The role of self-esteem

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Everyone should have high self-esteem ― or should they? Dr Stephanie Thornton asks if we have got the balance between praise and realism right.

Low self-esteem is a miserable thing. To feel that one is inadequate, a failure, unlovable (and so on) is inherently depressing. Worse, such feelings can create a vicious cycle, undermining one’s efforts and so creating more failure and still lower self-esteem…

Could raising self-esteem across the board increase the happiness and success of the young? In the 1980s, expert opinion was that it would. The theory was that every teenager should be encouraged to have high self-esteem – and things that might undermine that (such as direct competition with others who might be more able) should be avoided in schools. The expectation was that this would raise not only happiness, but levels of achievement.

We have pursued the “high self-esteem for all” policy for 30 years. Has it been a success? The evidence is equivocal, on all fronts. And many experts are now changing their minds.

Impact of boosting self-esteem

Yes, you can boost a young person’s opinion of him or herself – whether or not an objective assessment would support that opinion. And, other things being equal, higher self-esteem does tend to be associated with greater happiness and confidence. But other things will not necessarily be equal...

It turns out that higher self-esteem does not protect the young from depression. In fact, those with high self-esteem tend to be less resilient in the face of stress than those with lower opinions of themselves. 

Nor does boosting the self-esteem of the young improve academic performance. In fact, this policy is often counter-productive.

The impact of reality

It is now clear that useful high self-esteem is the product of positive achievement, not the cause of it. Artificially boosted self-esteem may well be worse than useless. And (in hindsight) it is easy to understand why.

The core problem with the “self-esteem” programme lies in the fact that in boosting self-esteem as a policy, we necessarily decouple it from “reality”, or at least from normality.

In the normal course of events, an individual’s self-judgement reflects his or her actual ability, popularity and so on. But if everyone is to have high self-esteem, that cannot be the case: praise must become unconditional, unconnected with achievement. And so, self-esteem becomes intrinsic, an unearned right. And this “artificial” self-esteem has serious drawbacks. 

An artificially inflated ego creates unrealistic expectations. When the individual inevitably fails to achieve these, he or she is likely to become depressed or frustrated – or both. How much damage has this kind of effect caused? Research studies suggest that it is not negligible. For example, since the “high self-esteem for all” policy took charge in the 1980s, the number of teenagers in the USA needing medication for depression has quadrupled.

Furthermore, an artificially inflated ego tends to encourage vanity and narcissism, and the fragility associated with those things. For example, a survey of college students in 2006 found that narcissism levels had doubled since the self-esteem policy began in the 1980s. Narcissism is inherently insecure: endlessly (often subconsciously) on the defensive against challenges to a high opinion of the self, the narcissist reacts badly even to constructive criticism, and is disposed to cheat to maintain an inflated public presentation of success.

Back to the drawing board?

Artificially boosting self-esteem has turned out not to offer the benefits to the young that we had hoped for. In fact, it now seems to many experts to be a counter-productive strategy, both for the individual and for society as a whole.

But what should we do now? Low self-esteem genuinely is noxious and debilitating. There are many individuals in our schools who suffer greatly from low self-esteem – and adolescence is notoriously a time of great vulnerability in this area. If artificially boosting self-esteem does not work, what can we do to support the many individuals who don’t enjoy the success that would naturally foster high self-esteem?

Expert opinion is divided on this topic. That is to say, there are three proposals “out there”, each very different; but they are complementary rather than conflicting. Perhaps we should strive for them all:

Look beyond the self

One powerful suggestion is that, rather than boosting the individual ego, we should be encouraging the young to adopt a focus beyond the self. Research clearly shows that seeking approval and praise from others, endorsement for one’s own high opinion of oneself, is counter-productive in the creation of a reality-based self-esteem. In fact it tends to lead to the exact opposite of its aim.

By contrast, a focus on others, on empathy with and compassion for others, a genuine concern with the welfare of others generates a socio-moral maturity that will naturally garner the popularity and endorsement that provides a genuine (and well deserved) self-esteem.

If we want our young to feel good about themselves, we should stop offering them vacuous praise and instead foster their concern for others, and the social skills that will allow them to make others feel valued. Conceit has never been as attractive as compassion – an ancient value that perhaps we have lost sight of.

Value determination

Another view is that, in offering unconditional self-esteem we have underplayed, and undermined, the value of effort. Self-satisfaction is always unlikely to produce the striving on which a natural self-esteem could be founded. By contrast, self control, determination, will-power – the heart to make an effort – can carry us further than we might suppose. 

Self-satisfaction is smug, it rests on its (supposed) laurels. Determination is something else: it sets targets, it strives, it regards setbacks as challenges to be overcome. Smugness wraps us in warm inertia. Determination focuses us on the practical challenge in hand. Self-evidently, determination is a better gift to the young than smugness.

Including all?

Overall, the consensus of expert opinion now is that artificially boosting a teenager’s self-esteem by offering unconditional praise or hiding all evidence that the competition is better is dangerously counter-productive. Fostering a pro-social, rather than a “me” orientation is more constructive. Encouraging effort and determination serves the young better in life. 

Nonetheless, there will be children for whom these strategies offer no reprieve. There are always going to be children whose social skills/capacity for empathy are minimal, or whose capacity for self-control or focused determination “leaves a great deal to be desired”. 

These, the unlovely and the unachieving are the very ones who excited the compassion that led to the great “self-esteem” experiment of the past 30 years. If it was always wrong to mislead the majority with vacuous praise, it is equally wrong now to abandon the minority to the despair of low self-esteem.

But what to do? Telling an unlovely child that he or she is lovely, or conjuring abilities a child does not have is not only dishonest, it is cruel. Artificial self-esteem creates vulnerability, not strength. 

What the irredeemably unlovely and unachieving need is not falsity, but a different truth. And that is this: ultimately, human value does not depend on success of popularity. Every human being deserves to be valued and treated with respect, whatever their capacities. 

It is an idea that lurks about in our political rhetoric, our nobler responses to the disadvantaged. But it is all too easily forgotten in the everyday hurly burly of an educational system so firmly focused on standards, targets and achievements.

  • Dr Stephanie Thornton is a chartered psychologist and a former lecturer in psychology and child development.


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