When low self-esteem is powerful!

Photo by Ioana Casapu on Unsplash

When low self-esteem is powerful!

And why you think I’m wrong.

Steve Sisler runs the Behavioural Resource Group, and he recently complimented someone on their low self-esteem. I was taken aback, as were they.

On receiving the compliment they said, “what do you mean its a good thing, I hear what you’re saying but it feels like the wrong word, I don’t think I have low self-esteem”.

I thought to myself, I have never heard of low self-esteem as a positive.

Steve Sisler is a behavioural analyst (no not like the FBI) that develops individual and organisational excellence through an understanding of people. When I heard his explanation, I realised I agreed, but not in every situation.

I mentor several people and I recently had a conversation about self-esteem with one of them. I asked them a question.

“How many times would you have to do something to become confident that you could do it?”.

They responded, “it depends on what it is, probably a fair few”.

I knew somewhat of their abilities, I asked them a question about a skill that I knew that they had, but set an above-average target for achieving a result five times, and asked them the same question.

They replied “To be sure I’d say 10 or 15 times”. I thought that was overly conservative and said I was confident it would only take them five times. This person has lower self-esteem and I think it is amazing.

Here is why I think so.

Self-Esteem and Self-Confidence

Esteem of self and Confidence of self are coupled but are not the same thing.

One is an internal appraisal of your self, the other is an appraisal of your abilities. Confidence is earned through success, esteem is earned through overcoming failure, or missed success and finding a different positive.

Sometimes esteem is challenged when success isn’t quite ‘success-y’ enough. Someone with lower self-esteem will often see all the things that did not go as well as it could in achieving that success. They will think of certain situations in that project or body of work and criticise how it could be improved. They may take confidence from that success, but they will caveat it.

The person with high self-confidence will acknowledge within themselves that their abilities allowed them to succeed.

A quick Google search on Self-Esteem will render a myriad of articles on what it is and how to improve it, and even a catchy Offspring song I had forgotten about. Some of them will even draw the comparison to self-confidence and a term that I have only recently become familiar with, self-efficacy (confidence in your capacities, or your capacity for success). But, none of these articles reflects the comment made by Steve Sisler on low self-esteem being positive (it does appear that many people are struggling with self-esteem).

You can imagine high self-esteem and high self-efficacy leading to a person who has high regard of the abilities and their capacity to succeed and therefore earn self-confidence. But what of the person with lower self-esteem, but some confidence in their abilities. It turns out that there is a place where this is an asset. If you want to improve your confidence you can improve your self-esteem, or your ability to finish things successfully (your efficacy).

Esteem x Efficacy = Confidence

So to maximise this equation as someone with low self-esteem you need to couple it with a term I call Drive.

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You know some of those people with drive. They seem out to prove people wrong, to achieve despite the odds against them. They set themselves continuous challenges, identify areas to improve and they like to keep score. Nothing they complete was ever done to their best.

They love challenges that they can rate themselves, they are comfortable starting new things where scores can be kept because they know they can continue to measure themselves and improve.

Those people with high Drive can persist, they have resilience and determination. Angela Duckworth popularised the term Grit and the power of perseverance in this sense. The Drive I am discussing is the internal motivation type, intrinsic to their sense of self. These people are driven through the desire to continuously improve. Due to their blunt honesty with themselves about the areas they have that require improvement, they lead themselves to a place of lower self-esteem. Many of these people value honesty, continuous improvement and accountability.

However, if low self-esteem is coupled with Drive, then they can set out to prove everyone wrong, including themselves.

I’ll give you a few celebrity examples;

Oprah Winfrey

Born into poverty and sexually assaulted and raped in her childhood, leading to an unexpected pregnancy at 14 (not due to rape, but poor sexual esteem and bad relationships, in which she lost due to premature birth) had left Oprah with very low self-esteem and plenty of trauma to overcome.

This low sense of self, but coupled with a burning desire to prove everyone wrong, led Oprah to the top of the media world. She earnt a scholarship to an upper-class High School, then through her oratory skills a scholarship to University. This was the one thing that Oprah had self-confidence in, that she earnt through interactions as a youth with her Grandmother and fostered through to adulthood.

Oprah had Drive to improve the lives of people, and harnessed her unique capabilities to do so.

Russell Brand

Russell had an unhealthy sense of self, this led him to addictive behaviours and eating disorders. An extract from a Men’s Health article Russell authored states;

But back then, in my gurgling and nervous childhood and rash and frenetic teens I just felt inadequate, incomplete. Not good enough. And it hurt. I looked out at the world as if from within an aquarium and I felt lonely. I also had no technique for addressing that feeling, so I had to invent some.

Russell has switched from addictive behaviour (addictive eating and bulimia) to addictive behaviour (sex and drugs) as a method of coping, until realising that a different start point may yield a different endpoint.

His ability to deflect criticism and instead put others on the back foot led him to be good at rhetoric and creative speaking, this led him to success as a comedian and actor. He used this public forum as a method of striving against the caveats he had applied to himself. Fighting against his low self-esteem with a desire to prove everyone wrong.

These celebrities had the drive to prove themselves wrong, to prove that they can overcome their weaknesses — to re-define themselves. But they started with low self-esteem. They started from a very low point, many others are not coming from such a dark past, but may still have lower self-esteem and a passion for improvement. Low self-esteem but high drive.

These are the people we can relate to. The people who know they are not perfect and own those imperfections, even when others might tell them they are being silly or exaggerating. These are the people who get so much done in the organisation and are very humble in achieving it. 

They focus on results, not platitudes. They regularly shun praise and deflect it to others that helped in their success.

They are the most amazing team members, so very important to creating high-performing teams. The unsung heroes of amazing. But even they need to consider the steps to feeling like they confidently add value to the organisation. They grow to own their unique and valuable contributions through the act of finishing things.

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Fostering Self-Esteem and Drive through Efficacy

There are many ways to assist in fostering self-esteem and drive. It is something we can all work on, as the coupling of these two attributes is so powerful. 

Here’s the fantastic thing — drive leads to higher self-esteem. This is developed through a sense of accomplishment. 

If you set out to do something, and persist when things become difficult and succeed. You increase your feeling of efficacy (confidence in your ability to succeed). If your efficacy goes up, your confidence goes up, and importantly your self-esteem goes up. Efficacy is your drive to finish what you start.

Esteem x Drive (Finishing) = Confidence

and increasing confidence increases Esteem

So, set yourself SMART goals, and start finishing them. Your focus in preparing your success criteria and requirements for finishing will give you self-confidence. Your diligence and drive will prove your efficacy and this will drive your confidence.

Getting it done, even when there is an inner critic telling you that you may not be able to, is the quickest and best way to positively change your self-esteem. Think of lower self-esteem as a powerful gift, and work out how to harness your drive to create self-success.

Self-success is your ultimate goal, a success that you define — and if you define it, you control it.

Stay safe and keep smiling,


I am a writer with a passion for leadership, growth and personal development. I try and create a spark, a little idea that nests inside and kindles your aspirations. All my articles can be found on Medium.

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