Answering Misconceptions about Self-Esteem

Does Self-Esteem Mean Feeling Good About Yourself?

Self-esteem is an experience. It is a particular way of experiencing the self. It is a good deal more than a mere feeling. It involves emotional, evaluative, and cognitive components.

It also entails certain action dispositions: to move toward life rather than away from it; to move toward consciousness rather than away from it; to treat facts with respect rather than denial; to operate self-responsibly rather than the opposite.

Self-esteem is the disposition to experience oneself as being competent to cope with the basic challenges of life and of being worthy of happiness. It is confidence in the efficacy of our mind, in our ability to think. By extension, it is confidence in our ability to learn, make appropriate choices and decisions, and respond effectively to change. It is also the experience that success, achievement, fulfillment – happiness – are right and natural for us.

Self-esteem is not the euphoria or buoyancy that may be temporarily induced by a drug, a compliment, or a love affair. It is not an illusion or hallucination. Lots of things (some of them quite dubious) can make us “feel good” – for a while. If self-esteem is not grounded in reality, if it is not built over time through the appropriate operation of mind – for example, through operating consciously, self-responsibly, and with integrity – it is not self-esteem.

Doesn’t a Teacher’s Preoccupation with Nurturing a Student’s Self-Esteem Get in the Way of Academic Achievement?

That depends on the teacher’s understanding of self-esteem and what is required to nurture it.

If a teacher treats students with respect, avoids ridicule and other belittling remarks, deals with everyone fairly and justly, and projects a strong, benevolent conviction about every student’s potential, then that teacher is supporting both self-esteem and the process of learning and mastering challenges. For such a teacher, self-esteem is tied to reality, not to faking reality.

In contrast, however, if a teacher tries to nurture self-esteem by empty praise that bears no relationship to the students’ actual accomplishments – dropping all objective standards – allowing young people to believe that the only passport to self-esteem they need is the recognition that they are “unique” – then self-esteem is undermined and so is academic achievement.

We help people to grow by holding rational expectations up to them, not by expecting nothing of them; the latter is a message of contempt.

Can Anyone Develop High Self-Esteem or is it the Prerogative of a Fortunate Minority?

People of average intelligence or better can, in principle, grow into psychologically healthy adults. Obviously parents, teachers, and other adults can do a great deal to make the road to self-esteem easier or harder. Sometimes, where there are deep psychic wounds and traumas, left unresolved since childhood, a decent level of self-esteem can be very difficult to achieve. In such cases, psychotherapy may be necessary.

But I have never met anyone utterly devoid of self-esteem and I have never met anyone unable to grow in self-esteem, assuming appropriate opportunities for learning exist in their world-space.

Isn’t it True that if You Have High Self-Esteem, Nothing Bothers You?

Some enthusiasts for self-esteem believe good self-esteem solves nearly all the important problems of life. This is untrue. Struggle is intrinsic to life. Sooner or later everyone experiences anxiety and pain – and while self-esteem can make one less susceptible, it cannot make one impervious. To offer a simple example: If someone you love dies, does having good self-esteem mean the loss won’t “bother” you? Clearly not.

Think of self-esteem as the immune system of consciousness. If you have a healthy immune system, you might become ill, but you are less likely to; if you do become ill, you will likely recover faster-your resilience is greater. Similarly, if you have high self-esteem, you might still know times of emotional suffering, but less often and with a faster recovery-your resilience is greater.

A well-developed sense of self is a necessary but not a sufficient condition of your well-being. Its presence does not guarantee fulfillment, but its absence guarantees some measure of anxiety, frustration, and despair.

Some people, when they face new challenges initially perceived as intimidating or overwhelming, may suffer a temporary dip in the level of their self-esteem. Then, as they persevere and master the new challenges, self-esteem rises again. Such fluctuations are normal.

Doesn't a Focus on Self-Esteem Encourage Excessive and Inappropriate Self-Absorption?

Rationally, one does not focus on self-esteem per se; one focuses on the practices that support and nurture self-esteem-such as the practice of living consciously, of self-acceptance, of self-responsibility, of self-assertiveness, of purposefulness, and of integrity, as I discuss in “The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem.”

Self-esteem demands a high reality-orientation; it is grounded in a reverent respect for facts and truth. Excessive and inappropriate self-absorption is symptomatic of poor self-esteem, not high self-esteem. If there is something we are confident about, we do not obsess about it – we get on with living.

Can’t One Have too Much Self-Esteem?

No, not if one is talking about reality-based self-esteem rather than grandiosity. It is no more possible to have too much self-esteem than it is to have too much physical or mental health. But sometimes when people lack adequate self-esteem they fall into arrogance, boasting, and grandiosity as a defense mechanism – a compensatory strategy. Their problem is not that they have too big an ego but that they have too small a one.

