Self Esteem Versus Self Confidence: What’s the Difference?

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A lot of people who start searching for ways to build more confidence quickly find themselves torn between two distinct and (confusingly) related terms: self esteem versus self confidence.

The confusion comes from the fact that people often use the two interchangeably in conversation: ask somebody if they have high self esteem and they’re likely to say, “Yeah, I have a lot of confidence.”

And because people are the ones creating content online (at least until our robot overlords take over), Google is guilty of the same thing.

When you search for an article about how to build more confidence, you find plenty of headlines about boosting your self esteem, and vice versa.

As a fan of language, I knew there had to be a difference between the two – if they were the exact same concept, we wouldn’t need two different terms.

So when I set out to write a step-by-step guide for building confidence, which eventually became my (shameless self-promotion alert!) Amazon #1 best-selling book Man in Command: How to Go From the Most Self-Doubting Guy in the Room to The Most Confident Man, I knew I had to get to the bottom of it.

I wish I could tell you I finally sussed out the difference after going back to school, obtaining a PhD in psychology, and becoming the world’s leading expert in self esteem.

But it turns out somebody did all of that decades ago – and to understand the difference between self esteem versus self confidence, all I had to do was give his research a close read.

In this post, adapted from my aforementioned book Man in Command, I’ll explain the difference between self esteem and self confidence, break down the two most fundamental elements that lead to a deeply rooted, overall sense of self esteem, and explain how you can start cultivating confidence.

Self Esteem Versus Self Confidence

Self Confidence Versus Self Esteem

Breaking Down the Difference Between the Two 

Self Esteem Versus Self Confidence
Self Esteem Versus Self ConfidenceAs the old saying goes, if you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll never get there.

In my early twenties, when I was too afraid to put myself out there and try new things, I had an unmistakable sense that I wanted to change myself and improve, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on how I wanted to change or who, exactly, I wanted to become.

To help you avoid making the same mistake and give you the clarity of purpose that I lacked, in this post we’re going to define self-confidence in specific terms that will help you create a clear, focused picture of the man you want to be, and what you want to achieve.

But as mentioned above, self-confidence is often confused for self-esteem. So let’s start by clarifying some terminology.

Are Self Confidence and Self Esteem the Same?

In a word? No.

Self-esteem refers to how you feel about yourself overall. A person can have high self-esteem but find themselves feeling unconfident at certain tasks.

For instance, after a lifetime spent studying and working in literary fields, I’m not at all confident in my ability to do math on the fly (a fact that can be corroborated by every restaurant server I’ve ever had, each of whom had to wait very patiently for me to calculate their tip).

But because I have high overall self esteem, lacking self confidence in certain areas where I know I’m low-skilled does not dramatically affect my overall sense of value or self-worth.

The Difference Between Self Esteem and Self Confidence

So, self-esteem is general, broad, and high-level; it refers to how you feel overall. Self confidence, by contrast, is specific; it refers to how you feel about yourself in relation to distinct tasks or aspects of life.

Linguistic Confusion About Confidence

Because each phrase – “self esteem” and “self confidence” – is kind of a mouthful, it’s understandable why people often just use the word “confidence” to refer to the sort of overall self esteem that many of us want to build. In fact, I’m guilty of it myself.

When I wrote a post about the most effective ways to build self confidence for men, I was really using “confidence” to mean the sort of deeply rooted, unshakeable, overall sense of self worth that most of us want to build – which is to say, I was actually talking about self esteem.

I know, I know: it’s a little confusing. The English language can be annoying sometimes.

To help you understand the self esteem versus self confidence distinction a little more, let’s do a deep dive into the two crucial components you need in order to have a strong sense of self esteem and overall confidence.

Defining Self-Esteem

Self Esteem Versus Self ConfidenceOne of the most comprehensive definitions of self-esteem was established by the psychotherapist and writer Nathaniel Branden.

In his books The Psychology of Self-Esteem and The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem, Branden outlined a definition of self-esteem that consists of two main elements: self-efficacy and self-respect.

