Self-esteem: Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Motivation

Self-esteem: Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Motivation

On this post I want to talk about artificial or superficial self-esteem. These are maybe not terms you would find in a psychological article, or maybe in a dictionary, but hear me out. This how I define these terms: Artificial or superficial self-esteem is self-esteem that is dependent on variables that can change, or are managed by an outside force. Others may refer to this type of self-esteem as “false” self-esteem, but in these cases it does not last because self-esteem may be fueled by others or artificially boosted by factors outside our immediate control. Let me give you examples of the variables that may affect self-esteem.

First let us define self-esteem. Self-esteem is often to referred to as our own ideas and feelings regarding our self-worth and our value. The Webster definition of self-esteem is the level of satisfaction that someone has about themselves and abilities. Some have also suggested that self-esteem is related to the level of respect we have for ourselves. It can be how we feel about ourselves.

It is the relationship we have with ourselves.

Clearly it can be defined in many ways

Some suggest that a high self-esteem is desired by most, and that this brings people optimal health, happiness, and popularity, while low self-esteem can result in the opposite. So what factors or variables may be involved in the regulation of self-esteem? I believe it can come from within and from our environments and experience and can be shaped by intrinsic and extrinsic motivators

  1. Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic motivation

Intrinsic Motivation is motivation that in internal or is fueled by you. This internal motivation is stronger and lasts longer because it is controlled by you and not others or outside variables. This type of motivation may be more self-regulated.

Extrinsic motivation is motivation that may come from another person or some outside (exterior) variable. Think of it like the word “exit,” because it is outside or operating from the outside of your person.

Our actions however can be fueled by both types of motivations or motives and may affect our self-esteem differently. Here is an example of how something can initially be triggered by an internal thought or plan, but can be changed by others and vise versa

  • Intrinsic turns extrinsic: You workout heavily and lose a couple pounds or begin to look good. You may have started working out for your own good (intrinsic motives) but then realized that the attention you got from others was a greater feeling then the motive to be healthy or feel better.
    • Your self-esteem may have been boosted in this situation not solely because you feel healthier, but because you now have tied your concept of self-esteem to how well others respond to you or your appearance. You become superficially confident only as long as others validate your worth positively.
    • This type of self-esteem boost may not last because we have gave others the power to control and alter how we feel about ourselves and our abilities (our self-confidence).
  • Another example may be when we decide to change something about ourselves (behaviors, lifestyles, opinions) because of others. This can be as easy as changing the way we look so another person likes us. Once they like us we will feel like our worth has increased and we are now a more “valuable” person.
    • Our self-esteem in this type of example is again dependent on what others think of us. Although we may try to convince ourselves that it was our decision to change and that it is best for us, we again made the choice fueled by extrinsic motivation and we are may continue to pursue such behavior primarily for them and not for ourselves. Once they disapprove again we seek the next thing to again influence their opinion or treatment of us.

*Note: Extrinsic motivation is not always a negative thing. Sometimes we begin with this type of motivation but the feelings we acquire based on our outcomes are positive, and may later become intrinsic and embedded in us.

  • Extrinsic turns intrinsic: Ex: Your friend invites you to the gym and offers you a free pass to join them. You may have really low self-esteem and not confident enough to go workout in front of everyone so you refuse. They insist a lot and after much consideration you decide to go because you care a lot for them and want to spend time with them. After going with them a few times you begin to feel healthier; more energetic, and may even like the way you look and feel. You then start going to the gym or on walks on your own and your idea of your self-worth has increased.
    • Your decision to go to the gym was extrinsically motivated by your friend’s desire to workout with you but later this motivation to continue your journey became YOUR decision.
    • You began to feel better because you then took control of the action and possible outcomes.
    • Your self-confidence is not solely tied to what your friend, family, or people at the gym think about you (not superficial based on looks), it is primarily fueled by you and therefor it is more likely to remain despite others opinions.

Having said all this: Our self-esteem and our levels self-esteem can of course change by events in our lives as well as age. Self-esteem and self-confidence is not the same thing, but they can both be improved simultaneously by not creating a false, artificial or superficial level of either. This type of self-esteem may not last and is not fully controlled by us.

