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Is Your Self-Esteem Too High to Be Successful?

A science-backed replacement for self-esteem.

Paige Soller/Flickr
Source: Paige Soller/Flickr

You probably rely too much on self-esteem for your success. This is a mistake. High self-esteem has several problems. This includes the potential for violence and a fear of failure. If success is your goal, forget self-esteem and embrace self-compassion.

Self-esteem has many definitions. One often used definition of self-esteem involves how competent you feel, as well as how you perceive the judgments of other people.

Research from psychologist Roy Baumeister shows criminals have higher self-esteem than the general population. Baumeister and colleagues explain, “When large groups of people differ in self-esteem, the group with higher self-esteem is generally the more violent one.”

Self-Esteem Relies On Validation From Others

Often, self-esteem relies on validation from other people and proving your competence. Relying on these factors for self-worth is holding you back. Relying on external judgments and accomplishments is a recipe for anxiety, depression, and other bad outcomes. You don't want your self-worth to rise and fall based on the approval of others or your latest success or setback. In contrast, research demonstrates self-compassion is linked to more stable feelings of self-worth.

Self-compassion does not depend on your image of yourself. It doesn’t rely on external approval. Rather, self-compassion means you embrace all aspects of personal experience without judgment. It means letting go of the idea that every experience is a reflection of who you are as a person. Your feelings about yourself are not determined by your successes and failures.

Growth Versus Fixed Mindset

Research from psychologists Carol Dweck and Ellen Leggett highlights how self-esteem can hold you back. They ran a series of experiments on how people approach difficult tasks. Next, they divided people into two groups: Growth mindset and fixed mindset. People with fixed mindsets tend to avoid challenges out of fear. They worry about looking incompetent. They focus on whether their abilities are adequate and how other people view them.

In contrast, people with growth mindsets are not concerned with how they appear. They seek challenging tasks and enjoy learning new things. They don’t care how they look if they fail. Given two people of equal ability, the person with a growth mindset is more likely to succeed than the person with a fixed mindset.

Put differently, people with fixed mindsets are concerned with proving their abilities. People with growth mindsets are concerned with improving their abilities. Those with a growth mindset are less concerned with validation from others. They concentrate on their goals, gain new skills, and reach more success. Self-compassion opens the growth mindset door, resulting in more success.

Self-Esteem and Narcissism

Another potential problem with high self-esteem involves narcissism. Researchers have found that self-esteem is positively associated with narcissism. People who rely on others' view of them become angry when their self-image is insulted or threatened. This idea is related to narcissistic injury. When people discover other people do not view them as they wish to be viewed, it can result in aggression.

In contrast, there is no relationship between self-compassion and narcissism. Self-compassionate people don’t worry about their egos because they don’t define themselves by external approval. Moreover, it makes it easier to acknowledge personal shortcomings.


Being self-compassionate lets you seek challenges without worrying that failure at a task means you're a failure as a person. As a result, self-compassion can drive you to gain new skills and become more successful.

Moreover, self-compassion is linked to resilience. In a study on the effects of self-compassion on military veterans with PTSD, researchers found that, controlling for other factors, higher self-compassion was associated with reduced severity of symptoms. This is a good sign self-compassion can work for others who are facing hardships.

Science research has identified 3 keys to self-compassion:

  • Be kind to yourself. This means accepting your flaws without judgment or harsh criticism.
  • Understand you are part of humanity. You reframe failures not as harsh reflections of your self-worth. You accept that mistakes are part of being human but do not mean you are less worthy as a person.
  • Mindfulness. This means being aware of your thoughts and feelings without letting them define you. You acknowledge your feelings without letting them drain you.

In one study, researchers examined people asked to describe their “biggest weakness” in an interview. People with high self-compassion and low self-compassion used the same amount of negative words to describe themselves. But the self-compassionate people felt less anxiety during the task.

Self-compassion does not mean neglecting responsibility for failure. As Dr. Emma Seppälä at Stanford University puts it, “[Self-compassion] means that you approach these setbacks in a more constructive way, learning from them instead of beating yourself up because of them.” If you want to take on challenges, gain new skills, and reach success, be self-compassionate.

You can follow me on Twitter here: @robkhenderson.

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Baumeister, R. F., Bushman, B. J., & Campbell, W. K. (2000). Self-esteem, narcissism, and aggression: Does violence result from low self-esteem or from threatened egotism?. Current directions in psychological science, 9(1), 26-29.

Baumeister, R. F., Smart, L., & Boden, J. M. (1996). Relation of threatened egotism to violence and aggression: the dark side of high self-esteem. Psychological review, 103(1), 5.

Dweck, C. S., Leggett, E. L. A Social-Cognitive Approach to Motivation and Personality, Psychological Review, 95, 256-273.

Neff, K. D. (2003). The development and validation of a scale to measure self-compassion. Self and Identity, 2, 223–250

Neff, K. D., Kirkpatrick, K. L., & Rude, S. S. (2007). Self-compassion and adaptive psychological functioning. Journal of research in personality, 41(1), 139-154.

Neff, K. D., & Vonk, R. (2009). Self‐compassion versus global self‐esteem: Two different ways of relating to oneself. Journal of personality, 77(1), 23-50.

Seppala, E. (2016). The Happiness Track.