“The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem” (1994) is a self-help and psychology book in which author Dr. Nathaniel Branden describes the key elements that raise (or lower) the self-esteem of an individual. It includes exercises, mindsets, and beliefs to help readers increase their self-esteem.
- What’s Self-Esteem
- The 2 Components of Self-Esteem
- Advantages of Self-Esteem
- When you succeed with low self-esteem you lose joy
- Pillar 1: Living consciously
- Pillar 2: Self-acceptance
- Pillar 3: Self-responsibility
- Pillar 4: Self-assertiveness
- Pillar 5: Living purposefully
- Pillar 6: Personal integrity
- Pillar 7: Keep practicing even when it’s hard
- Philosophy of Self-Esteem
- MORE WISDOM
About the Author
Nathaniel Branden was a Canadian–American psychotherapist and author known for his work in the psychology of self-esteem.
Branden was also a romantic partner and associate of Ayn Rand, a popular 1960’s writer and philosopher. Branden also discusses Rand and their relationship in this same book (the passages come across as an unneeded and unclassy “dirty laundry airing of personal grievances”, see more later in the “cons”.)
Says the author:
Self-esteem is the experience that we are appropriate to life and to the requirements of life.
- Confidence in our ability to think and cope with the basic challenges of life (supporting oneself, effectively interact with others, coping with adversity,
- The belief in our right to be happy and entitled to assert our needs and wants, and enjoy the fruits of our efforts
Then, around 1/3 of the book Branden adds yet another definition:
Self-esteem is the disposition to experience oneself as competent to cope with the basic challenges of life and as worthy of happiness.
To have self-esteem means to feel confidently appropriate to life, while to not have self-esteem means to feel inappropriate to life.
To feel “wrong”, and not about any specific issue, but wrong as a person.
The 2 Components of Self-Esteem
- Self-efficacy: basic confidence in the face of life’s challenges. It’s the experience of basic power or competence. To be “efficacious”, is to be able to produce a desired result. But it’s deeper than confidence on a specific set of skills or knowledge. It is the confidence in being able to acquire that set of skills or knowledge.
- Self-respect: a sense of being worthy. The conviction that our life and well-being are worth acting to support, protect, and nurture; that we are good and worthwhile and deserving of the respect of others
Advantages of Self-Esteem
Self-esteem makes you:
- Feel better
- More effective at life
- Resistant to social pressure and “judges” . Says the author: “The lower our self-esteem, the more urgent the need to “prove” ourselves”
- Self-fulfilling prophecies of personal empowerment and success: “self-esteem creates a set of implicit expectations about what is possible and appropriate to us. These expectations tend to generate the actions that turn them into realities. And the realities confirm and strengthen the original beliefs”
The author includes a whole host of traits that self-esteem supports.
But in short: self-esteem is good for you, and very important.
How Self-Esteem Looks Like
How does self-esteem reflect in people’s behavior and thoughts?
Here are some concrete examples of high self-esteem behavior and attitudes:
- Ease in talking of accomplishments or short-comings with directness and honesty
- Giving and receiving compliments, expressions of affection, appreciation
- Openness to criticism and a comfort about acknowledging mistakes, because one’s self-esteem is not tied to an image of “being perfect.”
- Harmony between what one says and does and how one looks, sounds, and moves.
- Feelings of anxiety or insecurity, if they appear, are be less likely to intimidate or overwhelm
- Comfort with assertive behavior (not belligerent) in oneself and others
- General relaxation, ease and spontaneity, since one is not at war with oneself
On the other hand, chronic tension conveys some form of internal split, some form of self-avoidance or self-repudiation, or some aspect of the self-being disowned, repressed, or under tight control.
When you succeed with low self-esteem you lose joy
Yes, you can also succeed with low self-esteem.
BUT, you’d be missing out a lot both in terms of personal empowerment, and of life joy.
Says the author:
(some people) may have the talent and energy to achieve greatly, in spite of feelings of inadequacy or unworthiness—like the highly productive workaholic who is driven to prove his worth to, say, a father who predicted he would always be a loser. But it does mean that we will be less effective and less creative than we have the power to be; and it means that we will be crippled in our ability to find joy in our achievements. Nothing we do will ever feel like “enough.”
