Newborn infants are totally dependent on others to meet their
needs. As they grow—and experience the world, develop a sense of self, of others, of
social structure, etc. —a
self concept forms as part of their worldview. Ideally they emerge as
adults who have learned how to meet their own needs.
What are those needs? American
psychologist Abraham Maslow (1908-1970) ranked them in hierarchal
fashion, from most basic to highest, as follows:
1) physiological: air, water, food, shelter, sleep,
2) safety: feeling secure,
not feeling threatened;
3) belongingness and love;
4) self esteem and esteem by others;
5) growth needs: both cognitive and
aesthetic leading to self
In considering those "Struggling With a Basic Need:
Sustenance" (theme #24), we recognize people whose lives center
around meeting needs in Maslow's first and second categories.
Here we look at those struggling to meet higher needs: those
related to self esteem.
Whereas self concept includes understanding and appreciating
uniqueness without evaluative judgment, self
esteem measures personal worth or worthiness generally based on a
mixture of reasoned belief and emotion. To some extent—social psychologists say it is
large—your self esteem is based on your internally incorporating other
people's evaluations of you.
One can fear peers' negative evaluations and live a life of
conformity to avoid them. Or
one can internalize the negativity and magnify its importance.
Consider one account (from an NMHIC booklet) of where this can
lead: "You may be giving yourself negative messages about yourself. Many people do. These
are messages that you learned when you were young. You learned from many different sources including other
children, your teachers, family members, caregivers, even from the
media, and from prejudice and stigma in our society.
Once you have learned them, you may have repeated these negative
messages over and over to yourself, especially when you were not feeling
well or when you were having a hard time.
You may have come to believe them.
You may have even worsened the problem by making up some negative
messages or thoughts of your own. These
negative thoughts or messages make you feel bad about yourself and lower
your self-esteem." Figures
#41a and #41b provide lists of things you can do to counter this
negativity and raise your self esteem.
is full of stress and needs temporally or permanently going unmet.
Such occurrences are sources of anxiety. Psychologically healthy
individuals use assertive coping mechanisms to deal with anxiety.
They include: 1) changing the environment or situation, 2)
changing one's behavior, and, when these fail or are impossible, 3)
learning to mentally
manage the stress and minimize its internal effects.
Those with mental problems, including low self esteem, are often
unable to do any of these—especially the last one.
Instead they turn (sometimes unconsciously) to various defense
mechanisms, which are typically less effective and often serve as
stopgaps in "emergencies."
Their frequent use signals mental problems.
Thus an adult who often fantasizes, regresses or projects (his or
her own unpleasant thoughts and motives onto others) may be emotionally
immature; one who often represses unpleasant thoughts or redirects
strong feelings to a safer target (displacement) may be neurotic.
Such people suffer from a neurotic disorder or neurosis:
an emotional disturbance characterized by high levels of stress and
anxiety, depression, low
self-confidence, and/or emotional instability.
Neurotics tend to be emotionally needy. Maslow characterizes their needs as neurotic needs when
they do not promote health or growth if they are satisfied. Karen Horney (1885-1952) studied them in developing a
theory of neurosis. She
viewed neurotic needs as representing overused (often irrational or
inappropriate) strategies for coping with basic anxiety caused by
interpersonal relationships. She
identified ten such needs— including needs for affection and approval,
power, prestige, personal admiration and achievement, perfection and
unassailability, etc. While these are based on things that all humans need, in
neurotics the need is distorted and too intense. If the need is unmet, or it appears that it will not be met
in the future, this can be the source of great anxiety.
Many people with unmet needs operate in crisis mode as if some
emergency exists. While
their anxiety and inability to relax suggests the crisis is real, in
fact the emergency is often self-created.
In contrast, if truly basic needs are unmet—perhaps one is
hungry and food is not available—a real emergency exists in a life and
Why make this contrast? For two reasons—offered here in the
form of advice for those in the affluent world struggling with unmet
needs, and annually spending $billions on psychotherapy:
Finally, if the gap between your idealized
behavior and actual behavior is large—if you don't practice what you
preach—or if you ignore your conscience, the resulting guilt and
hypocrisy can damage self esteem. (See
the negative feedback model in Figure #29b, and definitions in Figure
the long run, this can matter more than the opinion of others!
Note: Figures #41a and #41b above and at the right have been adapted from the booklet Building Self Esteem—A Self Help Guide from the National Mental Health Information Center (NMHIC).
back to worldview theme #41