Mel Schwartz, LCSW

#118 Self-Esteem Isn’t What You Think It Is

Episode 118 of The Possibility Podcast with Mel Schwartz features another nugget of uncommon sense: self-esteem is not what you think!

Listen to understand why what we think of as self-esteem is actually focused not on what we think of ourselves, but rather what others think of us.

In the episode, I explain the possible roots of this very common worldview, and help you adjust your thinking so that you can thrive in your life and in your relationships.

Once you’ve listened, let me know what you think! Be sure to leave a comment!

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Transcript of The Possibility Podcast with Mel Schwartz #118

Hello everybody and welcome to The Possibility Podcast. I’m your host, Mel Schwartz. I practice psychotherapy, marriage counseling, and I am the author of the book, The Possibility Principle, the companion to this podcast. I hope to be your thought provocateur and I’ll be introducing you to new ways of thinking and a new game plan for life.

Hello everyone. I’m going to be presenting another principle from Uncommon Sense and that principle is self-esteem is not what you may think it is.

Low self-worth is horribly common and it’s tragic. It impinges on our quality of life. So many people struggle with low self-esteem, arguably by my measure, probably more than half of the population. And the struggle with low self-worth is due to that wrong-minded common sense beliefs, which ironically result in low self-esteem and then indenture us as we become servants to our fears about what we think other people think of us.

Nothing is going to impact your life more than your relationship with yourself, your beliefs about yourself and your thoughts about yourself. This is the filter through which you experience virtually everything. Your life, your experiences, your relationships all come through the filter of your self-worth. What could be more critical in how you experience your life than how you feel about yourself? A society comprised of individuals with authentic self-worth, and wouldn’t that be a great place to live? It doesn’t have to be a utopian thought.

To achieve this goal, we have to examine true sources of genuine self-worth and cast off the damaging beliefs that we cling to and adhere to that result in shattering our self-worth. In other words, our beliefs about how to navigate worth, about how to navigate self-worth and our concerns about what others may think of us, that’s the problem.

So what do I mean by the term self-esteem? Simply put, it speaks very subjectively to how you feel about yourself, what you think of yourself. But what are the sources that inform how you value yourself?

We can easily appreciate our self-worth was powerfully shaped by our childhood, our parents, their relationship with each other, and the messages that we receive from them. You know, as a child, if you were told, think before you speak, well, there’s a wave collapse for you, that would impact your self-worth. As children, our parents were clearly the primary mirror from which we learned to see ourselves and how to see ourselves. So our first realization might be our initial sense of self-worth came ironically not from ourself but from others. Of course, we had no other choice and we were at the mercy of our parents’ influence on us.

But as we grow older and become more autonomous, as we progress through childhood to adolescence and young adulthood, this way of how we see ourselves and how we think others see us sets up a betrayal of our own inner well-being.

Let me explain. By the time we go to school, as children, the way we feel about ourselves is no longer only limited to how our parents see us and treat us. It now is informed by other sources. School-aged children’s sense of worth may come from having good grades or being really great athletically or popular or attractive. Now these are all good things, no doubt, but that positive feedback is not derived from yourself. It’s external. That esteem requires achievements or the blessing of being attractive or gifted as an athlete.

But what if you’re an average student with average intelligence and you’re not particularly popular or good-looking and you have tangled feet on the athletic field? Should that dictate that you need to feel poorly about yourself? You see the paradox here around what we call self-esteem? It requires high levels of achievement. Your self-worth in this case doesn’t come from yourself.

So what we call self-esteem, I call other esteem. It comes from outside yourself. As an adult, your self-esteem may be informed by how great your job is, how high is your income, what kind of car do you drive, or how big and expensive is your home, or your relationship success. Again, these achievements are worthy, but they all remain dependent on things external to you. But if you’re a high achiever and on the fast track and you get fired or have a downfall in business, what happens to your self-esteem? Success, compliments, approval, popularity should be seen as the icing on the cake. But when they become the cake unto itself, we have a problem. The cake is hollow. There is no self-worth.

