Reframing Confidence & Self Esteem for Success
If I were to ask you to explain to me the difference between self-confidence and self-esteem, it might take you a bit to ponder your answer. We tend to think of the two as being quite similar, possibly interchangeable even. But are they really?
I want to explain the differences between the two, as well as show how they’re connected, using etymology and basic knowledge about habit-forming. For any who might be unfamiliar, etymology is the study of the origin of words and their meanings. As we’re all learning more and more each day - language is powerful and important.
Now, let’s start with the word confidence.
I’m a high school Psychology teacher. When I asked my teenage students to describe confidence to me, I heard answers anyone could expect:
“Confidence is when you’re really good at something.”
“Being confident is like being comfortable in your skin, or feeling strong or smart.”
“Someone who has self-confidence means they’ve been doing something for a long time.”
The word confidence comes from the Latin confidere ‘have full trust’ with the root word being fid/fidere ‘trust, faith’ and con ‘expressing intense force.’ In other words, expressing intense trust. Some other words that share the root word fid: fidelity (trustworthiness), perfidious (untrustworthy), and affidavit (a document to ensure a statement is true).
This may or may not surprise you, but confidence itself is a measurement of trust, not just the awareness of its existence. Confidence is not simply the observation of ability, or intelligence, or strength, etc. It is the depth of faith - the level of trust - in ability, intelligence, or strength, etc.
Which means self-confidence is the measurement of our own individual ability, intelligence, strength, etc. Did you just have an “aha” moment? No? Well, I’m confident it is coming.
An example: I am getting married this year to my partner of 5 years. I trust her. I have faith that I can tell her my insecurities and deepest, darkest secrets! Knowing - trusting - that she will be empathetic, listen, and not judge me. I have confidence in my relationship, because I have evidence to measure the depth of my trust in her.
Another example: I’m a photographer. One day, many moons ago, was the first time I ever picked up a camera. I held the DSLR Canon camera in my hands, fresh out the box, studying the buttons (so many buttons) on the face of the camera body. Blinking at the dial on top, with letters and images denoting the different camera modes. Overwhelmed by not knowing anything. I got the camera for a university-level beginner photography course. Each week, I learned more and more about photography and the camera in my hands. Each week, I practiced. 5 photos this week, 10 the next. 25, 50, so on. Even though I thought about quitting after 7 days, I’m happy I didn’t. As I took more photos, I understood more. The settings started making sense, the framing and composition got easier to visualize. I finished the course with an A and in the meantime took photos of anything I could: my roommates, on-campus statues, landscapes, you name it. Then a friend asked me to take their portrait - but “for real.” Long story short, I built up my ability through exposure, education, and practice. 7 years later, I am so confident in my ability I can practically take photos in any light or environment. My level of trust in my understanding of my camera’s setting allows me to change the settings without looking at the buttons. After 7 years, I have evidence. Proof of trust I did not have within 7 days.
Now, let’s move on to esteem. Remember, I’ll connect the two at the end of this article.
Esteem, in the noun form, means image, reputation, worth. We hear “esteem” and we think of royalty, doctors, and positions in the highest offices in the world. Sometimes we talk about esteem and beauty going hand-in-hand, thinking that attractive people must have high self-esteem. I mean, they’re gorgeous! How can you be sad or have low confidence if you’re pretty?
That’s a lot to unpack, so maybe another time. For now, let’s stick to today’s lesson. The word esteem comes from the Latin aestimare ‘estimate’ and the verb form was originally used to assess the merit or value of something.
There is also the opposite: Disesteem means having a low opinion of someone or something. As you can gather, esteem is about perception and perspective. It’s not objective or inherently “true” nor technically tangible.
For example, you can’t really have high esteem and use it to pay your bills, but you can be held in high esteem which could certainly help put you in positions to pay the bills. Lifted and suspended by it. Afforded privileges and status because of it. But it’s not yours to hold, it’s dependent on others’ perception of you and society’s distribution of regard and respect.
However, because of our relationship with our "self" in our minds, we can have high or low self-esteem. That’s because self-esteem is a perception of your own image, a reflection of your feelings about yourself. Something you and your mindset have the ability to change. But, is it easy to change? Is there a secret formula for high self-esteem? My answer: yes, sort of.
To recap, confidence is a subjective measure of trust based on evidence. Esteem is a subjective assessment or estimate of worth or value based on the perception of evidence. Both are malleable. With new evidence.
Someone with low confidence can become confident through repeated exposure, education, and practice, just like an employee or colleague who seems untrustworthy can change and become someone you might call a confidant. Someone with low self-esteem can do the work to heal and change their perception of their own worth, just as a “nobody” can become someone of high regard and world-renowned status.
Of course, the inverse is possible and common as well.
The confidence of an experienced professional can be negatively affected by a changing system, a modernizing society, or environmental changes in the workplace. An inexperienced professional can gain confidence through trying, “failing forward”, or education.
The esteem of a person in a high position can be negatively affected by their action, or inaction, and words. So too can your self-esteem be changed as a consequence of your habits, mindset, and self-talk.
So which comes first - confidence or esteem - and how are they connected? I’ll leave you with my answer:
Confidence comes as a result of trying. Putting yourself out there, being vulnerable. Learning as much as you can about something and then putting oneself in a position to try and fail and try again. Understanding that failure is a necessary part of the path to success. Confidence is trust, and the only way to build it is to change your relation to whatever you want to build confidence in. Get time involved. If it really does take 21 days to make a habit, and 90 days to make a lifestyle, then you will be more confident on Day 91 than you will be on Day 20.
Esteem comes as a result of being confident, experienced, knowledgeable. Being held in high regard due to others’ perception of your confidence, experience, and knowledge. Having a heightened image. Esteem is a perspective, and like art on a museum wall, you can change where you stand to look at it. To see something maybe you missed before. To zoom in or out. The way to change esteem is to open your mind, to hear from others, to deep dive into your beliefs about yourself.
Stick around for next week’s article where I try to challenge everything I just wrote. I’ll also include practical, step-by-step tips I use to build confidence and esteem in my life.
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