Self-esteem: Not all it’s cracked up to be

Today’s society seems obsessed with developing self-esteem. This is particularly true in America, which gives it tremendous emphasis even compared to other Western cultures. This emphasis is justified by the conventional wisdom that self-esteem boosts performance, relationships, and is essential for health and well-being. However, what may be surprising to learn is that research over the past decade completely contradicts these claims.

A good comprehensive examination of self-esteem can be found in this journal publication, or a much briefer summary in Scientific American. The crux is that although people with high self-esteem may consider themselves to be smarter, more attractive, or more popular, impartial observations from those around them tell a different story. In fact, self-esteem seems to have no bearing on such things. Research has also overturned the notion that those with high self-esteem are more accepting and tolerant, and instead shows that they are actually more likely to be prejudiced than their colleagues of lower self-esteem. Similarly, purported benefits related to drive and determination, leadership and interpersonal skills, and everything else we traditionally associate with self-esteem, is completely unsupported by research, and in many cases contradicted. The only established link that remains is that between high self-esteem and happiness. However, even here the causality is unclear: The apparent trend may simply be because those with higher self-esteem are more likely to say that they are happy.

So having debunked the benefits of self-esteem, what do we do? Surely we would not want to lower our self-esteem? Clearly not, but we do need to consider whether our view of ourselves is divorced from reality? If our self-esteem is high due to our accomplishments and personal development then all is well and good. However, if there are serious issues in our life but we simply tell ourselves we are wonderful, then we have a problem. We must not generate artificially high feelings about ourselves as a way to stop dealing with reality. This simply stalls our development, and sets us up for the inevitable fall when the truth eventually confronts us. A good example of this is in an intimate relationship. A preoccupation with high self-esteem can make us refuse to admit that our own problems could be the cause a conflict, eventually leading to the break-down of the relationship.

Therefore, the message is to deal with reality. We may be concerned that being honest about our problems could cause us to be overly self-critical and then depressed. Ironically, it is the very preoccupation with self-esteem that can make this occur. The cycle goes like this: We believe that high self-esteem is important. We discover something about ourselves that lowers our self-esteem. The lowering of our self-esteem makes us panic and think we have a major problem, and this lowers our self-esteem even further. How do we break this cycle? All we need to do is realize that self-esteem is not that important. As long as we are not obsessed with having these feel-good thoughts all the time, their absence will not concern us. Instead we can be honest with ourselves, and focus on that which will cause a genuine and substantial happiness.

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1 Comment »

  1. Spiritual Inquiry . com » Building self-esteem: honesty and compassion said,

    February 4, 2008 @ 11:24 am

    […] Therefore, if we suffer from low self-esteem, honesty and compassion are two qualities to focus on. As I discussed in this article, focusing too much on self-esteem can be dangerous. However, if our response to low self-esteem is not to dwell on it but to instead focus on developing honesty and compassion, then we are guaranteed to profit. After all, the benefits of honesty and compassion go well beyond an improvement of self-esteem. […]

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