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When I was growing up we didn't have
self-esteem. We had self-respect. And you only got
as much of that as you could earn

Self-Respect vs. Self-Esteem

On this page:
Why Is Self-Respect More Reliable Than Self-Esteem? | The Gremlin/The Judge/The Inner-Voice | Self-Respect

There has been great focus on self-esteem in pop psychology. Unfortunately, as is often the case with popular buzz words the public grabs hold of, the understanding tends to be superficial. Self-esteem is not self-respect. We consider there to be very marked difference between the two.

Self-esteem is based in what you think.
Self-respect is based on what you do.

Here's problem that the gurus of self-esteem never bother to mention. Self-esteem is based on the same process that robs you of it. Namely how you are thinking.

On the other hand: Self-respect is based on demonstrable facts. Facts that, although they are created and influenced by you, exist independent of you. Facts that are not subject to change unless you actively enact that change by your actions.

Why Is Self-Respect More Reliable Than Self-Esteem?
A trend in pop-psychology is to move away from 'shame.' Shame and self-esteem are closely linked in pop-psych/self-help circles. The basic message is that if you can get rid of guilt and shame, your self-esteem will rise to new height and your live will be so much better.

Except for one little issue. As we like to say:
                        Charley Manson has great self-esteem.

That's one little happy egomaniacal psychopath there(1). He and a whole lot of other sociopaths running around are in the grips of extreme narcissism. The havoc that these people wreck simply lacks any empathy, compassion or sense of guilt. They simply feel no guilt or remorse over the most horrendous of acts they commit.

That example is obviously an extreme, but this likelihood must be considered as one of the outcomes of the abandonment of guilt(2). Yet many people who are trying to escape from the weight of self-imposed guilt are only looking the perceived benefits, not the potential downsides(3).

The problem with self-esteem is it can be based on nothing more than your own thought pattern.

Well, to use a little down home homily: That's like posting a hound dog to guard a beef steak. The reason we say this is that's the same thought pattern that robs you of feeling good about yourself.

So let's see if we're getting this straight. Without any other change in behavior, habits, environment or any other sort of operant factors, you're going to stop thinking bad things about yourself and start thinking good things about yourself.

Isn't that kind of like claiming you built a house by just thinking about it? Yes planning is part of the process, but so is swinging a hammer to physically put parts together. (We'll explain why this analogy is accurate in a bit).

In case you haven't figured it out yet, one of our major issues is -- as the idea is currently promoted -- self-esteem has no basis in reality. (Or to be more precise, it is entirely based in personal reality and not actuality).

On one hand, not only does it have no external basis, but it lacks  checks and balances. It is very much a positive feedback loop(4). In essence the idea is that you feel good about yourself because you feel good about yourself. While this is a nice warm fuzzy idea, the raw truth is without any external reference points, your mood controls your self-esteem.

Stop and think how much your mood changes from day to day. Conditions like stress, lack of sleep, weather, external conditions all effect your mood. That same process can have you feeling great about yourself one day and totally miserable about yourself the next. This is why we just shake our heads over the idea of building self-esteem without a solid foundation beneath it.

Furthermore, it allows the individual to engage in any kind of behavior and still promote himself. In theory, an individual can do nothing that warrants high-esteem, and even -- as often is the case -- actively engage in negative behavior and (supposedly) still hold himself in high self-esteem. This is the source of our Manson quote.

Without a legitimate foundation of good behavior and actions, self-esteem is a delusion. Furthermore, someone who is trying to promote it in people whose constant actions, thoughts and life choices do not warrant a high opinion of self are often just encouraging such people to engage in self-rationalization.

Unfortunately, this kind of optimism goes against how things work in the real world. In a nutshell, you cannot engage in negative and selfish behavior without lowering your self-esteem, even if these actions bring you momentary pleasure. If you do these things, you must work twice as hard to rationalize and reinforce your high opinion of yourself. Trying to maintain high self-esteem while engaging in negative, selfish and self-destructive behavior is like trying to jump with an anchor tied to your leg. It will keep dragging you down.

