Confidence VS Self-Esteem

Katty Kay

What’s the difference between confidence and self esteem? When we started researching this subject we assumed the two were pretty much interchangeable. We were young(er) and naïve back then. The difference between these two qualities is the subject of fierce debate among academics with ferociously committed detractors and supporters on boths sides. Who knew you could go to battle over psychology.

Basically self esteem is the value you see yourself having in the world. “Am I worthwhile human being?” Answer that question with a yes and the chances are you have pretty high self esteem. It’s not a quality that changes very much since it is related to a broad sense of personal value or self worth. If you have high self esteem at work, you probably have it in other areas of your life too, because this is a reflection of how you see yourself. People with high self esteem tend to see the universe as a pretty friendly place.

Confidence, on the other hand, is related to action, it’s a belief that you can succeed at something. Psychologists call it domain specific. So, you can be confident about one area of your life, but totally unconfident about another. “I am confident that I am a good manager but I’m not at all confident about speaking in public.

In many ways it is easier to grow your confidence than your self esteem. Confidence builds by taking action and trying things you find hard, by going outside your comfort zone. If you work at that public speaking, bit by bit, you will become more confident of your abilities. You may never be perfect but that’s not the point, confidence is about facing obstacles and realizing you’re still alive even when you fail.

Obviously there’s a correlation between these two qualities. If you have high self esteem you are likely to be a more confident person too. But not always. Andre Agassi is a classic example of someone who was perfectly confident of their ablity to play great tennis, but was riddled with anxiety in the rest of his life.

The debate stems from a growing belief among psychologists that the self esteem movement of the past couple of decades has been unhelpful. Programs in schools and therapy offices have focused on getting people to believe they were great human beings. Everyone, we were told, was a winner, perfect just as they were. The trouble with that is that just telling people it didn’t build solid self worth, it wasn’t based on a foundation of concrete results. So, the self esteem was fragile.

The virtue of confidence is that it is constructed on solid achievements. Say you want to learn to swim but you don’t believe you will be any good – so you take lessons, practice and sure enough if you put in the effort  and learn to swim. Now, you will never be an Olympic swimmer, but you will learn to swim across the lake. And you have built your confidence because you have mastered a task you found daunting.

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