Everything you always wanted to know about self-esteem but were afraid to ask

Apart from problems that are biological in origin, I cannot think of a single psychological difficulty – from anxiety or depression, to fear of intimacy or of success, to alcohol or drug abuse, to underachievement at school or at work, to spouse battering or child molestation, to sexual dysfunctions or emotional immaturity, to suicide or crimes of violence – that is not traceable to poor self-esteem. Of all the judgments we pass, none is as important as the one we pass on ourselves. Positive self-esteem is a cardinal requirement of a fulfilling life.  Nathaniel Branden

Nothing builds self-esteem and self-confidence like accomplishment. Thomas Carlyle

Homework is bad for my self-esteem. It sends the message that I don’t know enough! So instead of trying to learn, I’m just concentrating on liking myself the way I am. Calvin and Hobbes



I blame George Benson. Now I have nothing against the American musician, a ten-time Grammy Award winner. But he did sing The Greatest Love of All, which proclaimed that learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all.  It became an anthem of the self-esteem movement, which emerged in the 1970s. The movement’s practitioners proclaimed that low self-esteem was the cause of myriad psychological and societal problems. Increasing self-esteem would bring more successful, happier, balanced people. But the benefits would go way beyond this. Some of the more outlandish claims came from John Vasconcellos, a leading Democrat in Californian politics. He had a lifelong interest in psychology and championed the self-esteem movement in the Golden State. He proposed the State Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem in October 1986. He argued that it would help with problems such as crime, teenage pregnancy, drug abuse, school underachievement and pollution. He even floated the idea that it would help balanceCalifornia’s budget as people with high self-regard earn more than others and thus pay more in taxes. These are important claims, but is there any basis for them?

First we need to define our terms. In psychology, the term self-esteem is used to describe a person’s overall sense of self-worth or personal value. Psychologists distinguish between two forms of self-esteem: Trait self-esteem reflects how good you feel about yourself in general or on average, and state self-esteem, which involves how you feel about yourself at any particular moment in time.

Low self-esteem is often linked to undesirable behaviours and emotions. People with low self-esteem tend to be more dishonest and are more likely to engage in criminal activity. They are more like likely to fail in life. Just about every negative psychological condition you can name is more common among people with low self-esteem. On the other hand people with high self-esteem are more likely to be happy with their lives and less likely to become depressed, anxious or worried. What’s more they are better educated and have more successful careers.

After establishing a working definition of self-esteem I now want to challenge some widely-held beliefs. EVERYTHING YOU THINK YOU KNOW ABOUT SELF-ESTEEM IS WRONG! Contrary to the popular view, there’s almost no evidence that self-esteem actually causes anything. Years of research show that low self-esteem does not appear to cause the negative outcomes that have been associated with it. Nor does high self-esteem appear to cause the positive outcomes. Correlation does not mean causation and the self-esteem movement has got the causation the wrong way round. Self-esteem is usually the result of these outcomes and not the cause. Low self-esteem doesn’t cause depression; the life events that cause depression also often provoke low self-esteem.

Dr. Mark Leary, of Duke University has applied evolutionary psychology to turn conventional wisdom about self-esteem on its head. His central insight is that self-esteem does not exist in a bubble. Leary, director of the Social Psychology Program at Duke, is behind the concept of sociometer theory, which sees self-esteem as an internal, psychological meter that monitors the degree to which a person is being valued and accepted by the people around him. Being accepted has evolved as a universal human need. In our time as hunter gatherers anybody who was rejected by the group would have had a very difficult time surviving. Social rejection was often a death sentence. Because of this, we are highly attuned to the degree that other people accept or reject us. If we feel we are being valued and accepted by those around us our self-esteem also increases. However, if we get negative feedback, our self-esteem falls. Self-esteem is like a petrol gauge; it moves up and down depending on changes in perceived acceptance and rejection.

What should we be doing about the level of self-esteem in society? Self esteem is a by-product of a balanced life and not an end in itself. And if self-esteem is merely a by-product, trying to promote it in a vacuum will simply not work. What we need to avoid is trying to increase people’s self-esteem artificially—to build them up and make them feel that they are more socially acceptable than they actually are. If your petrol gauge says you are running out of petrol, then you need to fill up the tank. You don’t want to move the gauge to the right if you haven’t actually put any petrol in the tank. People who view themselves more positively than they should, become confused and angry when they discover that the rest of the world just doesn’t recognize their wonderfulness. It makes them less receptive to improving themselves. We may be a creating is a narcissistic generation with an inflated sense of their worth and importance.

The most widely used measure of narcissism in social psychological research is the Narcissistic Personality Inventory. It consists of forty pairs of statements. You have to  choose the one that best matches you, even if it’s not a perfect fit. Here are some examples:

  • The thought of ruling the world frightens the hell out of me. / If I ruled the world it would be a better place.
  • I insist upon getting the respect that is due me.  / I usually get the respect that I deserve.
  • I like to look at myself in the mirror. /  I am not particularly interested in looking at myself in the mirror.

According to San Diego State University psychologist Jean Twenge, university students today are more narcissistic and self-centred than a generation ago. The study shows that scores on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory have been rising steadily risen since the test was first introduced 30 years ago. The researchers believe the phenomenon goes back the rise of the self-esteem movement. And now with Facebook, Twitter etc we have more channels available.

Narcissism can actually foment social problems. Jean Twenge, author of Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled–and More Miserable Than Ever Before and The Narcissism Epidemic highlights the dangers of this:

“Narcissism causes almost all of the things that Americans hoped high self-esteem would prevent, including aggression, materialism, lack of caring for others, and shallow values. In trying to build a society that celebrates high self-esteem, self-expression, and ‘loving yourself,’ Americans have inadvertently created more narcissists—and a culture that brings out the narcissistic behaviour in all of us.

Education has been an area where the ideas about self-esteem have been implemented. The dominant idea was that there had to be prizes for everyone and that competition was bad.  Not only did self-esteem-based educational methodologies fail to produce excellence, they actually undermined it.

I am not arguing against self-esteem, but against the bogus claims that have been made about it over the last few decades. Bombarding kids with positive messages is not a solution. It’s necessary to focus on the real causes of people’s problems and not artificially increase their self esteem. People function best when they have a more realistic view of their strengths and weaknesses, Once again we see the law of unintended consequences – a measure producing the opposite results to those intended. I don’t think we need to follow the example of those Chinese tiger moms. But we need to recognise that this obsession with promoting self-esteem has singularly failed to deliver what it promised.

One Response to Everything you always wanted to know about self-esteem but were afraid to ask

  1. Alberto says:

    I agree. According to Mark (chapter 7), “Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile.”

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