Self-esteem: what undermines this?

I have been asked about safe experiments that can improve self-esteem or self-confidence.

There is a practical workbook containing many safe experiments, as well as helpful explanations relating to self-esteem, see:

Judy Bartkowiak (2013) The Self-esteem Workbook Hodder and Stoughton

I have a problem with the phrase, ‘self-esteem’. I know it is about my sense of being OK …. I am some-one to be valued just because ….

The concern I have is that it seems a slippery notion. It can go up and down very easily, even within the day. Maybe it’s just another mood but it can get to the very core of who I am. Like our moods, it can be difficult to manage. The chances are that when I raise the question of self-esteem, I am actually questioning why I do not have enough of it. Then it is just one more step to blame ourselves for the ‘deficiency’. Already, there is an assumption of some ‘deficiency’ or shortcoming – I am not quite right.

For some folk, this reflects on our ability to take responsibility for too many things – some not within our gift!!

I don’t like deficiencies!! My web site has been pre-occupied with building on our strengths, and to focus on the do-able thing. OK, we do need to notice small defeats, but only to ask: what little something different can I do next time?

is not easy to notice the small ‘somethings’ when it comes to my self-esteem.

For that reason, I like the Transactional Analytic (TA) model and its notion of the Life Position (a sense of our OKness).

The diagram below shows I can feel OK about myself (I-OK) or not (I-NOT OK) – the vertical axis. TA says we are born OK, but tend to take on board messages that question that starting position. In time, it can become easier to drift down to a view of the world based on me not being OK after all.

The diagram points out that complications arise when we meet other people, especially our early care-takers. It is possible to fall into believing that OTHERS are not OK (U-NOT OK). Effort is needed to see others are OK (U-OK): left, on the horizontal line.

As we grow older, depending on our upbringing, it can become difficult to adopt the position of I am OK, and You are OK too. (top left quadrant in the diagram). Our expectations can lead us to take the view that I am OK but You are not OK (top right box in the matrix).

The other alternatives identified are:

I am not OK, You are OK (bottom left), or

I am not OK, and you are not OK either (bottom right).

This can lead to very particular ways of behaving, of reacting to others. I will be wary of others if I see them as Not OK and I will be doubly defensive if my position is I am not OK and You are not OK either.

The TA model identifies an idea called Games Theory; it helps to identify how these tendencies work out in daily living. ‘Games’ in the TA sense of the word tend to be ways to avoid intimacy and genuineness; to bolster our flagging self-esteem.

Steve Karpman’s Drama Triangle provides a starting place for studying ‘Games’ in relationships.

This OK Corral, the diagram up above, helps us to examine ‘self-esteem’ even more closely. High self-esteem is more likely when our Life Position is I am OK and You are OK too. Self-esteem will decrease as we see ourselves as Not OK. This can become a bigger problem when I am Not OK, but others are seen as OK (bottom left quadrant). Things get trickier still when the position is I am Not OK and You are Not OK either (bottom right).

Possibly, we will over-compensate our uncertainties and appear arrogant. Other times we will let others walk all over us. You can imagine what happens to our feelings of self-esteem in these extreme situations.

What safe experiments might help us to adopt a more flexible Life Position – one that moves away from ‘negative’ positions, and more towards I am OK and You are OK too.

Judy’s book has many concrete examples. Even so, remember that effective safe experiments depend on a translation of her ideas into your daily life. Even so, let’s take just a few ideas:


Do you have a ‘favourite’ box in the OK Corral – one you spend most of your time in? If you conclude that you travel around all four boxes, do you notice how some specific relationships seem to fit more into one box, rather than another? For instance, do you have a boss? What Life Position do you adopt when you think of your boss or meet them? Are you OK and is the Boss OK? What situations at work lead you to I am NOT OK and the Boss is OK? More importantly, what might you do differently next time some challenging situation arises at work?


Do you notice a tendency to say ‘sorry’ a lot. Are you content with your level of ‘sorries’. If not, how might you edit them before they come out of your mouth. How do you notice the impact on you when a ‘sorry’ is successfully edited? Do not assume it will feel good – a relief. You may be swimming against the tide – after years of training! Notice how recording results is important, One ‘sorry’ may produce one reaction, and another ‘sorry’ will do something very different. What about the ‘sorries’ that you do not notice until it is too late? What can you do about those small defeats?


What about saying ‘no’ to other people? How good are you at that and what else do you do after you say ‘no’. If you co-operate or comply with others a lot, can you find an opportunity to say ‘no’, noticing, all the while, the impact of your different behaviour. Be prepared to take the consequences of saying ‘no’.

Do a Body Scan after saying ‘no’ and/or editing a ‘sorry’. What feelings arise when you behave a little bit different? What do you do with the feelings that arise: can you just notice them, and not seek to avoid them? Do they encourage you to slide in ‘catastrophising’ because you have behaved so out of character?


One safe experiment put to me by some-one I know was:

What would my best friend say to me

I like this experiment as it helps view ourselves us as other see us. Also, it helps us notice that we can give out advice, and not necessarily accept it for ourselves!

As far as self-esteem is concerned, this question ensures we test our own view against the views of others. It is not a question of whose judgment is right or wrong; rather it is an encouragement to do something a little bit different next time.

Most aspects of my how to … blog can cast light on our ability to just notice how our self-esteem can go up and down. I have includes a section on The Karpman Triangle as yet another way to cast light on this slippery topic.

Chapter 10 of Judy’s book focuses on the Karpman Triangle, but I have added a TA dimension to it.

Return to:


how to do safe experiments

what is helpful change?

Obstacles to safe experimenting

Affirmation work

%d bloggers like this: