opinions of me have less to do with me and more to do with where their head is at that particular time . The thought you developed around self-efficacy was helpful to me in recognizing that it is the process in failing and picking myself up and trying again and again until and after I master whatever item has been eluding me . It is easy to say forget it and pretend it does not matter , when in fact it is always in the back of my mind in a negative way .
    Thank-you for your blog this week ! Ed

    • Robyn says:

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments Ed. Yes, I think the idea of failing as part of the process, rather than an end, is so helpful. Being resilient and persistent seem like two characteristics that really serve us well!

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