You may have heard the term 'self-esteem' a great deal, but have you ever wondered exactly what it means? Some people equate self-esteem with confidence, self-love or self-interest, but none of those concepts really captures what is meant by the term.

Before we get much farther in our discussion, then, let's agree on a basic definition. Self-esteem is the belief each person has about whether or not they are valuable. If they don't think they have much value, that's referred to as 'low self-esteem'. If, on the other hand, they see themselves as being valuable, they are thought to have 'healthy self-esteem'.

Now that we've established what it is, let's talk about the impact our self-esteem has on our lives. Surprisingly, research done in the past five years seems to show that the 'self-esteem movement' of the 80s and 90s may have been a bit misguided.

You may already know that, beginning in California in the early 1980s, educators had formed curriculae around the concept that children who develop good self-esteem tend to resist peer pressure more successfully. That, in turn, has been thought to be an effective way of reducing drug use, high school dropout rates and teen pregnancy.

The proponents of the self-esteem movement believe children's self-esteem is most influenced by negative early childhood experiences such as abuse. Many states followed suit and made huge investments in bolstering the self-esteem of school children through education programs, so that they would become responsible adults.

But two surprising notions have come to light: recent research seems to indicate that healthy self-esteem is not a reliable indicator of success in life, in fact, the reverse appears to be true.

In fact, a large study by Brown University which was published in 2003 suggests that self-esteem follows success. What they found was that a marked increase in self-esteem occurred consistently when their subjects were able to accomplish their goals.

You should also know that the new research that challenges the belief that children's self-esteem is largely formed within the family, or perhaps in the classroom, may be wrong-headed. What they found when surveying their respondents was that those people, whether they exhibited good or poor self-esteem, measured themselves against their social values.

Put another way, their social values, or what their society deems valuable, form the framework for whether they feel they, themselves, have value. For example, if the society in which they live values knowledge, and they are able to study and learn easily, their self-esteem grows as they achieve that social value.

So now, we've arrived back to our original question: what exactly, then, is self-esteem? Based on what we've discussed, our definition can now be: the value a person places on themselves in the context of their larger society and its values. It remains to be seen how that new definition will change the way healthy self-esteem is encouraged in children.

Author's Bio: 

Peter Julian is the Self-Growth Guide for Accelerated Learning and writes about the powerful role of Self-Esteem in effective learning. Find out more about how you can create strong and lasting Self-Esteem in only 30 minutes a day!