The Difference Between Self-Esteem, Self-Worth, Self-Confidence and Self-Knowledge
I have noticed that there is a great deal of confusion between the four common challenges listed in the title. Sometimes people ask me if they are all the same.
The differences can be subtle and there can be overlap, yes. But they are all indeed different in some very specific ways. Ways that are important to understand as you think about your own view of, and feelings about, yourself.
So let’s start with a little “quiz.” As you read the descriptions below, see if you can identify which person has low self-esteem, which has low self-worth, who has low self-confidence, and who has low self-awareness.
Then read on to see if you identified them correctly, and also to learn much more about each of these common struggles.
Jenny sits on the couch in the lobby waiting to be called for her job interview to begin. On the outside, she appears calm and composed. On the inside, she is desperately trying to manage her anxiety and stop the thoughts that are racing through her head.
What if I say the wrong thing? What if they see right through me? I might blow this. I don’t belong here. Around and around those thoughts go, feeding her anxiety.
Dwight wakes up at 11:00 this Saturday morning. Lying in bed, he thinks about going straight to the gym to make sure he gets in a workout today. But a dark feeling creeps over him, and he realizes he has already lost this battle. He rolls over and goes back to sleep, wanting to escape this crappy feeling.
Molly sits with her friends at a restaurant as they all discuss the win/loss record of the Red Sox and whether they are likely to do well this year. As her friends throw around game stats, players’ names and batting averages, she quietly feels mortified. “I can’t even remember the players’ names, much less all these stats. They are all so much smarter than I am.”
Andy, receiving his 6-month evaluation at his new job, hears his boss say the words, “Your skills with Excel spreadsheets could use some improvement. I’m sending you to an Excel training next week.” His head reeling, he misses the rest of the feedback he receives. He is thinking, “I might as well quit now. This is obviously not the right job for me.”
Now that you have read the experience of Jenny, Dwight, Molly, and Andy above, let’s see how accurately you were able to identify the dilemma of each.
Self-Confidence — Jenny
Jenny’s anxiety is not actually about the job interview. It is about herself. Deep down, Jenny does not believe that she has the ability to present herself well in the interview. She is doubting her own ability and skills. Self-confidence is how much you truly believe in yourself and what you can do.
Self-Worth — Dwight
Dwight knows that he should go to the gym, and he also wants to do so. Surprisingly, that dark feeling that creeps over him is not depression or sadness or grief. It is actually a deep feeling that he is not worth the time, effort and energy that would be necessary to get to the gym. Self-worth is your deeply held feeling about your own value as a person.
Self-Esteem — Molly
Molly feels inferior to her friends as they talk about the facts and statistics of baseball. This is an expression of her low self-esteem. Molly has no idea that she is every bit as intelligent and interesting as the people at the table; she simply knows less about baseball because she is not a fan of the sport. Self-esteem is the way you feel about yourself in different areas, like intelligence, personality, appearance, and success.
Self-Knowledge — Andy
Andy was given lots of good feedback in his evaluation, but he was knocked off his game by the one, small, negative comment he heard. Andy was very hurt by the one small negative statement because he does not know what his strengths and weaknesses are. He doesn’t realize that he brings multiple other strengths to this job that outweigh his lack of experience with Excel. Self-knowledge is how well you know your own abilities, talents, capabilities, preferences, likes and dislikes, wants and needs.
The Ways These 4 Struggles Hold You Back
- Self-Confidence: Having low self-confidence like Jenny makes it hard to try new things or reach for new challenges. Anxiety is a natural result that holds you back, clinging to the familiar things you do have confidence about, like a job, relationship or living situation, for example.
- Self-Worth: Low self-worth undermines what you are willing to do for yourself. Are you worthy of another person’s attention and love? Are you deserving of receiving good things? Do you have enough to offer other people so that they might value you? Having low self-worth prevents you from believing in yourself and from claiming what is yours.
- Self-Esteem: When you have low self-esteem you walk through the world in a one-down position. You operate from a place of, “I’m not good enough.” Everything that happens in your life is filtered through that deeply held notion, even though it is definitely not true. So even mundane interactions like Molly’s, once they go through your filter, can end up hurting you.
- Self-Knowledge: How well, and how accurately, do you see yourself? Can you predict how you will act, or how you will feel, in certain situations? Are you aware of your own strengths and preferences? Low self-knowledge makes it hard to make good choices for yourself, and hard to believe in the decisions you make.
The Underlying Cause
In my work as a therapist for over 20 years I have clearly seen the main factor that prevents good, strong people from seeing, believing, and owning what is so good and strong about them. It is this:
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN): Being raised by parents who fail to see, value, and validate your deepest, truest self — your emotions — enough.
When your parents don’t see your feelings, even if it’s not done maliciously, they fail to see the real you. If they don’t see you, they can’t really know you. If they don’t know you, their love won’t feel deep and real.
I have seen over and over again three very relevant things. First, most people who grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect have no idea that it happened to them. Second, most of those people continue the neglect by emotionally neglecting themselves. And third, if you don’t see and nurture yourself emotionally, you are very vulnerable to low self-confidence, esteem, worth, and knowledge.
Yes, believe it or not, there is one! Now that you are aware of what might be wrong, you are on the path to healing it. By learning to treat your feelings and yourself differently you can change how you feel about yourself in very profound ways. This is the path to healing your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
To learn much more about how Childhood Emotional Neglect happens, why you may not be aware of it, and how to reverse it, see the book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
To find out if you grew up with Emotional Neglect Take the Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.
To learn how to heal your adult relationships from Emotional Neglect see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.