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Healthy Self-Esteem – I Hold Myself And Others In Warm Regard


One of the most powerful tools in the relational arsenal is a map of how to think of yourself as well as your partner in your ongoing minute-to-minute current relationship.

Healthy Self-Esteem

Self-esteem means that I hold myself in esteem. I recognize my intrinsic value as a human being. Within the circle of health, I have a warm regard for myself as well as others at the same time.

Unconditional Love

Here is the line of self-esteem. Health in the center is where we understand that the value of a human being is very large and that no one is more valuable than anyone else. Take for example a baby. We love that baby as soon as it's born. This baby has no accomplishments and it hasn't proven itself in any way. However, we just love that little one. We love that precious person for just being.

When we're in the center of health, we know that we are as valuable as the next person. When we're not in that space we can go one up and think we're more special than other people. Or we can move one down and feel worthless or hopeless.


Many of us are taught in our families and our cultures to define our self-esteem based on external sources. Terry Real has clearly defined 3 areas of self-esteem that entrap us as they come from the outside in.

  • Performance-based self-esteem is when you judge yourself by your performance. For instance, judging yourself as worthy or unworthy because of the grades you receive at school, your sporting successes, or your salary at work.
  • Attribute-based self-esteem is when you judge yourself by your attributes and/or possessions. For instance, judging yourself as worthy because you have a very fit body, or being down on yourself because you drive an old car.
  • Other-based self-esteem is when you judge yourself by what others think of you. For instance, feeling worthy because your boss relies on you, or unworthy because your father never praises you.

The Energy of Contempt

When self-esteem comes from external sources, people often flip-flop according to the circumstances. A person might feel superior to the other players after scoring the only goals in a game, and then feel full of shame the next day when their boss points out a mistake they made. The emotional energy of those two states is not two different emotions. Rather, it's the same emotion in two different directions. And that emotion is contempt. Contempt is the root of shame and contempt is the root of grandiosity. It is the root of any form of violence. Emotional, psychological, and even physical violence always starts with contempt

Think of the energy of contempt like the beam of a flashlight. Terry Real teaches that when the beam shines down on me we call that shame. I'm such a loser! I can't believe I just said that, I'm such an idiot.

When the emotion of contempt beams out on others, we call that grandiosity. You're such a loser! I would never have said anything like that, I can't believe you just said that!!

When we prioritize our own needs and feelings, when we get focused on being right, or thinking we have the answers, when we look down our nose at someone, we start to move up towards grandiosity. We feel entitled and above the rules.

When we prioritize someone else's needs or feelings, we slide down towards toxic shame where we move into feelings of unworthiness. The core energy at both extremes is contempt either for others or for ourselves.

Grandiosity versus Shame

Shame feels bad. You're aware of feeling shame. You're beating yourself up. You're in pain and you want to get out of it. Shame feels awful.

On the other hand, grandiosity feels good. It feels good to lose constraint and tell the slow driver in front of you exactly what you think of his pathetic inconsiderate driving skills. It feels good to chat up your secretary in the canteen. It feels just fine and completely justified to lose it and scream back at somebody who's screaming at you. Drinking three whiskeys may feel great. The problem is these behaviors make a mess of your life. Grandiosity is relationally destructive. Going one up, being entitled, and being above the rules is unpleasant for the people around you.

Les Havens, a psychiatrist in Boston, put it beautifully when he said. "A guy walks into an elevator, gets claustrophobic, and turns green. Another guy walks in an elevator, lights up a big fat cigar and everybody around him turns green." This is the difference between shame and grandiosity. Grandiosity does not give you pain. The people around you are in pain.

False Empowerment

A child who is brought up thinking they can do no wrong may have very few experiences of shame, and may simply believe they are entitled to have their way or are better than others. We call this false empowerment, and it can lead to grandiose behaviors that are very difficult to change. This is because inflated self-esteem feels good. Shame feels horrible, and people are generally motivated to feel less of it. The person who feels toxic shame is the one who will seek support from a professional. Grandiosity, on the other hand, feels good and people may be motivated to feel more of it, rather than less of it.

Terry Real urges all of us to, "Step off the contempt conveyor belt. Learn to live a nonviolent, non-contempt-filled life. Nonviolent between you and others and nonviolent between your ears."

Recognizing where you reside on the self-esteem spectrum when you feel triggered by others is the first step in moving toward relational health. 

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