Self Esteem with Motivational Literacy

John Bailey
6 min readMar 2, 2021

All self esteem comes from experiencing achievement. This is why we can never “give” self-esteem to someone else. It must come from the SELF, and it must be credible based on achievement.

Every achievement is the overcoming of a challenge of some kind. And part of the definition of challenge is that it’s challenging — it frustrates first efforts to do it. The train to achievement-land runs through frustration-ville, every time: It is not possible to experience genuine achievement without experiencing and persevering through frustration and beyond.

In this way, every challenge is an adventure. And, noticing that truth can change our experience of life in important ways, including how we deal with frustrations. We can become curious about different kinds of challenges, and how they represent different opportunities to experience achievement, thereby creating self esteem.

There are three kinds of adventure/challenge:

  1. Person challenges Self
  2. Person challenged by Nature
  3. Person challenges Person

Person challenges Self is a struggle to better one’s own previous performance. We have all had experiences of achievement through this kind of adventure. We just don’t always remember them.

Before the digital age, improvement of penmanship was often a point of pride and achievement. Many people have also experienced the frustration and challenge of learning to cook eggs so they are both tasty and pretty. In addition to self esteem, the persistent cook is rewarded with a delicious meal.

Anything you have done to improve your skill at something has been a person versus self adventure. And, if your efforts created increased confidence and a good feeling, that is self esteem. Almost every kind of skillful or artistic pursuit from dancing to painting is a struggle between the person and themselves — between their visions, ambitions, and early performances — and their present performance.

Opportunities to build self esteem through overcoming one’s own limitations are most available in artistic challenge. This is one reason artistic elective courses are critical to the development of our youth — and to preventing bullying by fostering self esteem.

Person challenged by Nature is the challenge to overcome a natural barrier — to reach the top of a mountain; to swim to the other side of a river; to run a distance in a specific time. We have all had experiences of achievement that produced self esteem through this kind of adventure.

Most people have some memories of learning to tie our shoes — achieving a benchmark of manual dexterity. But, do you remember how proud you were of the achievement? Do you remember showing-off the skill to a family member?

Since that time, many of us have also learned to bicycle, to drive a car — or may have walked a great distance — or even climbed an actual mountain.

Whether the challenge is running a mile in four minutes or holding one’s breath for the same period of time doesn’t matter: The esteem gained through conquering a barrier can be immortalizing. Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile in 1954, and despite that record standing for less than two months — and being routinely matched ever since — many still remember his name.

Opportunities to build self esteem through conquering natural challenges or barriers will mostly involve exploration, experimentation, discovery, and physical test. Expeditions, sciences, and some athletics offer these kinds of adventures.

This is why intramural, elective, and civic activities in sciences, discovery, and performance athletics like gymnastics are critical to the development of our youth — and to preventing bullying behaviors by developing self esteem. This is a good reason to be involved in scouting, camp-fire, or other outdoor activities with your children.

Person challenges Person is the challenge to overcome someone else — in every context from boxing to football to debating. Most people have had some experience of bettering another at something. And, everyone has had the experience of being beaten. How we feel about these events varies according to a number of factors — including how we may have done with other types of challenges.

Person versus Person challenge can build self esteem, with three costs or risks:

  1. There is always a risk of losing self esteem by losing the match (because someone has to be the loser).
  2. Someone has to be the loser. This is why these challenges are “zero sum” — meaning as one person gains glory the other must lose it. The system (community) as a whole does not gain in total level of esteem.
  3. Esteem gained by beating others is tenuous, lasting only until the rematch or until the next challenger steps up. This leaves even the victorious a bit insecure. And, insecurity about status is fertile ground for bullying behavior to grow in.

I don’t want to suggest that “Person challenges Person” constructs are “bad” or dangerous, or that the others are “good” or safe. Each kind of challenge offers a different opportunity to navigate through frustration to an achievement — for building self esteem. And, building self esteem through one kind of challenge has a protective effect as the person experiences the others.

Everyone will have one kind of challenge or one context they find easier than the others. This is normal, and it may be the area where that person excels in life. Help your child find theirs, and also to develop a general skill of navigating frustration by keeping a balanced “challenge diet” — access and practice in all three forms of challenge. Failing to do that will build people who can cope in some ways but not others.

What Can I Do?

Make sure you understand that all self esteem comes from the self experiencing an achievement in overcoming a challenge; that challenge means frustration (of the right size); and what the three kinds of challenge are.

Remember that where there is acting out, there may be an underlying lack of self esteem.

Have an awareness of the three kinds of challenge that offer pathways to self esteem.

Be honest and accountable to your own balance of challenge-diet, and model seeking and growing through a balance of challenges yourself.

The best teaching — especially about lifestyles, beliefs, and attitudes — is through example. Telling youngsters to do what you won’t is a waste of time — and breeds contempt.

Facilitate a balanced challenge-diet for youngsters in your community.

Hint: Well-run martial arts classes will offer BOTH “Person challenges Self” and “Person challenges Person” opportunities in one package!

Advocate for artistic and other “Person challenges Self” elective classes and intramurals. Demand access through your school system to these sorts of classes and environments. Connect the dots between cutting artistic electives and bullying problems.

Advocate also for outdoors programs and other “Person challenged by Environment” opportunities. Support community organizations like Scouts, and civic organizations that offer access to individual challenge.

Support “Person challenges Person” programs, by broadening the opportunities for participation. In many communities, football or basketball is the limit of that. Advocate for every opportunity that can be provided to allow every child some experience to excel — both in school and out. Promote sportsmanlike conduct, and be utterly intolerant of unsportsmanlike conduct — which promotes rather than reduces bullying behaviors.

Personally provide and participate in any of the above programs, by whatever means you can offer.

In all these things remember that frustration (of the right amount) is a key and necessary ingredient to the experience of achievement. Useful challenges or adventures always bring frustration in doses of the right size, in the same way weight lifters use weights: Too little won’t stimulate growth, but too much may slow progress or even cause injury. Make sure your child is getting frustrated — at the right level — and then persevering through it to success. Resist the temptation to give condescending and motivation-killing awards for just showing up.