Self-Esteem vs Self-Love: There’s A Really Big, Important Difference

Self-Love. Once the new kid on the psychology block, now the firmly rooted baby-boomer of the self help world (shaking hiss head irritably at those plucky new theories moaning about smashed avo and rents, of course). Loving ourselves more was a big thing at the turn of the century. Everyone from psychologists to self help gurus to Karens & Kevins at the water cooler told us that if we could just learn to love ourselves a little bit more, all our problems would magically fade away. We read internet articles that offered up compelling conclusions toward our anxiety being driven by an inner self hatred we never knew we had. We silently said ‘me too’ when we listened to brave new-worlders speak of feeling never quite enough. And, most of all, we were left wondering ‘what the hell does loving yourself actually mean’?

Loving Yourself

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines ‘self-love’ under the umbrella of three different definitions. An “appreciation of one’s worth and value”, an “attention to one’s own happiness”, and even an “inflated pride in oneself”. Confused? I’m a psychiatric doctor, and don’t worry – so am I. Regardless of what that 7 question click-bait quiz might tell you, figuring out what self love is and how much you’ve got of it is actually a pretty complicated thing.

Psychologically, its defined variably across the literature but overall encompasses a positive regard and appreciation for one’s true self. As you are right now. The tricky thing? A sense of self-love and self-worth is often mixed into the same soup as self-esteem when in reality those two things are actually very different beasts. And there-in lies the problem. Let me explain.


If self-love is now the baby boomer of the psychology world, then self-esteem is well and truly that guy’s great granddad. Across the 1980’s and 1990’s, self-esteem was rolled out in the psychology and self-help world as the key to unlocking our health and happiness. In particular, a number of initial studies linked a greater sense of self-esteem to success in children and teens. Schools and households across the nation were flooded with ways to boost a child’s self-esteem and build their confidence. For those of us now in our 20’s and 30’s that means our parents well and truly hammered home the “you can do/be/have/look like/achieve anything” mantra. And there’s not necessarily anything wrong with that, but it’s important to point out that having high self-esteem is very different to self-love.

Medically speaking, self-esteem is a focus on the external. It’s our belief that we can action and achieve in the world around us. Technically, self-esteem isn’t even about the self at all – it’s about the test, the workout, the weight, the salary, the partner, the next goal. Self-esteem is confidence and belief in our ability to do and have – and while that might be something we know is correlated overall to achievement and success, it turns out that it’s not necessarily correlated to happiness, health or loving you for you.

Self Worth

Self-worth, on the other hand, leaves all the outside stuff aside. While self-esteem focuses on belief in ability and action, self-worth is what’s left over when you’re showered, in that fraying old robe and blobbed out on the couch when no one’s watching. The technical definition here is “a sense of one’s own value as a human being”. You’ll see self-esteem and self-worth used interchangeably in everything from online articles, to quizzes, to textbooks and studies – but the truth is that while esteem is about the external, worth is about the inside. You for you, without the achievements, the reflection, the bank balance or followers. You just as you are. As an innate human being. And as it turns out, our sense of worth in who we, as we are, without the trimmings is far more related to our mental health than self-esteem ever was to begin with.

Learning to Love

So if we now know that health and happiness is far more related to our sense of self-worth than it is to our self-esteem – how the heck (still) do we go about converting that to self-love? Now I won’t inflate my own ego by saying that’s simple or that what often takes years of therapy can be cracked in one two page article. This is deep stuff, and it’s work that takes time.

What’s vital however is that we first and foremost recognise that self-love isn’t self-esteem. It’s not our sense of confidence in ability. It’s not that assortment of external be’s and have’s that the outside world so often makes us feel we need to be inherently worthy and ok. Self-worth and, deeper still, self-love come down to you for you, my friend. It’s our innate sense of knowing we’re worthy just as we are, as a human. It’s the cake without the icing and knowing that’s still worth eating and tastes damn good even if the decorations on top win no awards.

It comes in reminding ourselves doggedly each day of who we are and what we’re thankful for without an external value. Our health, our wit, our kindness. Our fears and flaws. Our reflection without the pump, the clothes or the prep-time. Our messy imperfect human-ness when no one’s watching. It’s not easy, but the science shows that even little steps each day to remind ourselves of that can help build our strength of inner self-worth over time. Write it down, practice gratitude and push back when our brain mixes up esteem for worth.

So baby boomer theory or not, self-love is still a key part to health and happiness (even, and especially, in the world of 2020). So shoot for the goal, reach for the star and bump that self-esteem up. But know that if we’re always made to feel that we need to be and do and have anything and everything, maybe the byproduct there is that we’ve grown to believe that without those things, we’re nothing.

Your worth is not in your esteem, mate. It’s been there all along and will be regardless. It’s loving the cake, without the icing. And knowing that that’s what true (self) love is all about.