Lack of self-esteem fuels the hedonic treadmill of more material success, without satisfaction
Says the author:
So it is always “one more” victory—one more promotion, one more sexual conquest, one more company, one more piece of jewelry, a larger house, a more expensive car, another award—yet the void within remains unfilled.
And, funny enough, giving up the pursuit of material possession and conquests is not the answer.
Not until you first acquire self-esteem as a middle step.
Says the author:
In today’s culture some frustrated people who hit this impasse announce that they have decided to pursue a “spiritual” path and renounce their egos. This enterprise is doomed to failure. An ego, in the mature and healthy sense, is precisely what they have failed to attain. They dream of giving away what they do not possess. No one can successfully bypass the need for self-esteem.
Pillar 1: Living consciously
- Facing problems heads on
- Making amends when we know we have failed
- Reality-based feedback
- Knowing one’s value and acting according to them
Betrayals of consciousness
- Not facing problems: hiding problems in the hope they’ll disappear is a betrayal of our own mind, and self-esteem will suffer
- Not making amends:
- Ignoring reality: for example, says the author, the fake self-help mantra of “If I don’t choose to see it or acknowledge it, it doesn’t exist”
Learn to spot the “alien voices” within
Says the author:
Why might it be worth our efforts to identify the different voices speaking within? To recognize alien influences with alien agendas (the voice of a parent or a religious authority, for example), to learn how to distinguish one’s own true voice from all others, to operate one’s life as an autonomous human being.
Pillar 2: Self-acceptance
To accept oneself, and to be a friend of oneself.
Stated in the negative, it’s the refusal of being in an adversarial relationship with oneself.
It comes with different levels:
- Being on your side: “prerational, premoral act of self-affirmation—a kind of natural egoism that is the birthright of every human being”. It is is “selfishness,” in the noblest meaning of that word.
- Acceptance: to acceptance everything of who we are, and a refusal to see any part of ourselves as “alien” to us. It’s not about liking everything about us, but accepting it.
- Compassion: to be a friend of yourself. Even if you think something was unworthy of you, you can self-inquire without condemning, make amends, and resolve to do better. But as a friend, not as a judge.
Stand in front of a full-length mirror and look at your face and body.
Notice if this is difficult or makes you uncomfortable. It is good to do this exercise naked.
say to yourself, “Whatever my defects or imperfections, I accept myself unreservedly and completely.”
Breath deeply, say it and repeat it for a minute or two, let the words sink in.
The author says that when clients do this exercise morning and evening, they start seeing the strong relationship between self-acceptance and self-esteem.
Imagine a feeling, emotion, or a part of yourself that you dislike and find hard to accept.
It can be fear, envy, rage, humiliation etc.
Maybe think of the situation that evokes such feelings.
Breath into the feeling and accept it fully.
Don’t wish it to go away, sit with it.
You can also tell yourself “I am now feeling such and such (whatever the feeling is) and I accept it fully.”
And if you can’t manage to feel it, without resisting it?
Then accept your resistance to accepting the resistance.
Pillar 3: Self-responsibility
To take responsibility for one’s life, actions, and results.
The individual who accepts self-responsibility knows that nobody owes him the fulfillment of his goals and wishes.
At the same time, it means respecting other people’s self-interest. So if you need someone to reach your goals, you undertake to provide them with what they want to help you (WIIFT).
Pillar 4: Self-assertiveness
Self-assertiveness means the willingness to stand up for yourself, to openly be and act according to who you are, and to treat yourself with respect in all human encounters.
It means knowing and honoring your wants, needs, and value, and appropriately express them in life.
In this paragraph, I also realized that Branden truly seems to understand social skills and to have high levels of emotional and social intelligence.
He says that what’s appropriate for self-assertiveness is contextual, and depends on the situation, and the people.
For example, he says:
Sometimes self-assertiveness is manifested (…) through a polite silence that signals nonagreement; sometimes by refusing to smile at a tasteless joke. In work situations, one cannot necessarily voice all one’s thoughts, and it is not necessary to do so.
- Mindsets first: to practice self-assertiveness you need the conviction that your ideas and wants are important
- It’s not rebelliousness: don’t confuse self-assertiveness with general rebellioussness
- You need courage sometimes: you build self-assertiveness by being self-assertive when it is not easy to do so
- It’s a balancing act:
When we learn how to be in an intimate relationship without abandoning our sense of self, when we learn how to be kind without being self-sacrificing, when we learn how to cooperate with others without betraying our standards and convictions, we are practicing self-assertiveness.