I wanted to share an example from my personal life:

I have, like many people struggled with body image. Contrary to popular belief, body image and the self-esteem that is tide to this is not a “woman” thing; it’s a human thing. The thought of wearing a bathing suit sent shivers down my spine and I would lose sleep over the idea of having to wear one in public. Sure when I was young I must have not thought twice about it since I have clearly seen pictures of my young self in one. As I got older something changed; many things actually. I began comparing, internalizing, and over thinking. Yes media had an effect, but a lot of the things I picked up in my environment did equal amounts of damage. Fast forward to my early twenty’s and for the first time I became a little more confident. I began exercising regularly, which made me feel better and maybe made me look better, which made people notice, which made me feel even better. This cycle however was superficial and did not last. It was founded on the way I looked or the things I did that got me positive reactions.It had now become extrinsic. Mid twenties came; I got pregnant, had a baby and BOOM, self-esteem went crashing down. I had a problem! I was no longer getting the same compliments or appraisal. I had built my self-esteem around the feelings that OTHERS made me feel about MYSELF. I was judging the quality of my person by using other’s measurements and standards.

This was both unhealthy and mentally debilitating. It was hard to realize this had happened,but long story short: A few months ago I went with my long time boyfriend Ruben to help him with a job in a beautiful scenic town. On the way down the locals told us about a beautiful river that we must see before we left. We decided to check it out and the water looked so beautiful. We hiked down to the river and Ruben suggested we get in. I was not prepared for this! I began to over think it and decided I would get in with my pants and shirt because I did not want to miss out. He looked at me as I began to dip my feet and said, “just go in with your bra and underwear, it is the same thing as a bathing suit.” My heart began beating, I was sweating, and felt physicially sick at the thought of that! I was about to say no when something clicked. These type of feelings were holding me back from so much. I could be in that water enjoying myself but instead I am standing on the edge of this rock fully clothed questioning my value based on my appearance and what others in the water would think. STOP I told my inner monologue. So I took off my top and my pants and jumped in! It felt so liberating and so elated.

I challenge you to challenge yourself. Next time someone motivates you to do something positive, take them up on the offer. This extrinsic motivation may ignite internal feelings that will both benefit you and help you gain control over your own self-worth.

As always thank you for reading and for allowing me to share both the science and the life that is mental health. Let me know what you want to read next or if you have any suggestions, comments or share your stories! I truly appreciate them.


Be scientists! Check out the references 


Crocker, J., & Knight, K. M. (2005). Contingencies of Self-Worth. Current Directions In      Psychological Science,14(4), 200-203. doi:10.1111/j.0963-7214.2005.00364.x

Grogan, S. (2010). Promoting Positive Body Image in Males and Females: Contemporary    Issues and Future Directions. Sex Roles63(9-10), 757-765. doi:10.1007/s11199-010-9894-z

Web link references:

Other Great reads:

De Raedt, R., Schacht, R., Franck, E., & De Houwer, J. (2006). Self-esteem and depression    revisited: Implicit positive self-esteem in depressed patients?. Behaviour Research & Therapy44(7), 1017-1028. doi:10.1016/j.brat.2005.08.003

Wagner, J., Hoppmann, C., Ram, N., & Gerstorf, D. (2015). Self-Esteem Is Relatively Stable  Late in Life: The Role of Resources in the Health, Self-Regulation, and Social Domains. Developmental Psychology51(1), 136-149. doi:10.1037/a0038338 (this was a great read!!)

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12 Responses to Self-esteem: Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Motivation

  1. Melissa A. says:

    Interesting. Thanks for sharing. I enjoyed reading your own example. You look great, btw, and so does that crystal-clear river! I would have gotten in for sure; but yes, I would have kept my clothes on. Too embarrassed otherwise. 🙂

    • Thank you for reading 🙂 and that river felt amazing. Thank you so much for your compliment. I am with you on that. Body image can be very difficult to overcome. I’m still working on it 🙂 hope you are well

  2. Aryan says:

    Motivation is something which you need & whatever may be the form, Intrinsic or extrinsic and one more thing, motivation is not a one time capsule, you need to focus in regular intervals whenever you feel down.

    • I agree 🙂 it is definitely something that we need to incorporate and that can make a lot of difference. Thank you for reading and taking the time to comment

  3. jossynana says:

    i loved reading this. being someone who constantly struggles with her self esteem, i kind of related and enjoyed every bit of this article.

  4. This has great insight and I struggle with this, so I found it particularly helpful.

  5. Joanne says:

    I battle with self esteem, i think everyone does at a certain point in their lives. At the moment, I’m not so motivated and I need to regroup thanks for sharing this.

    • Thank you for reading and taking the time to comment. Luckily some research says that as we get older our self esteem improves. But meanwhile it can be very difficult to tell our present self that it will get better. Never be afraid to reach out for help. I know I’m willing to listen 🙂

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