The difference between Self-Esteem and Confidence (and why it matters)

Confidence and self-esteem are often used interchangeably. So often, that we see them as synonyms. Or at least, very close –like the two sides of the same coin. Or like twin brothers. Or Hansel and Gretel—they always seem to go together.

Admittedly, it’s a bit of a confusing tale when it comes to these two terms. After all, many of the self-help books and articles do use them reciprocally. And in many ways they are similar as they refer to the very same thing: a belief in our abilities, a sense of control over our destiny, and love and respect for ourselves.

But psychologists tell us that there is a difference between the two—they are not quite identical. Here is why.

  • The best way to understand the nuance is to think about self-esteem as being described by the sentence “I am…” People with positive self-opinions will complete this as “I am worthy/capable/smart/lovable/in shape/ attractive/ in control/ a good person/ deserving respect/ optimistic about the future, etc.” In contrast, those with low self-esteem will describe themselves in unflattering terms.

So, self-esteem shows how much we generally like or dislike ourselves. It’s an internal feeling.

Confidence, on the other hand, can be best described by the sentence “I can…” For instance, for someone with a healthy confidence this will sound along the lines of: “I can achieve my goals/ I can do this challenge/ I can overcome this.”

That is, our level of confidence reveals how much we believe we can weather adversities. It’s an external manifestation of our internal “like myself– or not” feelings.

  • Another good distinction comes from Dr. Richard Petty—a professor and chair of the department of psychology at Ohio State University. In his Ted Talk “Confidence: What Does it do?” he also talks about confidence being different from self-esteem. Self-esteem, he says, is how much we like or dislike ourselves.

Confidence is simply how certain we are of this opinion. It’s a magnifier of the thoughts and feelings we have about ourselves.

  • If we further trace the words to their Latin roots, it quickly becomes evident that they are not the same. Confidence derives from the word “confidere” which means “to have full trust.” Esteem, in comparison, comes from “aestimare” or “to value, appraise, weigh, estimate.”

Therefore, self-esteem is to have an estimate of our own worth, while confidence is to trust ourselves and our abilities to succeed.

. . .

However, although apparently distinct, confidence and self-esteem are very close friends.

If you want to create lasting positive self-opinions, you can’t really have one without the other.

Just think about it—if you don’t believe in your own value, how can you convince the world to give you the respect you crave? If you don’t feel a sense of worth in the first place, can you act convincingly enough on the premise?

This is also the main reason why I don’t agree with the “Fake it ‘til you make it” adage. It doesn’t work. Faking confidence won’t give you the inner sense of worthiness that is necessary for long-lasting self-esteem. If anything, faking it can intensify your anxiety once you realise that pretending is not the path to feeling greater love and acceptance of yourself.

Therefore, to be confident—that is, to be able to project assertiveness and belief in your worthiness and your skills and qualities—you must feel it on inside first, not fake it on the outside. 

And if what you are trying to project externally to the world doesn’t coincide with how you feel about yourself, a clash is imminent. The act will be eventually called out.

Research confirms it as well. A study from Michigan State University asked customer service employees to fake smiles while working. They reportedly felt worse, experienced work withdrawal and their productivity decreased. When the exercise was repeated again, though, this time around asking participants to think of something pleasant and meaningful, such as an upcoming vacation or their children, their moods improved. [[1] ]

Over the long run, faking it may also produce some serious health problems as the behaviour we are playing ultimately clashes with our beliefs and true feelings.

There is nothing wrong with trying to present our best selves, though, or with putting on a Superman suit when we need to make a good impression—ace a job interview or speak with a client, or even your in-laws when you first meet them.

But remember that if you don’t feel confident, you will never be successfully able to act confident convincingly enough—not for long, at least.

You won’t be able to behave as someone who has complete and utter belief and acceptance of themselves. Not a chance.

How do I know this?— I’ve been there, enough times to know that it’s impossible to become confident if you don’t start at the right place—on the inside, by building a proper sense of self-worth first.

And I also know that until you have that strong inner foundation to safeguard you against failings, criticism, doubt, others’ sometimes hurtful behaviour and words—you can never win the confidence game with yourself and the outside world.

It all starts from the inside out— you build your self-esteem first and the confidence part will ensue.

~ Evelyn ~


[1] Brent A. Scott, Christopher M. Barnes. A Multilevel Field Investigation of Emotional Labor, Affect, Work Withdrawal, and Gender. Academy of Management Journal, Volume 54, Number 1 February 2011

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