The need to enhance our self-esteem (and to protect it), is a need that develops along with a sense of self—sometime after the other needs in an individuals developmental timeline. This need is also a specifically human need, as it requires an ability to have a developed self-awareness and to think reflectively. Alfred Adler (1920), along with many others, recognized that the need for self-esteem enhancement is an important need and motivator. From a neurobiological point of view, self-esteem regulation is likely the most complex network of all the basic needs mentioned. The assumption is that humans generally strive to maximize their self-esteem, but the way we go about achieving this can seem contrary to the goal—and sometimes we encounter low self-esteem maintenance. But what is really happening with someone maintaining a low self-esteem? According to consistency theory the maintenance of a low self-esteem is a means to service other, more critical needs. For example, avoiding a promotion at work, something that would likely bolster self-esteem, may be driven by a fear of leaving the current situation and relationships (need for attachment), or lack of clarity about the new job and ability to perform (need for control and orientation), or fears of failure, criticism, or too high expectation (need to avoid pain). Fear driven ways of handling situations (avoidant motivational schemas), that are mostly operating out of the deeper limbic system rather than cortical control, are likely to initiate behaviors that maintain a low self-esteem for the sake of other needs. This does not mean, however, that self-esteem enhancement is not a basic need, but it does demonstrate how a basic need can be thwarted by strongly developed avoidant motivational schemas and weakly developed approach schemas.
Alder, A. (1920). Praxis und Theorie der Individualtherapie [Praxis and theory of individual therapy]. Munich, Germany: Bergmann.