Conditional Self-Esteem Vs. Unconditional Self-Esteem

by David Burns, M.D.

There are two dramatically different ways a person can achieve self-esteem.

You can say, “I am a worthwhile person because…” After the “because,” you can include the basis you have decided upon for self-esteem. This could be your success and hard work in life or your altruism or the fact that you are loved. For example, you can say, “I am a worthwhile person because I have done the best I can with my God-given talents and abilities.” This kind of reasoning is based on the Calvinist work ethic, which is widespread in our culture.


stickieThis formulation makes self-esteem conditional, because your self-esteem has to be earned.


Conditional self-esteem has its benefits: If you base your self-esteem on your hard work and accomplishments, it may motivate you to work hard and do your best.


Conditional self-esteem also has its downside. What happens when, in spite of your best efforts, you are not particularly productive or successful? Does this mean you are now worthless and inferior? Few people can achieve extreme levels of fame and recognition, and even the most successful people experience many failures along the way.


No matter how you try to measure or earn your self-esteem, there will be times when you do not measure up to the criterion you have chosen. Then you will be vulnerable to anxiety and depression. Instead of thinking, “I have failed,” and trying to learn from the situation, you may think, “I am a failure.”


Alternatively, you can make your self-esteem unconditional. You can love and respect yourself because you are a human being or simply because you have chosen to do so. You can love yourself because you need the compassion and support, and not because you have earned it. Although unconditional self-esteem may be more difficult to comprehend, it is far more liberating.


I like to think about the process of gaining self-esteem as climbing up a ladder. If you feel worthless and inferior, you may start out on the ground because you have very little self-esteem. On the first rung of the ladder you develop conditional self-esteem. You decide to like yourself because of your strengths rather than hating yourself because of your weaknesses. You stick up for yourself and defend yourself against your critical inner voice. For many people who feel inadequate, this can be an extremely important first step.


Once you have conditional self-esteem, you can climb up to the next rung on the ladder. On this step you develop unconditional self-esteem. You realize that self-esteem is a gift that you and all human beings receive at birth. Your worthwhile-ness is already there and you don’t have to earn it. It suddenly dawns on you that you will always be worthwhile simply because you are a human being. It ultimately makes no difference if you are fat or thin, young or old, loved or rejected, successful or unsuccessful.


Unconditional self-esteem is given freely. It is much like hugging a child who is upset and needs comforting. The child doesn’t have to earn your love. In Step 10, you will see that the concept of unconditional self-esteem is quite consistent with both the Jewish and Christian religions.


After you achieve unconditional self-esteem, you can climb another step up the ladder if you want. On the next step, you can adopt the even more radical position that there is no such thing as self-esteem, just as there is no such thing as a worthwhile person or a worthless person. Since there’s no such thing as a worthwhile person, there’s no point in trying to become one! On this level, you can discard the notion of self-esteem entirely and simply refuse to deal with it! This solution to the problem of self-esteem is in the Buddhist tradition because self-esteem is rejected as a useless illusion.


Giving up your self-esteem once you have discovered it may sound like a negative notion! It may feel like a loss and seem like something inside you dies. All of us naturally want to feel “special” and “worthwhile.” However, there is a rebirth, because the death of your pride and your ego can lead to new life and to a more profound vision. When you discover that you are nothing, you have nothing to lose, and you inherit the world.


This last formulation might sound abstract, mystical, or confusing, but it is immensely practical. Instead of worrying about whether you are sufficiently worthwhile, each day you can have goals that involve learning, personal growth, helping others, being productive, having fun, spending time with people you care about, improving the quality of your relationships, and so on. You will discover unexpected opportunities for intimacy, for productivity, and for joy in daily living.”


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