Further, let me say that high self-esteem is not egotism, as some people mistakenly imagine. Egotism is an attitude of bragging, boasting, arrogating to oneself qualities one does not possess, throwing one’s weight around, seeking to prove one’s superiority to others – all evidences of insecurity and underdeveloped self-esteem.

Isn't Self-Esteem Essentially a Godless Pursuit?

Is watching one’s diet and eating intelligently a “godless pursuit?” Is exercising? Is striving to learn and grow? Is the pursuit of self-development and self-realization “godless?”

Why would one think in such terms? With regard to self-esteem, I do not see “God” as relevant, one way or the other – unless you believe in a malevolent God who wishes human beings to face the challenges of life in a state of terror and paralysis.

The plain truth is, some people with good self-esteem believe in God and others with good self-esteem do not.

Isn’t Self-Esteem Determined by Parental Upbringing?

How some parents wish it were! But the truth is, many factors influence our self-esteem. Certainly parental upbringing is important; parents can make the road to self-esteem easier or harder – but they cannot determine the ultimate level of their child’s self-esteem.

Neither can teachers or other adults. Neither can biology – nor birth experiences.

Yet all these factors can play a role. And among these factors, none is likely to be as important as the influence of parents, primarily through the values they instill, which can lead a child toward or away from growing self-esteem.

However, we must remember the role that each individual plays, through the choices and decisions we make every day.

We are not merely clay on which external forces write. We are active contestants in the drama.

As adults, we carry primary responsibility for the level of self-esteem we develop.

Isn't Self-Esteem the Consequence of Approval from Significant Others?

No. If we live semi-consciously, non-self-responsibly, and without integrity, it will not matter who loves us – we will not love ourselves. When people betray their mind and judgment (“sell their souls”) to win the approval of their “significant others,” they may win that approval but their self-esteem suffers.

What shall it profit us to win the approval of the whole world and lose our own?

It is commonly held that among young people the approval of “significant others” does profoundly affect self-esteem, and to some extent this is doubtless true – but one has to wonder about the reality of a self-esteem that is so precarious that it crashes easily if that approval is withdrawn.

Don’t the Possession of Good Looks, Popularity, and Wealth Almost Guarantee Self-Esteem?

People who lack self-esteem sometimes think so, but the truth is that in today’s world there are celebrities who have physical beauty, millions of adoring fans, and millions of dollars – and still they cannot get through a day without drugs. They live with severe anxiety or depression or both. Good looks, popularity, and wealth guarantee nothing – if one does not have the self-esteem to support them.

Lacking such self-esteem, it is very easy to feel like an imposter, waiting to be “found out” – and waiting for all one’s advantages to be blown away.

Even among young people, where the assets mentioned above tend to be more important, the relation of these assets to self-esteem is fragile at best; long-term, they are far from an adequate foundation for the experience of competence and worth.

Does Praising Appropriate Behavior Nurture Self-Esteem?

That depends on what is meant by “praising.”

If we see a child acting consciously and responsibly, and we acknowledge this behavior with recognition and appreciation, we may increase the likelihood that such behavior will be repeated. If we ridicule, punish, or ignore it, we may produce the opposite result. Either way, we may indirectly influence the child’s self-esteem (although not necessarily).

But to be effective, “praise” – or, more exactly, recognition – should be reality-based, calibrated to the significance of the child’s actions (in other words, not extravagant or grandiose), and directed at the child’s behavior rather than his or her character. Sweeping statements such as “You’re a perfect angel,” or “You’re always such a good girl,” or “You’re always so kind and loving,” are not helpful: rather than nurture self-esteem, they tend to evoke anxiety, since the child knows there are times when they are not true.

Even with these restrictions, praise or recognition needs to be administered cautiously, so as to avoid turning a child into an approval-addict. We want a child to experience the intrinsic pleasure that flows from appropriate behavior. We want the child to become the source of his or her own approval, not always waiting eagerly for ours. So we need to avoid bombarding a child with our “evaluations.”

Once You’ve Attained Self-Esteem, is it Automatically Maintained Forever?

Every value pertaining to life requires action to maintain it. If we do not continue to breathe, the breathing we did yesterday will not keep us alive today. The same principle applies to self-esteem and the practices that support it.

If – through the six practices mentioned above – we have succeeded in building good self-esteem, this does not mean that we now drop those practices without harm to ourselves.

If we do not choose to sustain these practices – if we elect to operative mindlessly, irresponsibly, without integrity – there is no way for self-esteem to avoid being adversely affected.

Neither a business, nor a marriage, nor a soul can be kept alive and healthy without continuous effort. Responsibility for appropriate action never ends.