The problem with self-esteem

What role, therefore, does self-esteem play in our ability to cope with all that life throws at us? More importantly, perhaps, what is self-esteem? In his classic 1890 book The Principles of Psychology, the great American psychologist William James linked self-esteem to success; the closer we are to our ideal goal, the higher our feelings of self-worth. If you want to raise your self-esteem, just lower your expectations. This might sound harsh, but there might be some truth in it. In a 2007 New York Times article, Benedict Carey suggested that the reason Denmark is regularly found to have some of the highest levels of life satisfaction is that they harbour low expectations (Carey, 2007). This view would certainly support the notion put forward by James, yet represents a huge generalisation and it's doubtful all Danes are as gloomy as this idea would suggest. Indeed, this may depend very much on how different cultures view constructs such as happiness, wellbeing and life satisfaction.

Of course, psychology has moved on from the days of James and has gone through many different and often contradictory manifestations. Indeed, there is much more to self-esteem than low expectations; after all, feeling good about ourselves, our worthiness and having confidence in our own personal judgments is key to life satisfaction. If self-esteem is about feeling good and confident, about being able to successfully nurture loving and caring relationships and feeling a sense of control over our lives, then simply lowering our expectations is not going to make things any better.

During the first half of the 1980s some highly influential individuals were beginning to propose that raising levels of self-esteem, especially in young people, could cure just about all of society's ills - everything from low academic achievement to unemployment and gang violence. The basic premise was that having low levels of self-worth, feeling bad about ourselves and not feeling confident enough to tackle life's setbacks was leading people down a dangerous path. Self-esteem could therefore be raised as a way of inoculating people from the slings and arrows of existence. This culminated in the highly influential human potential movement, loosely based on principles drawn from humanistic psychology and the work of individuals such as Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers. This agenda, however, wasn't necessarily driven forward by psychologists, but by a plethora of self-help gurus and motivational speakers. The catalyst for the movement was a man by the name of John 'Vasco' Vasconcellos, a politician from California who managed to convince the government to set up self-esteem task force to look into ways in which raising self-esteem could benefit both society and individuals. Vasconcellos was highly influenced by the work of Rogers, specifically the notion of unconditional positive regard, the idea that we treat all people with dignity and respect regardless of the actions they might have taken or the behaviours they might have engaged in. Unconditional positive regard forms the backbone of many psychotherapies but has been open to gross misinterpretation over the years.

The human potential movement's attempts to raise self-esteem now appears to be coming back to bite us. Many argue that narcissistic, selfie- snapping millennials with their inflated sense of entitlement are the result of being awarded a medal for last place in the egg and spoon race or constantly being told that they are clever or special when they are merely average at best. Some have even linked these strategies to grade inflation, pushing exam grade boundaries down in order to protect students from distress. I wouldn't say that I subscribe to this scathing indictment of the younger generation, but it's clear that the human potential movement, with its emphasis on selfesteem, was clearly misguided in its thinking.

However, this error doesn't necessarily pertain to self-esteem per se but, rather, the way in which self-esteem might be pursued. If we base self-esteem within clear domains such as peer approval, perceived appearance and a warped view of success, then we also place ourselves in a hierarchy, from least to most worthy, attractive, popular and so on. If we are perceived to be the most worthy, then our self-esteem is bound to be high; we look down on those we view as less worthy than us. Indeed, you might have even reached these lofty heights by acting in a way that lowers levels of self-esteem in others. High self-esteem then morphs into narcissism, viewed by some as one-third of a dark triad of personality (along with Machiavellianism and psychopathy). Machiavellianism is related to behaviours whereby people manipulate others, making and breaking alliances for personal gain. The aim is to drive other people down by any means possible and use every tool at your disposal to lift yourself up - think Game of Thrones or party politics.

Raising self-esteem actually makes little difference to academic outcomes and can actually negatively impact success. While it can make us confident, it can also make us arrogant and has been linked to higher than average levels of aggression. It also seems to emerge from academic success rather than be an engine for it (Baumeister et al., 2003). In other words, doing well in school raises levels of self-esteem but raising levels of self-esteem doesn't appear to raise academic performance. When self-esteem causes narcissism, we lose sight of how we are progressing in a realistic sense, we inflate our own progress, blame others for our failures or enact self-handicapping strategies as a way of keeping our fragile self-esteem intact.

Is there a way out of this self-esteem dilemma? One way is to think of self-esteem in the plural, as in self-esteems. This is a notion put forward by psychologist Tim O'Brien that follows a similar line to that of academic self- concept (O'Brien, 2015). Rather than think of having high global self-esteem, perhaps we need to think about self-esteem being related to individual skills, so, someone could have high self-esteem in sports or creative writing. This is certainly a more adaptive approach. We can also, however, alter the route by which we raise our feelings of confidence and self-worth, one that doesn't rely on either demeaning others of ruminating over our own failures.

Self-esteem, therefore, does little to increase academic attainment. However, confidence in our ability to complete any given task does (self-efficacy). Positive experiences relating to success build up a positive self-concept and overcoming obstacles in the past help to form adaptive self-schemas, the blueprints that act as guides and inform future actions. In this respect, failure is relegated in favour of what we do when we fail, if we give up for fear of failing again, we build up a concept of ourselves that informs us that we will always fail, the outcome of which is that we stop trying. On the other hand, each time we actively overcome failure, we build up an image of the self that is adaptable.

 
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