“In a world in which the total of human knowledge is doubling about every ten years, our security can rest only on our ability to learn.” ―Nathaniel Branden

In his masterpiece The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem (1994), the Canadian–American psychotherapist and writer Nathaniel Branden describes self-esteem as “confidence in our ability to think, confidence in our ability to cope with the basic challenges of life; and confidence in our right to be successful and happy, the feeling of being worthy, deserving, entitled to assert our needs and wants, achieve our values, and enjoy the fruits of our efforts”. He further suggests that self-esteem is supported by six practices (pillars).

The practise of living consciously

As Branden puts it, consciousness is the essential survival tool, for we either exercise our powers in seeking awareness and truth or subvert our means of survival. Branden specifies living consciously through a mind that is active rather than passive, being in the moment without losing the broader context, and being able to distinguish between facts, interpretations and emotions.

The practise of self-acceptance

Self-acceptance is something people do daily. Branden maintains that it helps us refuse to be in an adversarial relationship with ourselves. There are three levels to self-acceptance: a) being for oneself, i.e. never being in a state of self-rejecting; b) refusing to regard any part of oneself as alien; and c) being a friend to oneself.

The practice of self-responsibility

Branden sees self-responsibility as people achieving their desires, making their own choices, controlling their behaviour with others, bringing consciousness to work, prioritizing their time, accepting the values by which they live, and raising their self-esteem. According to Branden, no one owes anybody the fulfilment of their wishes. Moreover, when a person takes responsibility for their happiness, it places their life back in their own hands.

The practise of self-assertiveness

According to Branden, self-assertiveness indicates that one honours their wants, needs and values and that they seek appropriate forms of their expression in reality. Self-assertive people never fake their personality simply to be liked by others. Nor do they avoid confrontation with those whose values differ from theirs. Also, self-assertive people remain authentic whatever the context may be: paying a compliment, staying politely silent or refusing to approve of a bad joke. However, mindless rebellion is neither self-assertiveness nor living up to someone else’s expectations.

The practise of living purposefully

To understand if our life has a purpose, we should be able to answer the following questions (among many others)

  1. What am I trying to achieve?
  2. How am I trying to achieve it?
  3. Why do I think these means are appropriate?
  4. Is there new information that I need to consider?
  5. Do my goals and purposes need to be rethought?
  6. Am I living at a high level of consciousness?
The practise of personal integrity

Integrity means congruence; it means that our words and behaviour match. Therefore, if we want others to perceive us as trustworthy, we must keep our promises, walk our talk, follow through with our commitments, and be consistent. Branden also writes about the principle of reciprocal causation, which occurs when “behaviours that generate good self-esteem are also expressions of good self-esteem”. So the more consciously we live, the more we trust our minds and respect our worth.

Self-esteem at school

Schools cannot solve all the problems in students’ lives, but they can make a considerable difference. Branden states that today’s world needs people who can think, innovate, originate and function self-responsibly. Furthermore, the world needs those who can remain individuals, work effectively in teams, and stay confident of their powers and ability to contribute. So building self-esteem should be integrated into school curricula for at least 2 reasons:

  1. to support young people in preserving their studies, and not less importantly,
  2. to help them prepare for a world where ‘the mind’ is everyone’s chief capital asset.

On the other hand, teachers need to work on their self-esteem. Because those with low self-esteem seem to be the unhappiest teachers there are. In fact, these teachers tend to regard others’ approval as the source of their self-worth. Also, they are highly likely to use their approval or disapproval to manipulate students into obedience and conformity. Branden, therefore, implies that “one of the greatest gifts a teacher can offer a student is the refusal to accept the student’s poor self-concept at face value”.

However, to give a child the experience of acceptance does not mean that we expect nothing from them. Quite the contrary, we should set up high expectations. When a teacher says, “I am absolutely convinced you can master this subject, and I expect you to and will give you all the help you need”, then the student is likely to feel nurtured and inspired, Branden concludes.


Dan Sanchez, for example, argues that “this kind of mollycoddling has yielded a millennial generation full of emotionally fragile young adults who, in the workplace, expect praise and affirmation simply for showing up, and who can’t cope with (much less adapt to) constructive criticism.”

William Reville adds, “by protecting our children, we do them a double disservice. First, we insulate them from experiences that can facilitate growth and resilience. Second, by actively protecting them, we send them the message that they are not capable of coping on their own.”

A viable solution here seems to be differentiation – tailoring instruction to meet individual needs.

Tim O’Brien and Dennis Guiney suggest that young people need knowledgeable and deliberate pacing to help them get to challenges and tangible accomplishments. They agree that too much help and artificial praise would make students weak and unable to face the challenge, but too little recognition would not work either.