“Self-esteem, fully realized, is the experience that we are appropriate to life and to the requirements of life,” Branden writes.

What does it mean to feel like you’re “appropriate to life”? Branden argued that it consisted of confidence in two areas:

  • The first is what he calls self-efficacy, meaning the confidence in our ability to cope with the basic challenges of life.
  • The second is self-respect, which Branden describes as “confidence in our right to be successful and happy… entitled to assert our needs and wants, achieve our values and enjoy the fruits of our efforts.”
Building Self Esteem and Overall Confidence
Cultivating Self-Efficacy and Self-Respect

Learning that self-efficacy and self-respect are the two central components of self-esteem can certainly be enlightening, but they don’t exactly provide an “aha!” moment.

In fact, they bring up an obvious next question: “OK – so how do we build them?”

Fortunately, Branden unpacked each element further, providing clues for how we can bolster each one in the process.

Confidence in Your Mind & Ability

Self-efficacy, he explained, “means confidence in the functioning of my mind, in my ability to think, understand, learn, choose and make decisions; confidence in my ability to understand the facts of reality that fall within the sphere of my interests and needs; self-trust; self-reliance.”

So building self-efficacy means building “confidence in the functioning of my mind.” That’s good news for us, because in the four decades since Branden first published The Psychology of Self-Esteem, a lot of research has been done, and techniques developed, that can help us improve our mind’s functionality. I explore three of the most fundamental of those techniques in Man in Command.

Assurance of Your Value

Meanwhile, self-respect, the second aspect of self-esteem, “means assurance of my value; an affirmative attitude toward my right to live and to be happy; comfort in appropriately asserting my thoughts, wants and needs; the feeling that joy and fulfillment are my natural birthright.”

This aspect of self-esteem can’t be built quickly. Instead, it follows naturally from consistently performing a series of confidence-boosting actions over time.

Strengthening Your Self Respect
Consistency = Competence = Confidence

As Branden lays out, self-esteem comes from self-efficacy and self-respect. But that’s a bit of a mouthful, and repeating the word “self” that many times feels a little redundant.

I like to shorten the equation to the three C’s and say that Confidence comes from Consistency and Competence.

It’s easy to see how competence leads to confidence – we feel good about ourselves when we know we’re able to perform tasks we value at a high level.

But competence can also take time to cultivate, because any goal worth pursuing is probably not one you can get good at overnight. Fortunately, you can build confidence before you build competency.

Your confidence increases every time you practice, work and improve at a specific task, even if you haven’t quite mastered it. So consistency builds confidence – you feel good about yourself knowing that you’re working toward your goals.

Consistency also builds competence – when you consistently work toward your goals, you get a little better each day. And this combination, consistency and competence, creates authentic, unshakeable confidence.

Cultivating Confidence
And Getting Ready to (F@¢&ing!) Roar

After explaining what confidence is, the rest of Man in Command goes on to show you how to consistently work toward worthy goals and develop competence in four areas of life that are essential to the modern man: your mindset, body, social skills and style.

By using the advice laid out in the book, you’ll increase your self-efficacy and build self-respect in the process.

If you’re ready to take control of your confidence, use the link below to pick up Man in Command on Amazon and find out how to build a better you.

Don’t have a couple bucks to spare? No worries. My Squash Self Doubt email series will show you how to overcome negative thoughts and start thinking like a confident man – and it’s completely free.


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About Dave Bowden

Dave Bowden

Irreverent Gent founder Dave Bowden is a style blogger whose advice on how to look good and live well has been featured in some of the world’s most trusted publications, including New York Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, Business Insider and more.

When not obsessing over style and self-improvement, he can usually be found spending time with his wonderful wife and sons, indulging in a hoppy craft beer, or sobbing over the woeful state of Toronto's sports teams.

Check out Dave's Style Story to find out how a chance encounter with his friend's step-dad taught him the value of looking good and living well. (Don't worry—it's less creepy than it sounds!)

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