I call this pursuit of feeling good about yourself chasing other esteem. Being approved of or valued or liked by others and succeeding in your aspirations, it’s all great. But we have to be cautious not to betray our own self just to achieve those results. And that’s exactly what so many of us do. Our culture generates countless billions of dollars of revenue from inducing people to seek vanity quick fixes. Social media is all about getting enough likes and follows. All other esteem. Self-esteem should imply that the self-worth, how you feel about yourself, originates from within yourself. But again, that’s often not the case. And the more we pursue other esteem, the more we sabotage our own self-worth.

Why do I say that? Because if we need to be liked or approved of, then we are manipulating ourself, betraying our authentic or genuine self, play acting in a way to get others to see us in a certain way. So our culture as a whole teaches us, it induces us. We learn this so early in life to conceal parts of our genuine self, hide our insecurity, our self-doubts and our vulnerability and mask it from others, which is actually utterly destructive to investing in your own self. So we modify and mold so much of our behavior and our personality to achieve other esteem. This actually causes us to create what I call personality masks. It’s not our genuine self, it’s our pretend self. This leads to a horrific onslaught of low self-worth.

I believe that low self-worth, which curiously is not a diagnosis in the DSM, that low self-worth contributes to anxiety, depression, and is the heart of so much relationship conflict.

I’d love to show you my appreciation for your subscribing to and rating this podcast by offering you a gift to one of the following. The Power of Mind, a live talk that I gave, or one of my digital eBooks, Creating Authentic Self-Esteem, Overcoming Anxiety, or Raising Resilient Children, and lastly, Cultivating Resilient Relationships. Once you have subscribed, please send an email to mel at and just let me know which gift you’d prefer. Thanks.

Let’s look at the concept of judge. People are afraid of other people judging you. So often people have said to me, I wouldn’t say this or say that, I don’t want to be judged. The truth is others can’t judge you. They can have opinions of you. Everyone has an opinion, but to elevate their opinion to the status of a judgment, now that’s ridiculous. The only person who can arbitrarily judge you is the person that resides in the courthouse.

When we solicit approval from other people, we’re actually rejecting our own self and debasing our own self-esteem by seeking it from others. The expression, I’m concerned about what other people think of me is inaccurate because most often you don’t know what they think of you. So what I will say is, it’s what I think you think of me. Do you ever feel overly concerned about what others think of you? Most often you don’t really know. So instead be honest with yourself and say, it’s what I think they think of me.

Well examine why you think that. Sometimes you may not say something that you want to say because of your fears about others’ opinions. This tendency removes you from your authentic self as you pursue approval or at least try to avoid disapproval. This habit lies at the heart of other esteem and betrays your authenticity. If you see yourself doing this, pause and ask yourself, why am I so invested in what I think others think of me? You were probably taught this debasing habit really early in life. Your parents again may have said something like, think before you speak, which really leads you to subordinate yourself. Be afraid of what others think. So isn’t it crazy that what you think someone else may think of you is more important than what you think of yourself?

Can you see the consequences of subordinating yourself in this way? I’m not proposing that you should be indifferent or uncaring about what others think of you. You can be sensitive and caring, but don’t elevate them to this higher position of authority. It’s like being on a seesaw with that other person. You’re going down to the ground and you’re lifting them above you and setting them up as your judge.

There are so many other cultural influences that impact our self-worth. Look at the TV shows around who’s the biggest loser. The living in the culture that demands competing and winning sets up a narrative for marginalizing our self-worth. It’s as if we’re all contestants on a game show, only certainly most of us will lose. The biggest loser is far more than the TV show. It sets up a fear that we must avoid being seen as a loser and therefore we have to succeed in being a winner. So we fake it. You think of the common sense expression, the world is made up of winners and losers. Well, how do you think that impacts us?

Social media quantifies who the winners are. We call them influencers. People want to be the smartest, wealthiest, most attractive. These goals decimate the self-worth 99.99, go on and on, of us who don’t achieve that status. So people feel depressed and burdened with the belief that they’re not enough. And our beliefs become self-fulfilling prophecies. This societal compulsion to achieve, to win, to be popular is antithetical to the core human value of genuine self-worth.

When I work with people who have self-esteem issues, I come across yet another irony. These people who struggle with insecurity and low self-worth often feel like they’re on stage and everyone’s looking at them. Remember, if this applies to you, you’re not the center of attention. It’s your insecurity that’s tricking you to think you’re the center of attention. The other people in your life are not so concerned about who you are. They’re likely focused on their own issues. Free yourself from this fear of judgment that you’re setting up. Again, it’s ironic that you may not feel worthy enough and good enough, but you feel like the center of attention. Just smile to yourself and say, I’m not that important.

