How high self-esteem can get us down

High self-esteem is good, but there is a dark side.

Posted Oct 26, 2009

High self-esteem is a real feel-good. We admire others who possess it and strive for it ourselves. Innumerable self-help books and workshops have been devoted to helping people improve their self-esteem. But there is a dark side to it that people often fail to see. And this dark side can actually leave them feeling worse about themselves; and failing to make sought-after changes in their lives.

Kristin Neff, a renowned researcher on compassion, expressed the downsides of pursuing high self-esteem in her piece Self-Compassion: Moving beyond the pitfalls of a separate self-concept (2008). I'll summarize some of what she wrote while also sharing my own thoughts on this topic.When people succeed, their self-esteem is often elevated, and they feel good. At those times, all is well. However, when they later fail in some way to meet their goals, they often show themselves no mercy. Their self-esteem dips and they feel pressure to increase it. To do this, they might downplay problems with their behavior, as when a dieter discounts those extra little snacks. Or, they might hyper focus on improving, leaving them victim to intense, destructive self-criticism--like the dieter who eats one candy bar, barrages herself with messages of being a failure, and then gives up her diet.

In addition, Neff points out that it is difficult to raise self-esteem. As I addressed in my blog entry, Chasing Change; Why we sometimes run in circles, people tend to find ways to support their self-definitions-even if those self-views are negative. Thus, efforts to raise self-esteem are often doomed with eventual, if not immediate, failure.

While there are people whose high self-esteem is based on their general positive feelings about themselves, others receive their feel-good more directly from their achievements in particular areas (such as sports or academics). It is this latter group who are paradoxically at high risk for thinking poorly of themselves. As Neff explains, an "A" student might be upset by getting a "B"; and might even need an "A+" to feel any sense of accomplishment. Not only do these individuals need to perform at ever-higher levels just to feel good, they often feel shame when they fall short of those high expectations. The result is that they are likely to be either highly critical of themselves--or of others (in attempt to bolster their own self-esteem).

So, while self-esteem itself is a good thing, we need to be careful about how we pursue it.

Dr. Leslie Becker-Phelps is a clinical psychologist in private practice and is on the medical staff at Somerset Medical Center in Somerville, NJ.