- Some individualism is needed
(…) if one believes that it is more desirable to fit in than to stand out, one will not embrace the virtue of self-assertiveness.
If one’s primary source of safety and security is through affiliation with the tribe, the family, the group, the community, the company, the collective, then even self-esteem can be perceived as threatening and frightening—because it signifies individuation (self-realization, the unfolding of personal identity)
Individualism also underpins the capacity for true connection.
The author says that the mature individual developed equally on both tracks of individuation (autonomy) and relationship (the capacity for intimacy and human connectedness).
I couldn’t agree more.
And on assertiveness read:
Pillar 5: Living purposefully
It means to have goals and act accordingly to reach them.
It means to use your power and expend effort for the attainment of goals that you have chosen and that are meaningful to you.
Keep Your Identity Separate From Your Goals
However, don’t make the mistake of identifying the self with the work.
If self-esteem is tied primarily to accomplishments, success, income, or being a good provider, economic circumstances beyond your control can fling you into depression or acute demoralization.
Read more here:
Pillar 6: Personal integrity
Integrity is the integration of ideals, convictions, standards, beliefs, and behavior.
We have integrity when behavior is congruent with our professed values and when ideals and practice match.
Before integrity we need to have principles of behavior, values, and moral convictions about what is appropriate and what is not, what is right, and what is wrong.
Whenever we behave in ways that contradict our judgment of what’s right and wrong, we lose face in our own eyes. We lose respect with ourselves. And since self-esteem is about the respect and reputation we have with ourselves, when we act in ways that go against our morals our self-esteem suffers.
Says the author:
A tragedy of many lives is that people greatly underestimate the self-esteem costs and consequences of hypocrisy and dishonesty. They imagine that at worst all that is involved is some discomfort. But it is the spirit itself that is contaminated.
Pillar 7: Keep practicing even when it’s hard
Pillar 7 is all about practice.
And, especially, to practice when it’s difficult.
Since self-esteem is the reputation you have with yourself, the more you can “prove” to yourself that you’re worthy of high self-esteem, the higher your self-esteem will be.
Philosophy of Self-Esteem
In this part the author goes into beliefs and mindsets.
You can learn more with the following articles:
- Growth mindset (how to develop one)
- Antifragile ego
- Accept your loneliness
Integrating sub-personalities for deeper self-acceptances
We are not monolithic blocks with just one set of values and preferences.
Instead, we are often composed b different sets of sub-personalities, and to have a high self-esteem and to fully accept ourselves, we also have to accept our sub-personalities.
Among our sub-personalities:
- Kid self
- Teenage self
- Opposite gender self
- Mother self
We often keep parts of these personalities within us.
We still have a kid who likes something that we liked as children. And we still have fathers and mothers voices sometimes playing within us.
Accepting our masculine & feminine develops self-esteem
Branden says we all have both genders within us.
The opposite-gender-self is the component of the psyche containing the feminine subpersonality of the male and the masculine subpersonality
There tends to be a fairly strong correlation between how we relate to the opposite gender in the world and how we relate to the opposite gender within.
People With Low Self-Esteem Resent People With High Self-Esteem
The author says that low self-esteem people are often uncomfortable in the presence of higher self-esteem individuals, and can grow resentful.
They might even say that they have too much self-esteem.
But in truth, they’re making a statement about themselves. The author says that insecure men often feel more insecure in the presence of self-confident women (see the latent anger of some men towards women in the red pill).
Extreme Ownership is Dangerous to Self-Esteem
Extreme ownership has become a popular mindset in self-development.
But the author believes that is dangerous to healthy self-esteem:
I do not support the grandiose notion that “I am responsible for every aspect of my existence and everything that befalls me.” Some things we have control over; others we do not.
If I hold myself responsible for matters beyond my control, I put my self-esteem in jeopardy, since inevitably I will fail my expectations.
Eployees don’t trust employers because of incongruency
Studies disclose that many people in organizations do not trust those above them. Why? Lack of congruence. Beautiful mission statements unsupported by practice.