The Gremlin/The Inner Judge/The Critical-Voice
There is a concept in popular psychology that really does hit the nail on top of the head. Different systems call it various names. Rick Carson made a name for himself calling it your "Gremlin" and teaching people how to tame it. The Inner Judge is a known problem with those who are at various points on the continuum of Narcissistic personality. The most common term for it is the 'internal critical voice' or the shorter 'critical voice.'

Basically this is the constantly self-reinforcing internal dialogue that people have in their heads. The simple fact, this internal dialogue is a normal part of how we define ourselves. However, when it becomes negative, destructive, nagging and self-defeating, then names like gremlin/inner judge/critical voice are applied.

The critical voice can spin totally out of control and ruin your life. It can honestly make you feel that no matter what you have accomplished, you just aren't good enough. But realize that this critical voice is entirely internal to you! That voice that you hear so loudly and clearly is entirely based in your reality, not actuality!(5)

On the other hand, the critical voice can serve as the motivation for a person to achieve great things. Many people who have achieved fame, fortune, doctorates and created works have been spurred on by trying to overcome their internal critical voices. The down side of that point is great atrocities have been committed by 'dissatisfied personalities (6)

The trap of the critical voice is that it is always internally oriented. In this case, the term Inner Judge is spot on. It is constantly judging us and barraging us with those judgments. The inner voice deafens us to other voices, other opinions, other ways of thinking about ourselves. Changing analogies for a second, by constantly flashing a light in our eyes, it doesn't allow us to see ourselves in any other light other than what it provides.

This part of you not only blinds you to other possibilities, but actively rejects information that is contrary to its judgments. This is why only listening to that critical voice is a such a huge trap. Even in light of great achievements,  it will still tell you that you are a P.O.S. in spite of the fact that you've got your doctorate, raised a family, found a cure for cancer and won the Nobel Peace Prize.

While it may react to external stimuli, its strategy is to preserve the belief that it is "RIGHT" in your worldviews/core beliefs. And it does so with a dogma, fanaticism and wrath the would make Torquemada gulp in disbelief. As long as you believe the decrees of your own inner judge, your paradigms will never be in danger of being proved wrong. Even if those paradigms are that you are the most worthless and weak person in the world. Your ego will fight to protect these paradigms, no matter how much you want to change them. (This is also why it is important to consider the idea of narcissistic personality disorder if you are driven by an overwhelming critical inner voice or are dealing with someone who seems to have perfected the 'art of quick-draw blame').

We give you this information to point out that often motivational speakers and people who advocate self-esteem are -- in essence -- trying to convince you that all you have to do to feel better about yourself is ask your inner judge to be nice to you. Pretty, please, with sugar on top?

Our brains are not wired that way. And once you realize the relationship between how your brain works and how you think you're going to realize that it is going to take a whole lot more than just telling yourself something is so to make it stick. And the biggest problem is that if you're in the grips of the critical voice, then the wiring to think that way has been established. It is fixable, but it takes a lot more than just telling yourself that you're a wonderful person.

Now for the real bomb: It isn't until we can begin to apply values to our actions outside our own critical voice or self-rationalizations, that we can see how closely are actions are intertwined with self-respect. By this we mean, it isn't until you start listening to something else than your inner judge, that you're going to start feeling better about yourself.

If self-esteem is inwardly oriented, and 'theoretically' independent of what is happening outside, then self-respect is outwardly oriented, but has a strong effect on what happens internally.

Self-respect is based on what you do. And it is an ongoing effort. It doesn't matter what you did in the past, it is about what you are doing now. It is important to realize that these actions are concrete and measure up to external standards of good behavior, accomplishment and cause for admiration. You don't just think of yourself as a good person, you walk the talk. You take extra time and effort to be a good person to others.

