In 1890, the early American psychologist William James defined self-esteem as the level of success a person has in obtaining his or her self-defined goals. Most modern psychologists reject this view because it sees self-esteem as something that is contingent upon success. In the real world, people inevitably fail from time to time, and failure can come to anyone at any moment. Someone who truly has self-esteem should maintain his or her sense of self-worth even in the event of failure.
In the 1960s, Morris Rosenberg defined self-esteem as a stable and consistent sense of personal worth or worthiness. This has been the most widely accepted definition for the past half century, but it is not without its critics.
Pinning down a precise definition for self-esteem is difficult for a number of reasons. First of all, experts disagree on the role of cause and effect in self-opinion. Henry James defined self-esteem as success in personal endeavors, but many modern psychologists would argue that success is not integral to self-esteem, but rather the result of it (as people with high self-esteem tend to be more successful). Other modern psychologists speculate that success is not the product of self-esteem, but rather the cause. They reason that successes in life lead a person to value himself or herself more highly.
While some people define self-esteem as a high sense of self-worth that is independent of accomplishment, this definition also creates problems. This viewpoint often fails to differentiate delusional narcissism from healthy self-esteem.
It can also be somewhat limiting to think of a person as having “high self-esteem” or “low self-esteem” when the truth is usually somewhat more