Confidence vs Self-Esteem: The Difference & How To Build Yourself In a Balanced Way

Confidence and Self-Esteem are 2 very similar concepts people often confuse. Having weakness in one or the other is problematic in life, but these 2 capacities are actually built in pretty distinct ways. 

In that sense, it’s useful to know the difference, so you can see where your growth areas might be, and make the right kind of effort towards having a more well-rounded life.

I liked Heaven & Hell by Neel Burton. It’s pretty much a dictionary of the emotions written by someone’s who’s a psychiatrist by training, a philosopher, and a Oxford U professor.


See original image
Neel Burton at Tedx Maribor, 2012


I want to zoom in on his definition of self-confidence and self-esteem:  


“Confidence” comes from the Latin fidere, “to trust.” To be self-confident is to trust in oneself, and, in particular, in one’s ability or aptitude to engage successfully or at least adequately with the world. A self-confident person is ready to rise to new challenges, seize opportunities, deal with difficult situations, and take responsibility if and when things go awry.

“Esteem” is derived from the Latin aestimare, meaning “to appraise, value, rate, weigh, estimate,” and self-esteem is our cognitive and, above all, emotional appraisal of our own worth. More than that, it is the matrix through which we think, feel, and act, and reflects and determines our relation to ourselves, to others, and to the world.

-Adapted from his book, and sourced from an article he wrote on Psychology Today


So let’s see what he’s saying here:


Confidence = Trust in our own ability to succeed 

Self-Esteem = Appraisal of your our own worth 


He then goes on to nuance these definitions: 


Just as self-confidence leads to successful experience, so successful experience leads to self-confidence. Although any successful experience contributes to our overall confidence, it is, of course, possible to be highly confident in one area, such as cooking or dancing, but very insecure in another, such as mathematics or public speaking. 


I could not agree more. Self-confidence is situational. It’ll come and go depending on the presence or absence of certain conditions. I’ve also written about this:


Read: The 6 Components of Self-Confidence


So what about self-esteem, how’s that different? 


People with a healthy self-esteem do not need to prop themselves up with externals such as income, status, or notoriety, or lean on crutches such as alcohol, drugs, or sex. To the contrary, they treat themselves with respect and take care of their health, community, and environment. They are able to invest themselves completely in projects and people because they do not fear failure or rejection. Of course they suffer hurt and disappointment, but their setbacks neither damage nor diminish them. Owing to their resilience, they are open to growth experiences and meaningful relationships, are tolerant of risk, quick to joy and delight, and are accepting and forgiving of themselves and others. 


So it’s possible to have, say, high self-confidence, and low self-esteem. Simultaneously. And vice-versa.


Self-esteem is inner dialogue.


See original image


It’s what you feel when you look in the mirror every morning, or get to spend time in your own company. It’s the story in you head. 

But now here’s the question: If confidence can be molded by outside factors. (I’m good at pool/ I suck at pool) What outside factors work on our inner dialogue? (self-esteem)

I mean who tells the voice in our head what to say and when? Who “teaches” us what is considered good/bad, appropriate/inappropriate and when certain attitudes and behaviors are or aren’t desirable? 

If you’re over the age of like.. 12.. you already know parental pressure (what mommy wants, what daddy wants), peer pressure (how to keep my friends), and soon straight up social pressure (how to maintain whatever status I’ve gained as a member of society).  

My point is this:


Our relationships with other people set the standard


See original image


In the West, self-esteem is primarily based on achievement, whereas in the East it is primarily based on ‘worthiness’, that is, on being seen and accepted as a good member of the family, community, and other in-groups. In the West, you can get away with being a bad in-group member so long as you are successful; in the East, you can get away with being unsuccessful so long as you are a good in-group member. – Neel Burton

But regardless of where in the world you live, who decides what constitutes adequate achievement, or adequate worthiness? 

Again, that’s the people around you: Mom, Dad, Joe, Jane, even the society you’re part of could have a cultural appreciation of achievement of worthiness. 

So for a young child, getting into the good graces of say, mom and dad, is not only more comfortable, but it could very well be a matter of self-esteem later on in adult life.

And for an adult today, getting into the good graces of friends, family, and indeed society, is not only a more comfortable way to live.

It’s also a way to keep feeling good about oneself.

That’s called seeking approval. 🙂 

And of course there’s nothing wrong with seeking approval per se. Not as far as I can see at least. We all do it, to varying degrees. But this isn’t a discussion about approval-seeking behavior, right or wrong, where you stand, or where I stand. That’s all irrelevant.

