We often talk about self-esteem as an essential part of leading a fulfilling life – but what exactly do we mean by self-esteem and is it as important as many of us have been told?
A new book by American author Jesse Singal* describes how a lot of the research findings on self-esteem from the 1990s were exaggerated and he questions the value of promoting self-esteem.
He describes how in the late 1980s and 1990s John Vasconcellos, a California politician, became convinced that poor self-esteem was the reason for all kinds of negative outcomes, ranging from addiction to crime. He claimed that raising self-esteem would improve outcomes across society.
He set up research studies which apparently confirmed this belief and set in motion a state-wide campaign to raise children’s self-esteem, which then spread to other parts of the USA and globally. One of the advantages of this idea was that it seemed to offer a relatively cheap way to fix major problems in society.
The only problem was that a lot of the research was over sold, it subsequently emerged, and did not prove what Vasconcellos claimed.
So, does this mean that we should forget the idea of self-esteem?
I don’t think so, but I do think this issue raised the question of what exactly we mean by “self-esteem”. I think the problem is that there is a difference between healthy self-esteem and narcissism but sometimes the two can be confused.
When people were talking about self-esteem in the Vasconcellos research they were asking individuals to rate themselves on their abilities and we know that people who rate themselves highly may turn out to be rather narcissistic.
I’d say that in those cases we’re not talking about genuine self-esteem but rather a defence mechanism against deeper feelings of inadequacy. Sometimes, if someone feels inferior they will put on a show of confidence or arrogance. This can become so automatic that they no longer are pretending but actually believe themselves to be superior.
Psychologist Kristin Neff, in her book Self Compassion, describes the pressure many of us feel under to be ‘special’ or to over achieve and how this can give rise to a tendency to over value our abilities.
She argues that self compassion, in which we accept ourselves as flawed but essentially worthwhile individuals, is a better way of relating to ourselves than self-esteem (at least in the sense of telling ourselves we are good at something even if we’re not).
In self-compassion we try to not judge ourselves as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ but to treat ourselves with kindness, even when we mess up.
Neff says: “Unlike self-esteem the good feelings of self-compassion do not depend on being special or above average.”
I think that what Neff calls self-compassion could also be described as healthy self-esteem. By this I mean someone who accepts themselves on a basic level as being an okay person, not necessarily better than others but also not worse. This would be someone who makes mistakes, who can sometimes be unkind, but who can also forgive themselves and try to do better.
I believe this kind of ‘healthy’ self-esteem is an indicator of ‘success’ in life, whatever we mean by that. It could mean having meaningful relationships, developing resilience when things aren’t going well and being able to appreciate the good things in life.Singal, Jesse (2021), The Quick Fix, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, New York.
*Singal, Jesse (2021), The Quick Fix, FSG, New York
** Neff, Kristin (2011), Self Compassion, Hodder & Stoughton, London
Image creative commons licence by Kiran Foster, https://tinyurl.com/yp9vxdk9