The Self-Esteem Puzzle…a 10 minute read.

Imagine buying a 5,000-piece puzzle only to assemble it and realize there were only 4,950 in the box. That would suck. Why? Because while we might be able to use our imagination to fill in the missing pieces, it’s still not whole. You know it and those around you will also know pieces are missing.

Building Self-Esteem is just like a puzzle. To be “whole”, we need all the pieces. Otherwise, we will look to fill those empty spaces with people and things we shouldn’t. People who reinforce the brokenness, or things that numb the emptiness. When something is missing, we can never feel whole – or enough.

Before we’re born, certain pieces of our puzzle come with our box. Genes will play a role in looks, abilities, and other social signifiers that will get judged. Where the stork drops us also plays a part. A desire for children, parenting skills, and socioeconomic level of the family will play a role. Yes, some of the more fortunate among us will have more pieces in their puzzle box – but no one’s box is complete at birth. We’re all short a piece or two. How we fill (or don’t) those missing spaces will depend on multiple influencing factors.

Photo Credit: Edvard Alexander Rolvaag – Unsplash

What exactly completes our self-esteem puzzle? In 1943, Abraham Maslow who most of us learned about somewhere in our education, described a hierarchy of needs – that pyramid thing to identify our innate human needs for psychological health. These needs in order of priority:

  • Physiological needs                            
  • Safety
  • Belongingness and love
  • Esteem
  • Self-actualization

In Dr. Maslow’s theory, when we move up this pyramid and the various levels are met – we are closer and closer to self-actualization. What is self-actualization? It’s the ultimate recognition of who we are, our value, and our place in the world. It is the apex of our human journey. While it might sound like a simple recipe to follow – it is anything but. It’s more complicated than a 5,000-, 50,000- or 5-million-piece puzzle. Because when we set out to do a puzzle, we can look at the cover of the box and have a sense of what the end product should look like. Unless we want help, we can typically solve the puzzle by ourselves. The formation of our self-esteem strongly depends on many external forces – unless something magical happens – a journey within ourselves that uncovers our own worth, abilities, and self-respect – irrespective of what others have done, think or said to us. Self-discovery doesn’t happen accidentally. It takes work. Lots of it and continuously. Why? Because there’s a world out there that while beautiful can still be harsh. Self-esteem is the armor you must possess when life is anything but life-affirming.

Nearly 80 years after Maslow – few have improved on his theory. Most use his “Hierarchy of Needs” as the basis for self-esteem, adding a twist here and there. Behavioral influencer Tony Robbins tweaked this hierarchy by adding uncertainty and variety creating his take on 6 human needs:

1. Certainty: assurance you can avoid pain and gain pleasure.

2. Uncertainty/Variety: the need for the unknown, change, new stimuli.

3. Significance: feeling unique, important, special, or needed.

4. Connection/Love: a strong feeling of closeness or union with someone or something.

5. Growth: an expansion of capacity, capability, or understanding.

6. Contribution: a sense of service and focus on helping, giving to, and supporting others.

Whether Maslow or Robbins makes more sense to you, there are some basic ideas behind these needs and some basic practicalities. Here is some simple and real language to help us better understand these needs and what prevents us from possessing all of them and maybe, understand why others don’t too.

1) Physiological – Certainty: if you’re struggling to provide the basics of food, clothing, and a place to live for yourself and loved ones, it is nearly impossible to think about how you want to contribute to the world when you’re just trying to survive. This isn’t just speaking about homeless people, but those who are working 2-3 jobs, or watching bills stack up, dealing with the expense of an illness, or wondering if there will be another paycheck. We may look at those less fortunate and shake our heads. Those sleeping on the streets, in homeless shelters, cars, or staying on a friend’s couch. Few of us want to imagine that we could be in this place but more people than we know are just one paycheck away. Often our lives could become the classic 1943 game, “Chutes and Ladders” where you’re climbing the ladder to the top only to have one thing happen and slide to the bottom. Struggling to exist is a deep wounding to our sense of self. At its core – the world and people around us inform us of our relevance.

2) Safety versus Uncertainty/Variety: There’s a bit of difference between Maslow and Robbins in number two and perhaps this difference expresses a bit more about us. Maslow is addressing the need for personal, emotional, and financial security and literally, our physical wellbeing. Robbins is addressing our need for a bit of unpredictability, the spice of variety, and some excitement. If every day were the same, we’d likely go mad. But there’s a tiny bit in here that we should explore more.

During the COVID19 outbreak, mental health specialists have become concerned with “pandemic fatigue,” where boredom is posing the new public health threat. Boredom, as in nothing to do and not meaningfully engaging the world. Contrast this phenomenon to the workers who are fearful for their safety. Where those in healthcare, serving in restaurants, stocking shelves, trucking supplies, delivering mail, and generally keeping society running might wish they had a little boredom right now.