My point is this:


Gaining approval is more or less important for self-esteem development, at varying degrees for different people, and depending on the stage of life that is being experienced.


See original image


No 2 people are the same. What we’re doing here is simply seeking an understanding of how self-esteem is created. And it seems to me like approval could have something to do with it.

But of course I’m no expert in human development. You can see for yourself what people who are have said on the topic: 

 Read: 10 Sources of Low Self-Esteem

 Read: 8 Common Causes of Low Self-Esteem

 Read: Causes of Low Self-Esteem and How To Change Them

What you’ll see read again and again is:

  • Parental support (or lack thereof).
  • History of physical/emotional abuse.
  • Negative influences and environments.
  • Even society and the media.

My point is to draw your attention to just how much relationships affect how we feel about ourselves.

Therefore, it is in your own interest to evaluate with precision, who (or what) in your life is influential. And in what ways.   

What isn’t so obvious a lot of times are the more subtle forms of emotional traumas that can and do hurt our self-esteem as adults:

  • Like feeling used, or exploited.
  • Not having quite enough financial stability in a society that pretty much worships money.
  • Being in a relationship where subtle forms of abuse happen regularly. (Stonewalling, gaslighting, obfuscation, the silent treatment…etc)


Read: 30 Signs Of Emotional Abuse


These are all subtle ways in which healthy adults can be broken. And it happens bit by bit. Until some day you wake up and realize you just kind of hate yourself. 

The ugly part of it all is that sometimes this is precisely where the master wants you. Where they can manipulate you most effortlessly. 

The nasty side of human nature.

The key is awareness, knowing how to take back control, and knowing how to protect yourself. 


It’s not always necessary to gain approval from “others” in order to feel good about yourself.



Personally, I love to see someone who can think for themselves. And contrary to popular belief, this is actually pretty rare, in my experience. 

I do not have the necessary expertise to be able to point fingers at society and say: “This is why x,y,z.” But it does seem to me like MANY would rather do something to gain approval then do something to gain.. satisfaction. 

No judgement here. Just an observation. Hopefully it stirs something for you. Maybe further thought. Maybe an idea or a feeling. Or maybe nothing at all. 

What I’m saying is that at any time there is always an alternative solution to your dilemma: Doing what you want and feeling good because of it. 

That’s called having your own standards, and living up to your own expectations, and it does feel very good too. Provided you’re in a position to make moves without hurting other people, obviously.  

It’s not to say that you start ignoring what people in your circles think of you. It’s that you begin to take that as feedback rather than gospel. Their opinion of you takes a backseat to your opinion of you.

That, to me, is very fierce.  

I said “having your own standards” but call it anything you want: Self-respect, self-reliance, agency, self-expression, confidence…heck entitlement even I guess lol. 

My point is that sometimes (and maybe more so for some of us) standing up for yourself feels good too. 


Find what is meaningful to you, and get close to like-minded people. 



That’s how you build a good support system around your strength. Because without proper support, even the strongest battalion falls.

It’s still true, as we’ve seen, that having a good support system is very important to nurture and grow self-esteem. 

And yes, sometimes protecting yourself means cutting certain people out of your life. 


See original image


I’ve picked on my little brother long enough to know this is absolutely true. 

  • People want to make you feel inadequate because they’re afraid they might be inadequate. Not your problem.
  • They want to make you feel scared or insecure because they are insecure. Not your problem.
  • They want to make you feel like you can’t do something because they know they couldn’t do it themselves. Not your problem. 

Their lack of support has nothing to do with you, it never did. 

If certain people you know are going through a personal phase that causes them to make you feel like less than you are, it’s not your job to baby them back to bed with you. 

In fact, they might not even want to. They might have evolved past the point of dealing with you all-together. And that’s fine. If you love somebody you have to be willing to let them grow and learn their own lessons. 

And it can be hard to be honest with yourself about relationships that aren’t working out. But it’s also one of the most important gifts you could give yourself, your happiness, and your future.

The gift of opportunity.  


Positivity feeds potential, toxicity suffocates it.


See original image


You got a dream, you gotta protect it. -The Pursuit of Happiness

And it’s not that you need only “perfect” people in your life either. Nobody’s perfect. What you want to be dealing with are people who:

  • Are supportive of you
  • Treat you with respect
  • Know how to deal with interpersonal issues in a mature way (communication, negotiation, settlement, compromise) 

That’s an environment in which self-esteem can survive. Add to that some meaningful work you do, the confidence to go after the achievements you want, the relevant knowledge and skills, and there’s no way you’re not going to be successful in life.

And you can take that to the bank. 

Leave a Reply