Folk psychology

After several global, economic, and social crises, as well as the ongoing health crisis, there is an increasing amount of talk about the psychological problems affecting our society. Talking more is not necessarily positive but can be seen as a double-edged sword.

First, as the number of psychologists participating in the media grows, as well as the time they spend on talk shows, psychological problems in society are becoming more visible and relevant. The general public is becoming more and more familiar with and aware of the extent to which these difficulties can have an impact on people’s daily lives.

However, as these are day-to-day issues on which everybody can give their opinion since all human beings «behave» (think, feel, act), psychological terms begin to fade away, losing their precision and getting mixed up with everyday language. This distortion of psychological terms is very characteristic of psychology. It is precisely one of its inconveniences since it floods it with myths and beliefs that create a fog in which it is difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff.

«Folk self-esteem»

Self-esteem is one of those words that are submerged in «folk psychology», and we come across thousands of self-help books, products with slogans about loving yourself, courses to be happy and «increase» your self-esteem, and even ideas and proverbs in everyday language that can create an illusion of lucidity regarding a concept that in general has little clarity. We talk about «having low self-esteem» as a cause of professional, psychological, or social problems, about «high self-esteem» as a prerequisite for success or happiness, and tips are listed everywhere to increase it. But… What is self-esteem?

The Cambridge dictionary defines self-esteem as «belief and confidence in your own ability and value».

The APA (American Psychological Association) defines it as the degree to which the qualities or characteristics contained in the self-concept are perceived as positive and states that a reasonably high degree of self-esteem is considered an «important ingredient of mental health», while low self-esteem is a common symptom of depression.

It seems that the definitions we have either give us a vague sense of what we are talking about or they mix up self-esteem with other constructs that would also need to be explained (what is this self-concept?). Moreover, we also begin to talk about ingredients and «good mental health». Perhaps you will tell me that this is nonsense and that everyone understands the metaphor of the ingredient. And I will say that the devil is in the details. And I will explain… Language is the main tool we have to get an idea of what surrounds us, transmit it, and » seize» reality… and it has enormous power when it comes to interpreting or perceiving the concepts we use.


When I refer to self-esteem as an «ingredient» when I say that John «has» very good self-esteem and that Ellen «does not have» self-esteem… I am reifying the construct (treating an abstraction, or concept as though it were a real object or material).

These subtleties regarding the way in which we conceive these ideas or constructs are quite important, since the idea that self-esteem is something that one either has or does not have within oneself becomes established, and we end up using explanations that are a bit redundant and circular. For example, we end up saying «wow, I am not able to speak in a group of friends because I have no self-esteem» or «wow, I do not love myself because my self-esteem is very low…» which in the end can lead to a dead end in which we do not explain anything nor do we know how to get out of this impasse. In addition, when you are repeatedly told «you have to love yourself more», «you have to believe more» or «you must have more self-esteem»… and we see self-esteem as something that others have and we don’t… we end up feeling guilty and frustrated for not being able to find that thing. As an example I will give you this quote:


«You will only be loved and respected if you love and respect yourself. Never try to please everyone; if you do, you will be respected by no one»

Paulo Coelho, Manuscript Found in Accra


Is this really so? If I strive all my life to «find» or «improve» that thing I have within me (self-esteem) and I do not succeed, I might feel a sense of guilt and also assume that no one will respect me in my life. 

Therefore, these definitions, as well as the common concept of self-esteem in everyday language, convey a vague notion of its meaning but are far from providing us with the necessary tools to address and modify it if necessary. Moreover, the spotlight has traditionally been focused only on low self-esteem problems (as reflected in the APA definition), sometimes ignoring the serious emotional and social impairments that the other end of the spectrum (exaggeratedly positive self-esteem regardless of the situation) can entail.


«Breaking down» the concept of self-esteem


In general, current conceptualizations of self-esteem refer to attitudes (or trends of stable feelings, actions, and thoughts) towards oneself. 

The first step in developing tools to improve self-esteem is to find a definition as operational as possible, which will allow us to «land» all the ideas previously discussed in this regard. A definition that allows us to get to the «core» of self-esteem and understand the factors that modify and maintain it, will be the one that will enable us to tackle a potential problem related to self-esteem.

In 2020, Dr. Froxán and her research group came up with a definition that allows us to get closer to the essence of what we understand by self-esteem. According to them, self-esteem is a word or label that refers to the verbalizations with which people describe themselves. It can be composed of more or less adaptive thoughts about oneself and one’s behavior, which in turn can trigger different emotions that lead the person to exhibit certain behaviors (one can think negatively about oneself, causing unpleasant emotions, which favor certain behaviors – such as avoidance, for example).


In short, self-esteem is seen as a set of verbalizations (or what we tell ourselves about ourselves), which can generate certain emotions that in turn can have an effect on how we act.

This definition allows us to approach self-esteem in a more direct way, a little beyond the fact of «having or not having» self-esteem or «loving oneself», and gives us an opportunity to understand and modify it in a more practical way. 

Thus, self-esteem would be a product of learning through the different experiences lived by the person throughout their life, and is therefore modifiable through the same processes by which it has been shaped. Let us imagine (at the risk of «reifying» the concept) that self-esteem is rather a piece of clay on the artisan’s table, whose hands represent the whole history of the person’s experiences. Each movement of those hands shapes the clay, each element of that history of learning permanently «molds» that self-esteem… which never becomes a finished product, but is in perpetual change and adaptation as the artisan’s hands (or the infinity of variables in a person’s environment) act. 

We thus see self-esteem as a flexible construct, which, although having a certain stability, can change from one moment to the next depending on the variables of the context, and is malleable (modifiable) through the same laws of behavior that have been shaping it up to now.

Thus, we see that the dichotomy between «having low or high self-esteem» is actually somewhat misleading and that in fact what people «have» is a verbal repertoire that is more or less adjusted to express an opinion about themselves. The translation of a «low self-esteem» would then be a set of mostly «unpleasant» or aversive adjectives (such as «I am stupid», «I am so clumsy that nothing works out well for me», «I am useless», «I am horrible»), as opposed to a «high self-esteem» which would actually be a set of pleasant or appetitive verbalizations.

Therefore, the problem is more about the degree of adjustment between these verbalizations and the person’s actual reality. That is, a person may have adequate skills and show a performance that is completely adjusted to the situation and instead continuously describe themselves as «incompetent». On the other side of the continuum, it may happen that a person who, regardless of their performance, uses a repertoire of adjectives and positive verbalizations that are very distant from reality. In both cases, these individuals’ «self-esteem» may lead to problems of adjustment to their respective environments, and the common denominator between the two is the discrepancy or dissociation between the person’s self-talk and their reality.

We are going to explain in the next blog post how to increase your self-esteem. 

Alejandro Sancha Moreno
Division of Psychology, Psychotherapy and Coaching
Alejandro Sancha Moreno
Children, adolescents and adults
Languages: English, French and Spanish
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