3) Belongingness/Love – Significance: As social creatures, we all need to belong to a tribe, play a role within it, and know that we are valued. That sense of belonging and being recognized as a contributing member signifies our relevance. When we are no longer relevant to anyone – it sets us apart as castaways. In its original form, banishment was used as a means of punishment. You were separated from the tribe. When we are banished, it takes a deep psychological and emotional toll on us. And whether consciously or unconsciously we still use it to punish people or signify their irrelevance. Ask many seniors living in nursing homes how relevant they feel? Prison is the code word for banishment from society. Think about giving a loved one the “silent treatment,” why, and what message are you sending? Simply stated, we need to be needed and to matter. Part two of this for Maslow is love. Yet, he tucks it into belonging. But belonging does not necessarily translate to loving and being loved. Many get a sense of belonging – to a group, a gang, a club and feel relevant – but the love connection isn’t there. I agree with Robbins’ assessment that Connection/Love should receive separate attention.

Photo Credit: Kelly Sikkema – Unsplash.

4) Connection/Love – At the very core of our being we are driven to love and a desire to be loved through our connections. But I believe to address “love” appropriately – we should first discuss self-love. Yes, both Robbins and Maslow address self-esteem/growth which most immediately think involves self-love – but I would submit that self-love is so important and key, it should be addressed distinctly. Self-love is often sandwiched between two weightier pieces of bread (Esteem and Growth) as if most should assume it’s there.

Self-love often gets confused and twisted with conceit and many of us avoid talking about it. Pride and self-love became irrationally synonymous. As discussed in “Learning to D.A.N.C.E. with Your Demons,” the lack of self-love accounts for the multitude of demons we possess. This erosion of self-love has a history. Maslow (1908-1970) was born as the Victorian Era was closing but the halo effect of childrearing persisted. The emotional sterility of parents and their coldness was thought to build character in a child. If your parent can’t love you, who can and why would you love yourself? Add to this that rabid nature of stamping out pride and voila – self-love was naughty and well, simply wrong. There was/is shame associated with self-love. Yet lack of self-love isn’t noble, commendable, or self-giving – it is crippling.

Authentic love requires an overflow of one’s own self-love. It comes from a place of abundance and health – not scarcity and neediness. When self-love is taught, it blends a mixture of recognizing our awesome qualities, our value, and accepting our flaws and limitations without attempting to overcompensate for them or project an unreal persona. People often believe that narcissists possess too much self-love and hubris. The majority of the time, it is just the opposite. It is overcompensation for the hollowness. Peel off the mask and behold the face of insecurity.

Fostering self-love is a quandary for parents. There’s no Goldilocks and the Three Bears version of “just right.” But something in between the emotionally sterile parent and the one that gives gold stars for everything – will work.

Learning self-love as an adult requires seeing yourself through a new lens. One of the best books that offers insight into accepting our flaws is Brene Brown’s “The Gifts of Imperfection.” Dr. Brown addresses many of the “flaws” we have and how to embrace them.

Love and loving can be tricky. Even in the most well-meaning families, there are unintended messages that love is conditional. “You’re loved…IF/WHEN…” We learn that love is conditioned on fulfilling certain expectations. If we do this or that…when we’re good, get good grades, keep our room cleaned… (you see where this is heading). If you received love on a conditional basis, there’s a high likelihood that you will give it conditionally. This is how you learned to love. It has conditions.

There will be people who love us and we, in turn, love them – but it’s complicated and twisted. They love you but they want to crush you. They love you but they hurt you. They love you but…there’s that qualifier again. Whatever we accept after the but is defined by how much self-love we possess. Is there unconditional love? I would submit yes, but we only get glimpses of it. When a baby is first born – pure love. When your dreams are encouraged, when you’re respected, when you no longer remember them, but they remember you – these are times of unconditional love. Of course, we all know that dogs are the best example.

Photo Credit: Boudewijn Huysman – Unsplash

5) Esteem – Growth – When we possess self-esteem, self-respect, sense of pride we have the capacity for growth, learning, and contribution. The worst line ever was from the 1996 movie, Jerry Maguire. “You complete me.” With those words, audiences exhaled an, “Aww,” feeling a rush of emotion and awe at this display of true love. Every counselor and therapist cringed, “co-dependency.” No one or nothing is going to complete you. It happens from the inside out, just how the body heals itself. Only in the direst of circumstance do we have transplants or skin grafts.

The formation and health of our ego, our sense of self, and our pride account for the quality and richness of our lives. Without self-esteem, self-love, and a recognition that we have a place in the world, we will confront endless battles within ourselves. Our lack of self-esteem is pervasive for a variety of reasons. We measure ourselves against so many societal variables that we believe we are never enough – good enough, smart enough, pretty enough… (fill in the blank) enough. We operate from a sense of scarcity, feeling like imposters; knowing people will discover this secret. Self-esteem is a person’s inner appreciation or assessment of him or herself. It matters because people who do not value themselves — who have low self-esteem — treat themselves and others badly. Thus, low self-esteem can be seen as a major factor in abuse, addiction, depression, crime, loneliness, low educational achievement, mental illness, and unhappiness. People with high self-esteem are often creative, joyful, fun to be with, and productive.