Proving you’re enough is a battle you lose when you started it
If my aim is to prove I am “enough,” the project goes on to infinity—because the battle was already lost on the day I conceded the issue was debatable.
Some key articles on the topic:
Getting good with people is fundamental to self-esteem (and life)
Says the author:
Sometimes people who feel fear in the human realm drop to a very low level of consciousness in their relationships and seek the safety and security of competence in the impersonal word of machines, mathematics, or abstract thought. No matter what heights they may attain professionally, their self-esteem remains flawed. We cannot with impunity run from so important an aspect of life.
Leaders need a strong ego
It is a fallacy to say that a great leader should be egoless. A leader needs an ego sufficiently healthy that it does not experience itself as on the line in every encounter—so that the leader is free to be task and results oriented, not self-aggrandizement or self-protection oriented.
If a leader has low self-esteem, says the author, he will most likely feel more comfortable with people who have even less self-esteem, and hire those people.
I love this passage.
On this website, we call it “the law of the lid” of leadership.
However, I must note again, the author seems to mix up ego and self-esteem.
Enlightenment & Consciousness Provide Self-Esteem, Material Pursuits Do Not
The author says that some people seek self-esteem with material possessions, sexual conquests, or belonging in the “right” clubs.
But these are hollow pursuits.
Instead, self-esteem runs deeper.
positive self-esteem is best understood as a spiritual attainment, that is, as a victory in the evolution of consciousness.
Self-Esteem fluctuates, think of it in terms of average levels
It’s normal to have fluctuations.
So it’s more appropriate to think of self-esteem in terms of averaging out those fluctuations.
Have the courage to end poor relationships
Says the author:
We often see this pattern in marriages. One partner sees before the other that the relationship is finished. But he or she does not want to be “the bad guy,” the one to end things. So instead manipulation begins, to lead the other to make the first move. It is cruel, degrading, lacking in dignity, and hurtful to both people. It is self-demeaning and self-diminishing.
Parenting helps, but there is more
Good parenting contributes to high self-esteem, and poor parenting makes high self-esteem harder.
But it’s only one element among many.
You Cannot Have Enough Self-Esteem
The author says that “no, you can’t have too much self-esteem”.
He says that some people believe so because they confuse self-esteem with boasting or bragging or arrogance.
But, he says, such traits reflect too little self-esteem, not too much.
Low self-esteem negatively impacts relationships
The author says that if one partner loses self-esteem while the other grows it, the losing partner may grow anxious and attempt to sabotage the growth process.
When we doubt our minds, we tend to discount its products.
In a world in which the total of human knowledge is doubling about every ten years, our security can rest only on our ability to learn.
Self-esteem is the reputation we have with ourselves:
But deep in our psyche they are added up, and the sum is that experience we call “self-esteem.” Self-esteem is the reputation we acquire with ourselves.
On fearing to admit mistakes and low self-esteem:
To find it humiliating to admit an error is a certain sign of flawed self-esteem.
On “too nice people” making excuses for their lack of power with an excess of “goodness”:
As a sop to the pain he cannot entirely bury, he tells himself, “At least I’m not selfish. Selfishness is evil—isn’t it?”
On individuals before community:
Individuation raises the specter of isolation to those who have not achieved it and do not understand that far from being the enemy of community, it is its necessary precondition. A healthy society is a union of self-respecting individuals. It is not a coral bush.
On therapy over-focus on the negative aspects of human psychology and the corresponding need for more “positive psychology“:
Everyone who has any familiarity with psychology knows about the danger of disowning the murderer within. Far fewer people understand the tragedy of disowning the hero within.
On tribalism being anti self-esteem:
The tribal premise is intrinsically anti-self-esteem.
Disempowers the individual qua individual. Its implicit message is: You don’t count. By yourself, you are nothing. Only as part of us can you be something.
This section reviews the scientific and logical aspects of “The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem”.
It’s for Emapths, Doesn’t Apply to Machiavellians
Says the author:
We cannot be indifferent to the moral meaning of our actions, although we may try to be or pretend to be.
everyone judges himself or herself by some standard (…) to the extent there is a split between ideals and practice, self-respect suffers.
That is true… For empaths.
But Machiavellians don’t really feel much mental blowback if they disregard rules of ethics and moral conducts.