Your mood doesn't affect these standards because they come from outside of you. These are the solid rock that you can build self-respect. Once you have accomplished them -- or even begin to strive for them -- they become part of you.

But more importantly, NOBODY can take them away from you. If someone tries to cut you down, you can compare that person's words with what you have accomplished and the standards of behavior that you attempt to attain. The words just don't fit the facts. And that erodes their credibility, not yours.

These accomplishments are not susceptible to moods. You can have a serious bout of self-doubt or a bad day. Without these, you could be plunged into a downward spiral of lowering self-esteem. With these foundations, however, you can only plunge so far if you choose to use them. The whispering voices of doubt are proven wrong by the solid track record of positive behavior.

Conversely, if you do bad things, your self-respect is going to suffer. And odds are you will have to replace it with self-esteem(7).

The only person who can take self-respect away from you is you. And this involves a sustained effort by your "critical voices" to undermine and erode these accomplishments -- or continuing willful and intentional acts on your part to engage in negative and selfish behavior. If ,despite your best efforts to achieve long-term standards of behavior that increase self-respect, you still suffer low self-esteem seek professional counseling -- specifically from a psychiatrist, not just a counselor or psychologist. There may be something chemically wrong.

Return to top

1) For those of you who are too young to remember him, Charley Manson is a crazed, racist, career criminal from the '60s. He also was head of a sociopathic cult he called the "Manson Family." At his order, several of these family members went out and committed one of the most horrendous mass murders in Los Angeles history -- including the slaughter of a pregnant woman. He and these people were convicted and sentenced to life sentences. His insane and violent behavior continues to this day. He has never been -- and hopefully never will be -- allowed parole. Watching an interview with him will quickly disabuse you of the notion that evil people are good people gone bad. Evil people can and do exist. Return to text

2) People can do horrible things and still consider themselves good people. This is especially true for people who tend to blame others. Their horrible actions weren't because of their choices, according to them, those decisions were made because the other person made them do it. Or because they had no other choice. Or countless other self-justifications, excuses, rationalizations and self-esteem saving maneuvers. Return to Text

3) To avoid magical thinking we must constantly remind ourselves to look at ideas from different perspectives. President Lyndon B Johnson articulated the importance of this concept when he said "When considering passing a law one must not only look at the good it will do if properly applied, but the harm it will cause if misapplied." Return to Text

4) The term 'positive feedback loop' isn't necessarily a positive thing. In fact, it is often the recipe for pending disaster (or explaining why something blew up). Although in electronics, biology and economic the term has specific meanings, in generalized layman's terms, it means a system that either self-destructs or spins out of control from 'too much of a good thing.' Anything that would slow the system (and keep it in balance) is removed. Return to Text

5) It is not unusual for a person -- who had a critical and controlling parent -- to continue to abuse him/herself via the critical voice long after the person has moved out from the parent's home. In an interesting bit of self-deception, that person's own internal judge will 'sound' like the controlling parent. The reason we say it is self-deception is that person still feels it is the parent who is constantly criticizing him/her. And consequently blames or even hates the parent ... not just for the past, but the continuing abuse. Except, it's not the parent who's doing it, it's the person doing it to him/herself. Return to Text

6) See the collective works of Eric Hoffer Return to Text

7) Have you ever spoken to someone who has done something really wrong -- and yet doesn't feel bad about it? While it is easy to think such a person is a sociopath (someone who doesn't feel guilt or remorse). Usually what you will find is that person has taken the inner voice to the other extreme. Instead of the voice constantly criticizing it is constantly rationalizing why it was acceptable for the person to do this behavior. The person has a battery of reasons as to why he/she 'had' to do something or how 'it is okay to do it because..." If you can get past the outrage and revulsion of these people's harm to others, it is a fascinating study on programming the inner judge into becoming an inner cheerleader of self-rationalization. Return to Text

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