Self-esteem and Conflict

In his book, The Psychology of Conflict, Paul Randolph viewed self-esteem as a highly influential factor in initiating conflict and resolving it (or not).[1] We all have a perception of ourselves and we all, even in very subtle ways, seek the approval of others in terms of how we behave, wear, say and even think.

You will probably feel the need to live your life with the approval of the people you love, even if that just means living within the limits of the law. You may be seeking the approval of your manager in order to get a promotion or act in a way that your partner finds attractive or desirable. The reason for this is generally attributed to the need to live with other human beings as a collective.


Humiliation can negatively impact our self-esteem and self-worth. It may make us feel like we are being rejected by others. If we feel humiliated by someone or an organisation, this may lead to a general condition of hostility (i.e. a conflict) which may accompany a dispute (i.e. an explanation of a clash of interests or rights and obligations) and will affect how it is conducted and resolved.

Conflict can erode our self-esteem, especially when there has been a breach of trust. This can increase hostility, feelings of shame and hurt and make it more difficult to resolve. Some may turn to violence or aggression to re-assert their self-esteem or use other destructive conflict resolution strategies.


Resolution of such a conflict requires attention to the resulting emotions and an understanding that self-esteem ebbs and flows. Sometimes we feel on top of the world and other times, we don’t even feel we are good enough to get out of bed.

A fear of disapproval can manifest in thinking the other will “win” if you settle a dispute instead of going to court. This may be perceived as weak or that somehow, you had no choice to hide your fault by way of a private, negotiated settlement.

Corporates are also worried about disapproval from their board members and the general public and so sometimes, go to great lengths to settle in private or in some cases, to immediately apologise for public failures

Other aspects of self-esteem

A person may seek approval from other by way of :

  • Respect . When we feel disrespected, we may feel rejected or undervalued.
  • Being heard. When we feel that our view, needs or desires are not being valued or taken into account, the same can occur.

These affect individual conflicts and society wide conflicts. They also affect States on an international level and can sometimes lead to war. Revenge may result from the perception of disrespect and marginalised communities and people may feel that mainstream rules and laws do not apply to them, which can be communicated through violence.

Being aware of your own self-esteem and self-perception can help to prevent conflict

Ask yourself the following questions when you in conflict with somebody or something:

  • Do I feel disrespected, under-valued, unacknowledged or unheard?
  • If so, does this make me feel the need to reassert my self-worth and to make myself heard?
  • If so, how am I choosing to do that? Through violence? Angry communication or more passive aggressive methods?

Feeling disrespected usually makes us want to disrespect the other party. Perceiving that we are not being heard may sometimes result in being stubborn or viewing cooperation as domination. This in turn, could threaten our self-worth even further.

It’s not an easy task. But real strength is about knowing and accepting your vulnerabilities so that we perceive the world in ways that support our self-worth. Approaching conflict with this attitude will help you live healthier, more mentally stable and more peaceful lives. It may not eradicate conflict (that’s out of your control) but it can help you deal with them with more clarity and focus.

[1] Paul Randolp, The Psychology of Conflict (Bloomsbury, 2016), chapter 4


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