And albeit it’s good to be an empath, this website also says that being able to severe our morality from certain actions -or people- is helpful in life.
So it’s possible that instead of focusing on making all your actions in line, you might want to focus on being more fluid. Ethical and moral with the people and situations who deserve it, and being able to disregard the “rules” when the situation or the individual you’re dealing with calls for it.
Conflates ego with self-esteem
Writes the author:
With a pretense at regret he will sometimes declare, “I can’t help it—I have a big ego.” The truth is, he has a small one, but his energies are invested in never knowing that.
But as psychologist Roy Baumeister explains, they’re not the same.
I’ve noticed that happening more than once across “The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem”.
Sometimes it Felt Unscientific
The author writes based on:
- His experience as a therapist
- His intuition / analysis
- His philosophy of life
Most of the times, and in most of the crucial concepts, his theory seems to add up and his advice is spot-on.
But some other times it felt that his framework was more based on personal opinions and worldviews, and less on experience or science.
Science seemed indeed to be largely missing.
When it was introduced, the author quoted some studies and work that turned out to be only partially correct pop-psychology -like the learning styles and Margaret Mead’s ethnographic work with the Samoans-.
Self-esteem is what Branden likes, rather than what truly is
More than once I felt that what was good for self-esteem is what supported the author’s philosophy and worldview, rather than what’s been proven to be.
- Commitment to learning supports self-esteem?
How does a “commitment to learning” underpin self-esteem?
I’m all for learning, it’s one of my life’s main activities and this website also offers learning products.
But… I don’t necessarily posit that it underpins self-esteem.
It can help in many cases, yes, since expanding knowledge and skills also mean expanding power and the expanded capacity to control the world around us.
But I’m not convinced that correlation is all that strong. Unless one has developed a growth mindset, learning can also sneakily presuppose that one does not know enough.
- Is putting the individual before the community a necessary aspect of self-esteem?
Again, I agree with the idea and philosophy.
I’m the biggest proponent around for individuals before groups. Also from a power dynamics and self-empowerment perspective.
But is it really foundational to self-esteem?
I haven’t seen any evidence that convinced me of it.
- Purposeful living only counts if you pursue “good” goals?
The author says that the type of work and goals you pursue don’t matter… As long as they’re not “intrinsically antilife”.
Again, I agree with him from an ethical standpoint.
But who says that a terrorist can’t have high self-esteem if he believes that’s God’s work?
And who says that a man pursuing ethnic cleansing in the belief that it’s the best thing to do cannot have high self-esteem?
- Self-esteem must be grounded in reality? Must… ?
The author stresses the relationship between realism and self-esteem.
Man of high self-esteem look at reality, he says.
I’m sure that being grounded in reality helps to achieve reality-based goals.
Yet, I’m not convinced at all that one cannot have high self-esteem without being fully grounded in reality.
- The author’s political preferences become ingredients and advice for healthy self-esteem
In the last part of the book, it becomes clear Branden holds strong political views.
He supports capitalism and more individualistic societies, and dislikes communism, heavy taxation, and collectivist societies.
Describing scenes of looting, he says that they are the consequences of professors who taught, I quote, that “no one is responsible for anything he or she does (except the greedy capitalists who own the stores and deserve whatever trouble they get).”
That felt like a political statement, not a scientific one.
You can then understand why Branden spent so much time defending himself against the accusations of being culturally and politically biased.
He also doesn’t seem to agree -and maybe even understand- Buddhism.
Understood correctly, there is nothing intrinsically “Western” about a strong goal orientation. When Buddha set out in search of enlightenment, was he not moved by a passionate purpose?
Actually, I’m not sure Buddhism is moved by a passionate purpose.
For the record, I’m also all for capitalism. But I don’t necessarily agree with the author that Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia stifled self-esteem.
- Moral integrity (& hipocrisy)
The author makes morals and integrity central to self-esteem.
I’m not only unconvinced but actually disagree with it.
It’s people with the strongest pre-set morals who engage the most in mental machinations to justify their own non-moral behavior (cognitive dissonance).
It’s also noteworthy that the author saw nothing wrong in badmouthing his former partner.
I wonder if that shouldn’t count as “not right” and decrease his self-esteem?
