Self-esteem is cherished by the mainstream and viewed as a panacea – a cure-all formula for living a healthy, happy life. Taken at surface value, the concept of being more confident and improving the chances of success feels good, but how true is this perception?
Increasing self-confidence is the focus of many self-help gurus who write books and hold seminars that fire people up, often leaving the audience with no real actionable take-home advice. This leaves participants eager for more “self-help entertainment” (disguised as education) that arguably could lead to feelings of helplessness.
The Self-Esteem Movement began back in 1969 when Nathaniel Branden published his book, “The Psychology of Self-Esteem.”
This was followed by a host of books on Self-Esteem, which ultimately led to the popularization of the movement. Branden criticized the use of affirmations and feel-good notions, favoring concrete action and inner reflection. Branden went so far as to state that:
“Feel good notions are harmful rather than helpful.”
Somewhere along the line, the concept morphed into something completely different altogether. Instead of inner determination and action, people are now seeking external validation or the need for approval for their every move.
This can be detrimental to a grown adult who should be able to take full responsibility for his or her own actions.
Problems with the Self-Esteem Movement
In the 80s we saw the momentous rise of the Self-Esteem Movement, where building it was put on a pedestal. Children began to be showered with continual praise, by teachers and parents and the very idea of competition was sniffed at.
The issue with this approach to raising children is that the validation of winning or carrying an action out successfully is designed to help us succeed.
Feeling happy when you do something well and not so good when you fail, is natural and in no way tied to overall self-worth.
By praising everyone regardless of their success, educators inadvertently dull that feedback mechanism. Perhaps that’s why some experts feel that the self-esteem movement has actually resulted in young people feeling “entitled” and stunted their emotional growth – quite the opposite of the desired effect.
What Does Self-Esteem Mean?
According to Webster’s dictionary, the meaning of self-esteem can be summed up as:
Self-esteem means a confidence and satisfaction in oneself; a feeling of having respect for yourself and your abilities.
So how can it be bad?
Considering the dictionary self-esteem meaning, having high self-regard should be based on our performance. By validating our efforts in a healthy way, self-worth can help us to progress and reach our goals.
The theory with the movement was that if we feel better we will do better. Unfortunately, this approach by-passes the validation that ultimately pushes us forward.
Building Self Esteem in Education and Sports
The movement bled into the school systems, as well as sandlot athletic fields, and in many cases, this has resulted in standards being lowered so that everyone feels like they fit in.
There cannot be competition or a realistic sense of success in this situation, as all students or child amateur athletes are praised equally no matter how well they perform.
When building self-satisfaction is cherished at the expense of performance, rather than striving for excellence, many children will accept much less than they are capable of.
Acceptance of where you are in relation to your goals is a helpful marker and does not lower faith in oneself.
It is important to note that self-worth is not tied to self-esteem. They are two separate issues that often get intertwined.
How High Self-Esteem Might Be Harmful
Despite mounting evidence to the contrary, high esteem has been adopted by just about everyone in society, from therapists and teachers to politicians. Simply boosting your self-confidence is (incorrectly) said to be the cure for depression, anxiety, and civil unrest.
Contrary to popular belief, studies reviewing the effects of the self-esteem movement reveal that high self-esteem might actually damage us. In fact, criminal activity, addiction and performance have all been linked to high-self-esteem rather than “low.”
Victims of the movement might actually have more problems than those brought up with a more traditional approach to education, sports, family and community. One where people know the worth of their actions because there are winners and losers worked well in the past and would probably be just as constructive today.
In one study, a test was given to 13-year olds from the United States, Spain, Britain, Ireland, Korea and Canada.
Along with the test, they were asked if they were good at mathematics. Just 23% of Koreans said that they were good at mathematics, despite them performing the best at the test.
In comparison, 68% of the American children said they were good at math, and they scored last out of all six countries, suggesting that high self-esteem might actually be detrimental to performance outcomes.
In another study carried out by Psychologists at Iowa State University, researchers found that high self-esteem impacts the ability to stop smoking.
Lead researcher Frederick Gibbons found that not being able to connect behavior with the outcome meant that people would keep smoking because they wouldn’t admit that what they were doing was bad for their health.
Aggressive behavior has also been connected to an excessively elevated sense of self. When measured by researchers at Case Western Reserve University and the University of Virginia people who commit violent crimes were found to have favorable views of themselves – meaning that high self-esteem rather than low might be linked to violent crime.
A Well Meaning But Flawed Theory
High internal esteem has proven to be an issue in many cases despite a lot of money being paid to increase the value of everyone.
Followers of the movement blame hidden low self-esteem rather than high for people failing in life.
They propose that people who exhibit extroverted behavior use it to cover up how bad they feel inside.
While this is true in some cases, it is certainly not the absolute truth. Promoters also blame inauthentic values when people don’t find success with their methods.
Grounded in Reality – Self Improvement is Key
In reality, esteem builds over time to let us know that we are learning and growing, hence, self-improvement is the most important thing.
Furthermore it is not tied to our self-worth. Confidence in our abilities is usually a good thing when grounded in truth.
The movement takes people away from reality and the natural feedback mechanisms that let us know if we are succeeding or not.
When we focus on our achievements and grow confidence naturally and organically, then there are tangible outcomes that we can measure our success against.
However, when we focus on confidence alone, it becomes extremely hard to measure success.
High or low self-esteem are not barometers for success. Instead self improvement, self-acceptance and the pursuit of tangible goals will bring about lasting happiness.