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The six parts of self-esteem (and how to build them)

For a long time, I thought self-esteem was just something that happened to you. I was wrong.

Cory Zanoni
Cory Zanoni
3 min read

Table of Contents

An old friend once told me something absolutely staggering:

“When we met it high school, it was cool how you just did your own thing. Like you didn’t care about what anyone else thought.”

You know in films where a bad guy gets clocked by the hero and they just sway in place for a second before dropping to the floor? That was me.

I was a chronically depressed teenager who thought he was weedy and listened to nothing but hardcore emo music (the chosen genre of every self-possessed young lad).

He told me that about a decade ago and, ya know, I still don’t know how to respond.

On-stage vs off-stage

It’s clichéd advice but it’s true: don’t compare someone’s on-stage to your off-stage.

In the case of my friend and his befuddling comment, he was interpreting my public appearance and working backwards. At the time – and for years afterwards – I would’ve told you I had low self-esteem.

I didn’t understand self-confidence. At all. I thought it was something you just had and, if you didn’t have it, it would just show up one day once you’d done enough stuff. Little did I know that it was something you build, piece by piece.

The six parts of self-esteem

Psychotherapist Nathaniel Branden argued that there are six key parts of self-esteem:

  1. Living consciously
  2. Self-acceptance
  3. Self-responsibility
  4. Self-assertiveness
  5. Living with purpose
  6. Personal integrity

All six are necessary and all six take work.

Living consciously, according to Branden, means being “aware of everything that bears on our actions, purposes, values, and goals”. We reflect on ourselves, our world, and the people in it.

Self-acceptance takes time, effort and compassion – especially if you believe negativity is more honest than positivity.

Branden views self-responsibility as taking “responsibility for my actions and the attainment of my goals… for my life and well-being.”

That can feel impossible, especially when staring down systemic injustices. In her fantastic book All about love, bell hooks talks about Branden’s work and says the following about responsibility and injustice:

Taking responsibility means that in face of barriers we still have the capacity to invent our lives, to shape our destinies in ways that maximise our well-being. Every day we practice this shape shifting to cope with realities we cannot easily change.

Self-assertiveness is the part of self-esteem I struggle with the most. In Branden’s view, it’s “the willingness to stand up for [yourself], to be who [you are] openly, to treat myself with respect in all human encounters”.

It’s taken me years to embrace self-assertiveness in most contexts (especially work). That said, I’ll still spend 30 minutes conducting a forensic, categorical analysis of a store to find one single thing instead of asking a staff member where it is. I’m working on it.

To Branden, living with purpose means more than just your job. It’s about consciously setting goals and working towards them – rather than “living at the mercy of chance and outside forces”.

You can find purpose anywhere (and you can see how it connects with self-responsibility and the need to take ownership of our goals). Personally, I’ve found a great deal of purpose in gardening – in shaping a space filled with birds and other critters – and in this here newsletter. Neither have anything to do with my day job.

My job is important, of course. It lets me support my family. But I find purpose elsewhere.

Personal integrity brings everything together. It’s the “integration of our behaviour with our ideals, convictions, standards and beliefs”. It’s acting in lockstep with what we think is right.

Doing so consistently, I think, is the work of a life well lived.

Self-love leads to loving others

Taken together, the six pillars of self-esteem are, frankly, exhausting. It’s a lot. But they’re all achievable.

If you’re struggling with self-esteem, you know what to work towards. Branden’s six pieces are about more than just esteem: they build self-love.

It’s easy to think that self-esteem and self-love are pathways to narcissism – that trying to cultivate them is arrogant. Far from it. Here’s bell hooks to explain why they’re important:

Self-love is the foundation of our loving practice. Without it our other efforts to love fail. Giving ourselves low we provide our inner being with the opportunity to have the unconditional love we may have always longed to receive from someone else.

For a long time, I thought self-esteem and love were just things that happened to you. I was wrong.

You build both, piece by piece, over time. And there’s no better time to start than now.

Cory Zanoni Twitter

Writer, teacher, tired.