I guess it didn’t:
Vindictive & nasty towards his ex: where are the moral values & integrity?
Read below in the “cons”.
And please note, this isn’t so much about his action and whether or not they were correct.
It’s also about the pillars of self-esteem and what contributes -and what doesn’t- to self-esteem.
If behaving correctly is so important, and if the author seems to suggest he has come such a long way in curating his self-esteem, shouldn’t we see moral behavior from him?
So when I read the passages of him badmouthing his ex, that undermines much of his vaunted need and importance of “values” for self-esteem.
As a matter of fact, for me it’s a red flag when someone pushes a tad too hard on the importance of value and living life according to certain values.
It’s a red flag of potential manipulation and self-manipulation.
Says Brendan of her former partner:
She did not require full agreement among acquaintances, but with anyone who wanted to be truly close, enormous enthusiasm was expected for every deed and utterance.
for example, I found her self-congratulatory remarks excessive or her lack of empathy disquieting or her pontificating unworthy of her.
This passage serves absolutely nothing in explaining self-esteem.
So it must be put there as an attempt to defame his ex.
“Unworthy of her” is a nasty covert power move.
By implying that a woman like Ayn Rand should be held to a high standard, he seeks to sound less nasty and more giving, while delivering the same power punch -or, actually, even more powerful, since he seeks to self-frame as a balanced, giving individual-.
Read more here.
Accepting your dark side might do better things for your self-esteem
I lost much respect for the author with that passage quoted above.
It’s possible that the author has not accepted his dark side.
He refuses to look and admit to his own anger and hatred of his ex, and his will to harm her.
I think that it’s much better for your self-esteem if rather than pretending you’re good and nice, you accept your own darker drive.
And that’s also a much better way to eventually act and become more moral, by the way.
These are some “cons” that aren’t necessarily about the concept of self-esteem:
Ayn Rand: nasty behavior & airing dirty laundry
There are several passages in which Branden discusses his relationship with Ayn Rand.
Even when I was first reading the book, and completely oblivious to their relationship, I was astonished by those passages.
They seemed overly nasty towards Rand, and I knew something interesting from a power dynamics point of view was up.
I had to look further into it.
The story that emerges is not pretty.
It seems to me this was a toxic, emotionally (highly) addictive relationship with some personality disturbance in it. And the two parties were too enmeshed in it, both emotionally, and financially.
I can understand his personal anger and frustration.
I read part of Ayn Rand letter. She seems to be the first to make a public and open attack. She comes across as spiteful and I can see a lot of power moves and nastiness in that letter.
Branden’s own answer isn’t much better though.
He also goes very low.
And comes across equally cheap and vindictive.
Rand seems volatile and dark-triad narcissistic.
However, the author should have soared higher after a certain point.
I think the author shouldn’t have kept airing his grievances and using his future work as an opportunity to attack again. It reflects poorly on him, and on his own work.
This is a strong reminder that to avoid this nasty stuff you need social strategies more than self-esteem.
“Back then when it was better” fallacy
More than once the author seems to believe that the world is getting worse.
That today it’s worse, and back then it was better.
The challenge for people today, and it is not an easy one, is to maintain high personal standards while feeling that one is living in a moral sewer.
Grounds for such a feeling are to be found in the behavior of our public figures, the horror of world events, and in our so-called art and entertainment, so much of which celebrates depravity, cruelty, and mindless violence.
All contribute to making the practice of personal integrity a lonely and heroic undertaking.
I don’t believe that for a second.
And not necessarily because the world is getting better and more virtuous as Pinker implies. But because people are pretty much the same across the centuries.
Among the many pros:
- One of the best overviews on self-esteem
And that should be your main reason to read it.
Plus, it also provides a good overview of general mental health and well-being.
Next, I personally deeply enjoyed:
- Win-win philosophy based on healthy self-interest
- Personal self-development based around the self before any group or affiliation
- Self-esteem based on personal growth and self-empowerment
- Foundational mindset of “deserving respecful behavior” are spot-on
- Useful exercises
“The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem” is a foundational book for personal self-development.
Much of the advice and philosophy also expands, complements, or mentions some of this website’s philosophy and approach to self-empowerment.
As a matter of fact, I was surprised at the overlap.
I went through some passages while nodding and thinking “exactly right, as this article expands on”.