The Importance of Definitions
Not long ago, I was asked to submit a paper that would address the following question: “Now that more and more psychologists are doing research and writing books and articles about self-esteem, what do I see as the immediate challenges facing those who work in the field?” In response, I submitted this short essay.
The Importance of Definitions
Some years ago, a number of professors, interested in self-esteem, were invited to contribute essays to a book entitled “The Social Importance of Self-Esteem,” edited by Andrew Mecca, Neil J. Smelser, and John Vasconcellos, and to be published by the University of California Press. I attended a self-esteem conference and found myself sitting next to one of the professors who would be contributing an essay.
I asked him what definition of self-esteem he was working for and if it was shared by the other contributors.
I was astonished to see him draw back tensely, glower at me suspiciously, and demand, “Why do you want to know?”
Astonished and fascinated by his response, I explained, as benevolently as I could, that if the research was to have value one would need to know what the writers meant by “self-esteem” and if all the writers were working with the same concept. Otherwise, it would be a Tower of Babel, and what merit could their conclusions have?
Still more angrily, he said, “Don’t think you can trap me into a definition!” I was stunned (although I admit I was also amused). “Look,” I said, “I don’t know what you mean by ‘trapped.’ After all, we are colleagues. We are both interested in the subject of self-esteem. I have been working in this field for many years. Since you are working on a book about self-esteem, don’t you think it’s natural that I’d be interested in how you define the term? How can you possibly construe my question as a trap?”
I do not remember how he answered. I only know his stance remained puzzlingly adversarial.
Unsurprisingly, the book was a disappointment. I do not know that it satisfied anyone.
If asked what I see as immediate challenges facing those who work in the field of self-esteem, either as researchers or as practitioners, I will answer – for reasons contained in the above story – that the first priority is to carve out a definition of self-esteem that researchers can agree on. No easy task, in my opinion.
Obviously, I must resist the temptation to argue for the definition of self-esteem that I have presented and elaborated on at length elsewhere (Branden, 1994). I see self-esteem as “the disposition to experience oneself as being competent to cope with the basic challenges of life and of being worthy of happiness.” Whether one accepts this formulation or any variant of it, or something else entirely, I am persuaded that any definition of self-esteem needs to include both the issue of competence and that of worthiness, rather than just one of those constituents, and must be reality-based, not merely matter of feelings (Mruk, 1995). And this means that our concept must be differentiated from narcissism or grandiosity. Otherwise, we will have the pleasure of reading in the newspapers that psychological studies now suggest that high self-esteem correlates with violent behavior more than low self-esteem does (Branden, 1997).
Another challenge to researchers and practitioners is the need to operationalize the concept of self-esteem so that we clarify what it looks like in action. How do we recognize a decent level of self-esteem? How do we recognize its absence?
The Importance of Definitions II
And this is the doorway to yet another related challenge: that of creating a test that will measure levels of self-esteem. Everyone recognizes the limitations of self-reports. But how to improve on them is not obvious. Yet in the absence of a reliable test, it is difficult to produce reliable research concerning self-esteem’s effects. I see this as one of the toughest challenges we face.
A challenge that confronts not only researchers and practitioners, but also parents and teachers, is that of thinking through what behavior on the part of adults is likely to nurture self-esteem in young people, and what behavior is likely to accomplish the opposite, and what are the grounds of their beliefs.
Many clinicians, for instance, have discovered through experience that treating a client with acceptance and respect can support the client’s struggle for a better self-esteem, while mere assurances of the client’s worth are generally ineffective. Similarly, many parents and teachers have discovered – or learned from the late child psychologist Haim Ginott – that hyperbolic praise is likely to do more harm than good (Ginott, 1972). Many teachers have invited criticism for believing that a young person’s self-esteem can be cultivated by having students sing or announce “I am unique.” (It should hardly be necessary to point out that a hay sandwich is also “unique”.)
I am sometimes asked for advice about selecting a psychotherapist who can helpfully’ address self-esteem issues. I suggest that people interview the therapist and ask these questions:
- What do you mean by “self-esteem”?
- What do you think self-esteem depends on?
- What will we do together that will have positive effect on our self-esteem?
- What are your reasons for thinking so?
For many practitioners the ability to answer these questions will be their number one challenge. When we can answer them well, there is no end to the possibilities confronting us – taking our work into schools, prisons, the world of business, and the culture in general.
Some of the things we need to know about self-esteem can only be learned through controlled studies. But there is a great deal that can be learned by working with people and paying attention to the outcome of our interventions. Everyone knows that sometimes we have a pet “theory” about what ought to work and we keep repeating the favored move, ignoring the fact that it is not delivering the desired results. Over the years I have had to remind myself more than once of that wise observation that doing more of what doesn’t work, doesn’t work. And often I have learned more from my failures than from my successes – because failures stimulate new thinking (or should).
It is unrealistic to demand that we ought to use only those interventions that have been proven effective in controlled studies. A clinician cannot provide “data” for every move he or she makes. Practice is always ahead of research and not only in psychology. But we can do our conscientious best to pay attention to outcome. For clinicians, parents, and teachers, that will be an unending challenge.
Branden, N. (1994). The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem. New York: Bantam Books.
Branden, N. (1997). The Art of Living Consciously. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Ginott, H. (1972). Teacher and Child. New York: The Macmillan Company.
Mruk. C. (1995). Self-Esteem: Research, Theory, and Practice. New York: Springer.