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Is Self Esteem a Misguided Approach?

Is Self Esteem a misguided approach?

Has the emphasis on Self Esteem paid off?

There’s been a backlash among the psychology talking heads, as they assert the emphasis on self esteem hasn’t paid off as intended. Rather, as Michael J. Formica EdM describes in his article “Self Esteem Doesn’t Make Better People Of Us” there may have been unintended consequences.

He quotes Dr. Jean Twenge, whose book Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled – And More Miserable Than Ever Before details an interesting finding. “In the 1950s, 12% of teens agreed with the statement, ‘I am important’ – by the 1980s, a staggering 7 times that many, that’s 80%, agreed with that same statement.”

In 2005 Roy Baumeister and colleagues published “Exploding the Self Esteem Myth”, in Scientific American. They demonstrated that artificially pumping up self esteem appeared to actually lower performance, as well as cause difficulties in relationships. They write: “Those who think highly of themselves are more likely than others to respond to problems by severing relations and seeking other partners.”Others are concerned we’ve produced a generation of narcissists, a crop of young adults who feel entitled and are certain of their specialness.

Do we mean the same thing by Self Esteem?

As I look at these articles, I begin to think we may not be talking about the same thing, even though we’re all using the phrase “self esteem.”The key is in Baumeister’s quote above, where he refers to artificially pumping up self esteem. Doing anything artificial seems wrong-headed to me. I don’t think of building self esteem as cheerleading or self-hypnosis, trying to convince ourselves of something that is not real.

There is debate in the literature about whether low self esteem is native to children, which then must be encouraged or built up; or whether high self esteem is innate to children but eroded by negative experiences through their lives. The latter characterization makes more sense to me. When I see loved children – babies, toddlers, young people – they appear to naturally be at peace with themselves, interacting with the world and other people with curiosity and interest.

Self Esteem as the relationship you have with yourself

Self esteem, in my thinking, refers to the way a person esteems himself. A dictionary definition of esteem (the verb) is “to regard highly or favorably; respect; admire.”

What relationship do you have with yourself? Do you like, respect, and value yourself, your thoughts, feelings, and ideas? Let me be clear: liking oneself is not the same as believing you are the most wonderful person on the planet.

What if you liked yourself in much the same way you liked a friend? You are not judgmental of your friend, but admire and enjoy his or her unique qualities.  That does not mean you believe your friend to be better than other people. If you esteem someone (including yourself) it does not follow that you rank the object of your esteem above all others. It simply means you like the person. You admire and respect them.

The model of esteeming others to better understand esteeming yourself (or: self esteem) shows a way forward, I believe. Why not focus on the relationship you have with yourself – how you view yourself, how you respond to yourself – as if it were a relationship you would like to improve? If it were a friendship with someone else, you might choose to view them with some perspective, seeing their strengths and challenges in order to accept them for who they are.

The challenge of good Self Esteem is to accept yourself

Now the hardest part of all. The challenge of self esteem is to accept yourself for who you are. Strengths, talents and abilities, good qualities as well as the challenges you face. It’s tempting to indulge in all-or-none thinking: either you’re the best or the worst. Probably neither is true!

The whole judgment thing gets in the way of simply seeing yourself as you are, as someone who tries to get through the day and generally has good intentions. Okay, so you get mad sometimes. Who doesn’t? We all have human emotions.

There’s more to say here, but I will reserve it for a future post. Stay tuned for Self Compassion.

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