6) Self-Actualization – Contribution – assuming we can transcend all of the above levels, we arrive at that point where we discover the purpose of our human journey. We know who we are, our place in the world, and get out of our own heads and lives – to make the lives of others better. If you read Dr. Brown’s book, you discover there is no such thing as human perfection. Likewise, we do not achieve self-actualization and stay as if it’s crossing some permanent finish line. Life is fluid and constantly changing. If it’s not – we are most likely dead. Fulfilling all of these needs is integral to our human development and wellness. Yet if I were asked to add something to this list, it would be forgiveness.

Photo Credit: Brett Jordan – Unsplash

7) Forgiveness – is an often-overlooked piece of the self-esteem puzzle. It is one of the most powerful forces on earth and it is the lack of forgiveness (of ourselves and others) that often stands in the road blocking our way toward self-esteem.

Every person has suffered a wound.  Some physical, some emotional, some spiritual. Most wounds heal. Some do not, because we cannot or do not acknowledge their existence. We pretend that the wound is forgotten, forgiven, or perhaps, never happened. And still, we can vividly recall the wound 10, 20, or 30 years later – as if the injury is fresh.

To heal, wounds must be cleaned – clearing away irritants that prevent restoration. Yet cleaning a wound can be painful; think peroxide or iodine. Cleaning a non-physical wound can be equally, if not more painful.

Though we may vaguely remember how we acquired a physical scar, we can with clarity, often remember emotional punctures. When our heart was broken, a betrayal, a slicing word that cut to the bone. When we experience injustice, there is a profound wounding. Yet unlike our bodies that are programmed and designed to heal – our minds are not. We think we heal by suppression, burying the event, and believing that time heals all wounds.

The passage of time does not heal. It simply buries the memory until some triggering event unleashes the emotion. Non-physical wounds require excavation – unearthing painful memories and examining them for what they are – artifacts of our lives.

We are often told that to heal, we must forgive ourselves and those who inflicted the wound. Yet forgiveness is a bold word – an almost incomprehensible action that contradicts how we feel at our core. It is counterintuitive to anger. For if we retain the anger, the hurt, the indignation that has affixed itself to the wound – we delude ourselves into feeling power and believing this power is healing. It is not. It is how we mentally surrender power to the wrongdoer – who has no idea or is long dead.

Sometimes we believe we have forgiven. Yet to forgive is to let go. When we find ourselves rehashing the wound after we forgave, we must realize we haven’t forgiven.  And when we try and fail, we add guilt to the emotional milieu. We fall short. We become smaller because we’re not big enough to forgive and forget. Perhaps more important than forgiving is to honor and acknowledge. We honor ourselves when we acknowledge that the wound did indeed happen. That is the starting point. It is a validation that should not be confused with victimhood. It is simply acknowledging to our brain that our heart feels this way for a reason. It is the logical handoff – where we can begin to examine the wound and our emotions around them.

It is the ability to make peace with our past and within ourselves. Accept. Move on. We may never arrive at a place called forgiveness. It is better to accept this than to go through mental gymnastics about it. When we retrieve the power, we have given to our wounds, healing begins.

Self-Esteem Puzzle – there is no doubt that the self-esteem puzzle is a challenge. Our pieces may be frayed at the edges, dented, bent, or bruised. That’s okay. When we bring them together to create the whole – it is the uniqueness that is you.


  1. Ruth Carter says:

    Great message! Forgiveness! Huge! Love you so much.


    This was an amazing article that really made me think about my own life and areas that I still need to examine more closely. Very though provoking indeed!

    Thank you for the amazing article!!!! I realized I have forgiven some events in my life without really knowing it – as I never think of them at all…….. and others, still need examination…..

    • Thank you for the feedback! In reviewing self-esteem studies/articles I realized that forgiveness and striving for perfection are our two biggest mental inhibitors toward self-love, self-respect, and self-esteem. Thank you again for your thoughts. All things good.

  3. Teresa Johnson -Frederick says:

    I love this article. It hit home for me in so many ways from so many aspects from my life journey. Self esteem has been such a big issue in my life and it’s still something I’m working on. I appreciate you touching that subject to remind myself to love myself imperfect and all.

    • I am so glad this resonated with you Teresa. It should resonate for many. Loving ourselves is not something most parents foster(ed). That is sad, because self-love is the foundational piece of our lives. Thank you for taking time to read and comment on this post.

  4. Dave Winegar says:

    This is a great article. A lot to digest here. More time for self introspection… just like D.A.N.C.E. Thanks for all the work you put into this. A well thought out and articulate examination of the “Self Esteem Puzzle”.

    • Thank you for taking time to read it. I know it was a lengthy post and dense. I am going to work on shorter posts and perhaps do them in a series. The self-esteem puzzle is really the key to our whole wellness. You are AWESOME!

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