I am very well aware that what self-esteem is to therapy self-respect is to coaching. Thus, the distinction is vitally important to me and to this blog.
According to Theodore Dalrymple, self-esteem: "... is the appreciation of one's own worth and importance." Link here.
Self-esteem means knowing your value and knowing how important you are. As well as I can guess, the term derives from the fact that we say that we hold certain people in high esteem. We admire them; we respect them; we look up to them; we recognize their importance; we want to be like them.
But it is not quite the same thing to say that you hold yourself in high esteem. At the least, that involves arrogance; at worst, it is conceptually incoherent. What would it mean to say that you look up to yourself, or that you would want to emulate yourself?
Perhaps that is the key to understanding the concept of self-esteem: it is nonsense.
It doesn't make much sense to say that you hold yourself in low esteem. Nor does it help to use the term as the therapy culture seems to require, where it has become, in Dalrymple's words, a catch-all excuse for: "any undesirable behavior or experience... from eating too much to mass murder."
Once the concept is applied to widely, it becomes nearly meaningless. Which makes its own sense.
When someone says that he has low self-esteem, he is using a socially acceptable excuse. He is showing that he expects to be forgiven and expects to avoid responsibility because he is showing himself to be a member in good standing of the therapy culture.
Therapeutically speaking, the term suggests, as Dalrymple says, that people have been induced to believe that if they get a "transfusion" of self-esteem, then "the quality of their lives will improve as the night succeeds the day."
Self-esteem would then be a psychological elixir, a panacea, a cure-all, a philosopher's stone that will magically transform your leaden misery into golden happiness.
Self-esteem tends to be auto-generated. People talk themselves into feeling good about themselves. They stand in front of the mirror intoning: I am worthy; I am better than they think: I am better than my accomplishments.
It is self-congratulatory self-puffery.
Worse yet, Dalrymple notes, people have come to believe that they have a right to self-esteem. And that others must recognize them for the way they feel about themselves, not for the value of any accomplishment. They believe that society owes them esteem, whether they deserve it or not, whether they have earned it or not.
When others do not acknowledge the person who has puffed up his self-esteem, that person will become angry and resentful, and will feel disrespected or dissed. If your accomplishments are not commensurates with your sense of how great you are, you will resent the world that refuses to recognize you and to accord you your due.
Self-respect is something else. Dalrymple describes it: "Where self-esteem is entirely egotistical, requiring that the world should pay court to oneself whatever oneself happens to be like or do, and demands nothing of the person who wants it, self-respect is a social virtue, a discipline, that requires an awareness of and sensitivity to the feelings of others."
So, self-esteem involves convincing yourself that you are better than you are. Self-respect involves building your character so that you become as good as you should be. And where self-esteem values your feelings about yourself self-respect requires you to accept how others feel about you.