Self-Esteem Stories Are Oh So Obvious

When reporting on self-esteem, can the media get beyond low = bad, high = good?

Posted Mar 18, 2014

Habitually scanning the headlines seeking self-esteem-related news is an exercise in the head-poundingly obvious.

I mean head-pounding not in the actual way in which we who have self-esteem genuinely experience head-pounding, which involves our own fists and our own heads, or fantasized fists—in my case, big cartoonish disembodied ones wearing boxing gloves, jabbing out of the semi-sleep darkness at dawn. I mean head-pounding in the ironic light-thump-between-the-eyebrows way. Or even, to access the expression's other meaning, a repetitive construction-like noise inside the head that drowns out all other sounds, and all thought.

And I mean obvious as in: no-brainer. As in: Self-esteem is a serious subject, because self-esteem can be sky-high (see: dictators, certain superstars) or subterraneanly low (see: people who walk fully clad, their pockets packed with rocks, into the sea) or anywhere between these two extremes. The nearer to midway the better, I say in my forthcoming book Unworthy: How to Stop Hating Yourself, which I must mention here because it is appropriate, but given its topic and given that I wrote it not as a trained (thus shall we say qualified) therapist but as a lifelong (OK, since age four) sufferer, I cringe upon announcing it, feeling like an uninvited party guest forcing everyone to watch me hula-dance.

But news coverage involving self-esteem is usually so rudimentary, so black-and-white, so obvious as to make even the most empathetic reader's eyes glaze over. Low self-esteem: bad. High self-esteem: good. We see so many stories about programs that boil down to: Elevate the self-esteem of [choose a demographic: women, the disabled, bullied teens] by making them feel good about themselves, vis-a-vis affirmations, journals, even scrawling self-promotional words on their arms. Does this work in the long-term or even the short-? Studies are mixed. Some show that affirmations raise the self-esteem only of those whose self-esteem is high already. 

The latest self-esteem news, now being reported everywhere as if it wasn't drop-dead obvious, is this:

A new study suggests that high self-esteem can help seniors stay healthier longer. That advancing age increases the risks of depression, anxiety and stress. (I know: Who knew?!) And depression, anxiety and stress can weaken the immune system. So seniors who feel okay about themselves are likely to experience better physical health than seniors who don't.

UPI puts it this way

"A new study suggests your old man may need a boost, too. In fact, raising self-esteem may play an important role in minimizing the stresses of old age.

"Researchers at Concordia University measured the cortisol levels, self-esteem, stress, and symptoms of depression [in] 147 adults, aged 60 and over, for a period of four years. They found that as an individual's self-esteem decreased, release of the stress hormone cortisol went up—and vice versa. For those who already had a history of anxiety or depression, this inverse relationship between esteem and cortisol was particularly strong."

Fair enough, but do we really need to be told that self-esteem and physical health are fragile among older folks who are watching their bodies weaken and losing their treasured independence day by day while facing the ends of their lives after having almost certainly lost loved ones? I saw that creeping sorrow, that self-blame for every trip-and-fall, every set-down-and-lost set of keys, in my grandparents and my mother. You have quite possibly seen it in yours. Do we really need scientific studies to remind us to give the elderly emotional support? To treat them as if they matter and are valid human beings? Is being kind to seniors—those whom we know but also strangers, who feel all too invisible in a world that wants to see only youth—not simply common sense?

I mean obvious as in Duh.