Some people identify as I’m a private person. What does that expression really mean? From my experience, this claim to privacy is a cover for low self-worth and suggests a real correlation to other esteem. You see, if you can mask yourself well enough so others don’t really have an opportunity to know you, you feel safe from their opinion of you. This is a retreat into hiding from others and it makes you feel insecure about yourself. You’re projecting your own judgment of self onto them. They aren’t your judge, but if you need to hide yourself from others, you are judging yourself.

The last piece I’m going to share around self-worth is that acting strong is actually weak. Many of us operate from a very damaging common sense belief that we need to act strong and show no weakness. Maybe more true on the margins for men than women, but true for all of us. It’s a terribly wrong-minded theme that contributes to low self-worth. The word acting suggests that you’re hiding something that makes you feel insecure or vulnerable. So if we pretend that your flaw or your insecurity doesn’t exist, you bury it in the hope that someone else may not see it. Now, how do you think that’s going to work out?

Acting strong is the equivalent of armoring yourself in a pretend fashion, like a suit of armor, faking strength. Do you want to clank around through your life wearing a suit of armor? It can get really burdensome. And we’re against setting other people up as our judge. That insecurity remains close when we hide it from exposure. It locks in our insecurity, our sensitivity, or our fear. When you do the opposite and share your vulnerability, two things happen. You’re no longer operating from fear of what others think of you. And once you reveal your self-doubts and insecurities, they lose their grip on you. Bring your fears into the light, bring your shame into the light, and they retreat as your authentic self-esteem emerges.

Think about what your thoughts are telling you. Notice how they are setting other people up as your judge. Pause and think, that’s an old belief that no longer serves me. Free yourself from those limiting beliefs and thoughts.

The dictionary presents two primary definitions for the word vulnerability. The first suggests that by being vulnerable, you’re open to attack or criticism. Well, unless you’re living in a cave, you can assume there’ll be times when you may be verbally or emotionally criticized as part of life. Learning to develop the resilience to navigate those challenging experiences ought to be the goal. That would enable you to feel confident in yourself and how you engage others. By contrast, not allowing yourself to be faulted or criticized means you’re wearing that suit of armor, protecting yourself from being emotionally pierced. That is the essence of fear.

The second definition is that vulnerability is about allowing your weakness and emotions to be seen by others. Our societal common sense message, though, is show no vulnerability. Act strong, armor up. So this messaging really is that you should cover up and protect yourself from criticism. And if you are criticized, show no feelings, act impervious, be strong. So our prevailing life philosophy is hide it, just act strong. Can you appreciate how this approach has ruined us on so many levels?

Vulnerability is a love language and a feeling language. Hiding from vulnerability imprisons us in fear and it cuts off possibilities of growth and well-being. It stunts our growth and it leaves us on the sidelines as the flow of life passes by. This prevailing life philosophy trains us to avoid vulnerability at all costs. And it denies us a core quality of what it is to be human. And it’s rooted in fear. If you hide your feelings and insecurities from others, you’re selling yourself out. This game plan for life cannot work.

The paradox is embracing vulnerability is strong and fearless. It’s an investment in your relationship with yourself and your movement toward authenticity. Duck and hide or reveal. And remember, vulnerability is loving. Acting strong is impervious and doesn’t allow other people really to love you in the way that you probably want to be loved. If you want to be loved, reveal your vulnerability.

Well I hope this provoked some new thinking, considerations for you. Love to hear your comments. Please get in touch with me and let me know. And until next time, be well and I’ll speak to you soon.

Bye for now.

I hope you enjoyed this episode of The Possibility Podcast. I welcome your feedback on this and any episode. Please send me an email at or leave a comment in the show notes for this episode at If you like what you’re hearing, please take a moment to rate and review the show at Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. Your reviews really help boost the visibility for the show, and it’s a great way for you to show your support. Finally, please make sure to subscribe to the Possibility Podcast wherever you listen to podcasts, and that way you’ll never miss an episode. Thanks again, and please remember to always welcome uncertainty into your life and embrace new possibilities.

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