Posted: March 6, 2020 in: Personal Empowerment


Can We Really Increase One Another’s Self-Esteem?

One of the most beautiful ways we can build self-esteem is by recognizing the good we do for others.  This is something we often take for granted, but it is a miraculous outgrowth of human empathy.  We feel better about ourselves when we reduce suffering and increase contentment in people around us.

Knowing this, many people volunteer to help those in need.  Many make themselves especially available to friends and loved ones for advice or support. Many select careers focused on easing people’s pain or educating them or even directly rescuing them from harm’s way.

Seeking to build one’s self-esteem by helping others is a good reason to devote time to others.

It isn’t selfish; it’s a win-win.

Sometimes, however, it can be difficult to know for sure that we really are having a positive and meaningful impact on the lives of others.  The pace of our social interactions can be rapid.  Life can be full of complexities.  We can end up asking ourselves if what we do for others really does matter?  If we increase their self-esteem, what actually happens as a result of that? Does it make a big difference to them?

I want to tell you a story that can begin to answer those questions. I hope that this story can be one that you use as a kind of reminder if you begin to wonder whether you really are powerful in the lives of others. I hope it gives you the boost in self-esteem you really do deserve, too.

This story is a bit dark because it comes from my past work as a forensic psychiatrist.

I was evaluating a man in prison who had brutally assaulted someone.  He was being held while awaiting trial, and I had been hired by his attorney to evaluate his mental status.  The attack had been so violent that I asked him this: “You came very close to killing this person.  You had a knife.  But you didn’t use it.  What stopped you?”

The man looked at me several seconds, then said, “It’s silly.”

“I bet it actually isn’t,” I said.  “Can you tell me?”

He shook his head and looked away, but started speaking. “When I was in the fifth grade, I had this teacher who told me, ‘I know everyone is saying you’re bad news, but I think you’re a good kid, at heart.  And when I thought about using the knife, I remembered her saying that.  So, I didn’t.  Weird, right?”

“Not at all,” I said.

That teacher will likely never know she saved a life by connecting with a boy in fifth grade who became a violent man.  Yet by increasing that boy’s self-esteem just a bit, she prevented a murder.

If you ever wonder how powerful you can be in the lives of others, I hope you’ll think about the story I just shared. You have the same power as that teacher did. We all do. We just have to remind ourselves to use it.


Dr. Keith Ablow


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  1. Matt Hoffman says:

    Service to others takes us out of ourselves, helps others, and creates a positive atmosphere that benefits everyone. Connection and belonging are the answers to the current wave of alienation, loneliness, and addiction that plague us.

    Thank you for expressing this vital concept.