Enlightened Living

Meaning and mindfulness in everyday life

Self Esteem Doesn't Make Better People Of Us

Self-esteem is bad for you (and even worse for your kids).

The American philosopher and psychologist William James first coined the term self-esteem in his seminal work The Principles of Psychology. He suggested that self-esteem can be objectively measured through a simple ratio of goals and aims to attainment. What he was talking about is what we refer to today as an evidence-based measure.

Since it was first introduced in 1890, the notion of self-esteem has morphed into something entirely different than was originally intended. Our modern interpretation is no longer an objective and measurable equation of "do good/feel good". It has, in fact, come to mean something quite the opposite. We have lost sight of the "do good" piece and now, apparently much to our detriment, focus solely on the "feel-good" piece.

As our culture has become more and more centered upon how negative experiences may impact development, we have come to shelter, shun, and sugarcoat everything so as not to bruise the allegedly fragile egos of those around us. This tendency actually falls within the realm of agency, which is a component of codependence, and is especially evidenced with regard to children.

With the increased focus on children as the center of culture, we have also become more inclined to treat children with kid gloves (pun intended). In generations past, you were a star because you showed athletic promise, unusual scholarship, or were an asset to the community. These days, you're a star just because someone tells you it's so. And that is the crux of the problem.

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Psychologist Jean M. Twenge, in her 2007 publication, Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled - And More Miserable Than Ever Before asserts a fascinating statistic. In the 1950s, 12% of teens agreed with the statement, "I am important' - by the 1980s, a staggering 7 times that many, that's 80%, agreed with that same statement. So, we're doing a good job of boosting self-esteem, right? Well, here's the catch.

An exhaustive 2005 study published in Scientific American by psychologist, Florida State University professor and PT Interactions Blogger Roy Baumeister demonstrated that less than 200 of the more than 15,000 articles published on self-esteem between 1970 and 2000 met any sort of standard for academic or scientific rigor.

Baumeister's Scientific American article, in addition to both challenging and largely discrediting the existing research on self-esteem, also demonstrated that artificially boosting self-esteem actually lowers performance. Further, high self-esteem was found to have no positive correlation with a person's ability to have successful relationships. Quite to the contrary, Baumeister writes, "Those who think highly of themselves are more likely than others to respond to problems by severing relations and seeking other partners."

Baumeister and his team also found that, again contrary to previous belief, low self-esteem does not cause teens to engage in earlier sexual activity. In fact, those with high self-esteem were found to be less inhibited and more likely to be sexually active.

In another contrary finding, there was no correlation of aggression and violence with low self-esteem, also a commonly held belief. In point of fact, perpetrators of aggressive and violent acts typically hold a more favorable, and possibly even inflated, view of themselves.

In conclusion, Baumeister addressed the core issue of what has become the "self-esteem movement". This is the idea that higher self-esteem leads to happier people. And I quote, "It seems possible that high self-esteem brings about happiness, but no research has shown this outcome. Any correlation between the two is just that, a correlation."

For her part, Twenge points out that no other generation has been raised with a higher sense of self-esteem than the current. That is something of great concern, she suggests, as it turns out that some of our cultures most deeply entrenched beliefs are, in fact, an ultimately destructive influence.

The work of Baumeister and Twenge may also help to account for the higher rates of narcissism being reported by several studies. In one 2007 report, released by San Diego State University, 16,000 Narcissistic Personality Inventory tests reviewed from 1982 to the present suggested that today's college students are more narcissistic, have a greater sense of entitlement and are increasingly likely to agree with statements like, "I think I am a special person" and "If I ruled the world, it would be a better place."

It would appear that all of this evidences several topics of conversation. The first is the need to return to self-esteem as an objective measure of character and performance. Secondly, it has implications for parenting, in that it calls to light an attention to building an authentic and grounded sense of self in our offspring, rather than an over-inflated and unrealistic self-perception. It also lends perspective to service professionals, in that we must recognize that there is an apparently preconditioned cultural imperative that must be taken into account when working with young adults and adolescents. And finally, it calls to account a generation whose self-perception appears to be wildly distorted.  Recognizing and acknowledging this provides both an opportunity for change a staging point for developing a truly authentic character.

In the Yoga tradition, there is a phrase that is often heard, "You are perfect just the way you are." The intention of this sentiment is that, by recognizing both our limits and abilities, we come to a deep and authentic understanding of ourselves, and that this ‘self' to which we are so attached is both brilliant and flawed...but, it is, ultimately, both. That recognition and acknowledgement takes courage, but it is a necessary element in the evolution of our personal consciousness and authentic self, for as Buddha said, "Too pure water has no fish."

Author's note: I would like to gratefully acknowledge Maura R. O'Connor, contributing editor for What Is Enlightenment? magazine for inspiring this article (and for doing the legwork!).

© 2008 Michael J. Formica, All Rights Reserved

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Michael J. Formica, M.S., M.A., Ed.M., is a psychotherapist, teacher and writer. He is an Initiate in the Shankya Yoga lineage of H.H. Sri Swami Rama and the Himalayan Masters.

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