Contingent Self-Esteem

It'd be good to come into the world with fireproof self-esteem, especially as many people have to live with the kinds of families that cripple them. Moreover, we live in a society that emphasizes perfection. However, unfortunately, our self-esteem isn't invincible. In fact, the perception you have of yourself is contingent. Find out more here.
Contingent Self-Esteem
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 18 February, 2023

Until not long ago, science understood self-esteem in two ways. It was thought that those with high self-esteem considered themselves capable of achieving whatever they set out to do. On the other hand, it was thought that those with low self-esteem tended to suffer and also develop psychological disorders. However, today, we know that self-esteem fluctuates. Moreover, having high self-esteem often isn’t enough to be happy.

For example, some people have an excellent perception of themselves in the workplace but are insecure when it comes to their physical image. In fact, it seems, we all walk a tightrope regarding the psychological construct of self-esteem. There are always some areas in which we tremble and others where we find our feet.

In turn, there’s one fact that can’t be denied. The beliefs that we build about ourselves are contingent and always depend on our surroundings. Family, friends, teachers, and even social media shape, day by day, the ways in which we see ourselves and the potential we believe we have. Understanding this is essential to understanding which messages we should give value to and which ones we should ignore.

The classic theory that looked at the dimension of self-esteem to assess if it was high or low, no longer works. The new key is contingency.

Pesky friend talking to another about contingent self-esteem
Our relationships and the way we’re treated affect our self-esteem.

Contingent self-esteem conditions your life

How would you say your self-esteem is right now? Do you feel competent and efficient enough to achieve your dreams and the goals you’ve set for yourself? How do you feel you handle your social relationships? Do you accept your body or would you feel better with another one? Checking these dimensions from time to time can give you an idea of exactly where you are.

One of the figures who first gave a realistic and practical view of self-esteem was William James. In his journal, The Principles of Psychology, he explained that this dimension, far from being stable, fluctuates in response to different circumstances, contexts, and events.

Contingent self-esteem defines how you see yourself based on how your relationships are or how society influences you. However, it isn’t easy to define which phenomena undermine the foundations of your self-esteem. That’s because everyone is affected in varying ways by different experiences.

Family and couple relationships are the interrelational scenarios that most affect the contingency of self-esteem.

When you’re fine in one area yet everything else is a disaster

Everyone, to a greater or lesser extent, possesses contingent self-esteem. In fact, you depend on what surrounds you to develop more or less healthy images of yourself. Moreover, you make judgments at all times, compare yourself, and draw conclusions about how you see yourself. Also about how you think others see you.

William James explained that human beings make their value judgments in a multitude of different areas and domains. Therefore, you might feel competent in one dimension and flawed in another. For instance, perhaps you base your self-esteem on your intellectual abilities and academic successes. However, in the social and emotional area, you may feel completely flawed, which affects your well-being.

The University of Michigan (USA) conducted a study that claims contingent self-esteem means that, as humans, we’re always trying to validate our abilities and qualities. This means that you need people and society to make you visible, reinforce you, and for you to value who you are. Only then do you acquire presence and develop a good self-image. The problem is that this doesn’t always happen.

The contingency of the family and social media

Contingent self-esteem means you live your life perpetually on guard. Eventually, there comes a point when you realize that certain relationships and situations can violate your strengths and identity. So, you bond with others, hoping that they won’t harm you and that they’ll act as validating agents of your self-concept and self-image.

You may have discovered, when you reached adulthood, that your family had contributed to cementing many of your insecurities. Therefore, you tried to find other contingencies. In other words, people who nurtured you and made you feel secure and not flawed.

It’s impossible not to talk about how social media and the digital world both shape and challenge the self-esteem of the young. Likes and followers not only give them status but also suggest how much they’re worth to others. This can be devastating for them.

Having a healthy self-esteem that’s not too contingent (dependent on others) is the key to well-being and life satisfaction.

Woman who has overcome contingent self-esteem
Although the way others treat us will always affect our self-esteem, we can develop strengths so that those effects don’t completely invalidate us.

Truer self-esteem and fewer contingencies

Contingent self-esteem will always be present in you in one way or another. After all, as a human, you’re a social being, and you depend on how others treat or view you. Indeed, sometimes, the simple fact of losing a job can significantly affect your self-esteem, in much the same way as being betrayed by a friend or your partner.

There’ll always be turning points in your life that affect this psychological construct to a greater or lesser degree. You can’t completely free yourself from this external dependency. But, you can develop truer, stronger, and more resilient self-esteem. The kind that’s not so dependent on social events or how people treat you.

Here are some of the dimensions you should develop:


Remember that you deserve to be cared for, valued, and respected. That said, these dimensions must be provided by you in the first place, so you must include them in your daily routine. So, make sure you prioritize and pay attention to yourself.


Everything you are and the way you are is okay. So, make sure you endorse your way of being, your needs, skills, strengths, and even your physical image. While there may be aspects of yourself that you don’t like, that’s okay. Don’t reject them, accept them, because they allow you to be you.


Adversity exists. You’re flawed, you make mistakes, and there’ll be some days when everything goes wrong for you. But, your self-esteem will become stronger if you accept the bad times. Adapting and promoting change is key. Develop your resilience and you’ll gain satisfaction.

You’re you, the others are the others

Why should you want to always be like others to feel accepted? The world is full of equals. Sometimes, embracing your uniqueness makes you even more so and more empowering. Stop focusing on what you lack. Instead, value the person you are.

In conclusion, these dimensions will allow you to strengthen your muscle of self-esteem so that it doesn’t weaken too easily. But, this is a daily job and you must commit yourself to it. In fact, your well-being depends on it.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Crocker, Jennifer; Katherine M. Knight (2005). “Contingencies of Self-Worth”. Current Directions in Psychological Science. 14 (4): 200–203. doi:10.1111/j.0963-7214.2005.00364.x
  • Wolfe, C., & Crocker, J. (2003). What does the self want? Contingencies of self-worth and goals. In S. J. Spencer, S. Fein, M. P. Zanna, & J. M. Olson (Eds.), Motivated social perception: The ninth Ontario Symposium (pp. 147-170). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.