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High Self-Esteem: Good or Bad?

A dark cloud of anxiety and fragility surrounds sky-high self-esteem.

Americans have high self-esteem and young people feel particularly good about themselves. Is this beneficial for health and well-being? Or are we cruising for a bruising?

Participating more in virtual networks, young people are increasingly concerned about how others evaluate them (1). This is a major source of competition and anxiety that threatens happiness.

Raising Confident Children

Although participation in electronic social networks (that are recent) may boost self-esteem, narcissism has been rising for a long time—at least three decades—so it is hard to claim that self-promotion on Facebook is the only source of high self-esteem amongst college students (1).

American parents strive to raise confident children and do so by avoiding criticism, or any negative evaluation that might dent the ego. Their efforts are bolstered by what happens in schools. The emphasis is very much on schools yielding fun experiences where everyone is reinforced for their efforts, regardless of actual accomplishment or effort. In this Lewis-Carroll environment, all children are winners and they all receive prizes.

Most psychologists would agree that it is better to reinforce children for going to school than it is to traumatize them after the fashion of the teachers depicted in a Dickens novel. Even so, excessive doling out of praise that is not earned by real effort or achievement cannot produce entirely good outcomes.

Ego as Motivation, and as Blindness

One consequence of unearned praise and undeserved rewards is the mediocrity of our educational system. When children are not challenged, they cannot reach their potential. As a result, huge numbers of college students require remedial education to scrape through introductory-level courses.

One beneficial effect of overwhelmingly positive early experiences is that young adults are more willing to take risks, such as those inherent in starting a business or writing a novel. People who feel good about themselves, generally have an optimistic view of their own prospects.

This motivates risk-taking of all sorts which may be beneficial in the business world given that most people are too risk-averse for their own good.

Egoism can be motivating, in general, but can also lead to striking errors of judgment. Such blindness is illustrated by the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. Planners went ahead with this covert action against the Castro regime as though they assumed nothing could possibly go wrong. Of course, just about everything that could go wrong did go wrong. The invasion site was poorly chosen and strongly defended by the Cuban military, and the popular uprising expected in support of the invasion did not materialize.

These incautious errors brought on the Cuban missile crisis that brought the world close to thermonuclear Armageddon. Fortunately, most mistakes of blind egoism do not have nearly such serious consequences.

Yet, feeling excessively good about oneself can have bad practical results. These range from unwise purchases at the height of an investment mania to getting exploited by fair-weather friends who never pick up the tab at a restaurant. Whatever the costs, narcissism is definitely on the rise, probably for a variety of different reasons (1).

Narcissism Unleashed

Over the past half-century, the lessons of psychology pervaded child-rearing practices. Most obviously, there has been a decline in the use of corporal punishment thanks to more child-friendly policies in opposition to authoritarian households of the past.

The demise of physical punishment in child-rearing practices represents a more child-centered approach that makes for a happier childhood. It is part of a generally much more lenient approach to discipline issues.

One reason that parent-child interactions are more positive today is that families are much smaller and births more widely spaced. This means that parents have an opportunity to get to know their kids better and to develop a warmer relationship where it is possible to use reasoning, rather than punishment.

As a result, parents often behave more like servants for their children than as frightening authority figures.

This status reversal can only contribute to children's sense of power and can only boost their self-importance. Arguably, narcissism had a good head start before the Internet emerged.

From the Christmas Letter to the Facebook Page

Narcissists may have a high opinion of themselves but that self-esteem is fragile. It is threatened by the possibility of being disliked, and rejected, by others.

Staying ahead of that possibility causes a great deal of anxiety. It motivates much boastful talk that may have a shaky foundation in reality.

Then there is the great effort required by endless self-promotion. We have all groaned at the family-level advertisement that was the substance of many Christmas letters. The genre has now morphed into daily Facebook updates. Pictures constantly-uploaded to social media sites brag about lifestyle.

Ironically, those who come across as doing best in their virtual self-presentation are often the most insecure and suffer from the nagging suspicion that other people lead more glamorous and interesting lives than they do.


1 Twenge, J. M., Kenrath, S., Foster, J. D., Campbell, W. K. and Bushman, B. J. (2008). Further evidence of an increase in narcissism among college students. Journal of Personality, 76, 919-928.