How to Think About Self-Esteem

Self-esteem is the result of having skills appropriate to the occasion.

Posted Oct 30, 2019

Image by silviarita from Pixabay
Source: Image by silviarita from Pixabay

We’re often told that self-esteem is a good thing to have and to induce in children and therapy patients. Specifying what it is may assist in that endeavor. Webster’s Third defines esteem as “approval and respect often blended with great liking and fondness because of worthy qualities.” Please note the “because of worthy qualities,” which becomes less and less important as we proceed through definitions, and less and less important as we proceeded through the 20th century.

The definitions of self-esteem are “confidence and satisfaction in oneself” (which at least still allows for the possibility that confidence and satisfaction are based on worthy qualities), “one’s good opinion of oneself” (which seems independent of worthiness), and “self-conceit.” The latter means “an exaggerated opinion of one’s own qualities or abilities,” implying that the opinion not only does not consider worthiness but must not consider worthiness.

Skinner helps by defining self-esteem as the feeling that accompanies a reliably reinforced behavior, that is, a skill. Genuine self-esteem, “confidence and satisfaction in oneself” “because of worthy qualities” is a by-product of possessing skills; false self-esteem (self-conceit) is a product of hype. The former doesn’t give a person confidence and satisfaction; it is the state of having confidence and satisfaction because of knowing what to do.

False self-esteem is like believing your own publicity; it can make you feel thrilled when in the limelight, but it’s bound to falter when you actually need skills. Self-esteem is thus the opposite of anxiety, the difference between having skills suitable to the occasion and lacking them.

The implication is that parents should foster skills, that educators should teach students how to do things, and that therapists should bolster confidence not by complimenting patients, but by helping them take their emotions and their humanity in stride (yet another skill). Compliments and praise can actually backfire, raising the bar for what we expect of ourselves, a bar that can become so elevated that no one could possibly live up to it.

If you tell your kids not to worry about their looks, you might help them concentrate on skills. But if you tell them they are beautiful, they may not know how to manage getting shot down. They may even avoid social engagements rather than put their supposed beauty to the test.

Someone asked me why, if praise is ineffective in bolstering self-esteem, insults are so effective in reducing self-esteem. There are two main reasons. The first has to do, again, with skills.

Relational skills are important to nearly everyone and serve as a foundation of self-esteem. The first set of relational skills are directed at the primary caregiver. A baby may not know how to do anything at all except please her mother, get her mother to comfort her, and drink the milk provided to her, which makes the mother feel effective. Affectionate tones, gentle warmth, and praise can become the reliable reinforcers that create the skills that garner them, and the child can come to feel that she is good at getting love from at least a few people.

As bears repeating, praise can signal the presence of a skill set (whatever the child does to obtain praise) in the relational context, but it can also interfere with learning to do anything else. When the parent forces the child into a gifted program, the child’s relational skill set with the parent remains intact, but all other skill sets, including relational skills with other people, suffer.

Generally, it is better to praise effort and process rather than the outcome. A good coach praises keeping an eye on the ball, not catching it, tying the two together by saying when a grounder is snagged, "Way to keep an eye on the ball." If the fielder turns her head and still catches it, the coach explains that this was luck and does not offer praise.

Insults signal a relational failure, the deployment of behaviors that don’t work, and therefore are not skills (in whatever context the insults occur). Thus, with respect to this first issue involving skills, insults do not interfere with self-esteem so much as they signal a lack of skills in the insulting relationship, and a lack of skills means low self-esteem.

The other issue is what contemporary behaviorists call cognitive fusion, which means a tendency to take verbal ideas (in this case, ideas about oneself) literally. Our great strength is critical thinking, but critical thinking is not always advisable. If you’re making rice under the rule, “Don’t peek for 14 minutes,” it’s not a good time to wonder who is promulgating the rule and why, what the evidence for or against it is, or what unspoken dichotomous assumptions about the world underlie it. Instead, it’s a good time to take it literally.

When enough people, or people very important to us, describe us consistently or with emotional intensity, we can fuse with the description and think we are literally that way. Attachment to these descriptions can also serve certain defensive functions. For example, if your parent, on whom you are still very dependent, tells you that you are brilliant or stupid, your loyalty may depend on accepting the characterization. It’s a betrayal of the parent to try to solve a problem when your parent has said you’re stupid, and it’s a betrayal to admit you were wrong when you were told you’re brilliant. Thus, for many reasons, we can become fused with compliments and insults.

Fusion with compliments creates problems in enjoying the ordinary. It can seem to bolster self-esteem to believe you are beautiful, but if you are not beautiful, then it is merely “self-conceit.” Fusion with insults undermines self-esteem because it interferes with learning other skills. For example, if you believe you are unlovable, you won’t develop dating skills, and if you believe you don’t deserve a doctoral degree, you won’t put in the effort.

Self-esteem is a good thing when it is based on “worthy qualities,” just as the esteem of others is a good thing when the object of esteem is worthy. Otherwise, it is self-conceit or adulation, both of which interfere with learning what’s actually going on and how to deal with it. Excessive praise and all insults interfere with self-esteem because of their effects on relational skills and because of the resulting cognitive fusion.