An article by Neil Buckland (Psychotherapy in Australia, 2,1, August 2014) was a prompt to visit the vexed concept of self-esteem. What is it? And how useful is it?
The Oxford Dictionary defines self-esteem as having confidence in one’s own worth or abilities. It is related to self-respect.
Self-esteem incorporates the idea of having a stable sense of self-worth or worthiness of a “right” to self-love and love from others; of having a high personal regard. Self-esteem is closely linked to confidence which is the ability to do something without the hindrance or hesitation of self-doubt. We assume that these qualities are stable. Indeed, self-esteem in particular, is deemed as stable. I suggest that neither is stable. Rather that self-esteem is reliant on confidence and confidence is not “stable” and not universal to everything that we do. Rather, it comes out of the preparedness to try something and to develop a skill at that something. This requires resilience which is the ability to persevere and be flexibility in the face of difficulties.
Consider the toddler learning to walk. First he or she coasts around the furniture, building strength in the legs and getting a bearing on spacial dimensions while learning about balance. Then comes the day when the solid article is let go and he or she launches him or herself into space. One or two tottering steps are taken before landing solidly on the bottom. There may be some tears before the next attempt is made. With each attempt the toddler becomes more confident, develops a better understanding of the task before confidently walking firmly and strongly: a prelude to running, jumping, climbing and all the other actions associated with freely moving through space. The point being made is that the toddler had to work on the task of walking. In doing so there was a focus on the task; a preparedness to learn and persevere despite failure.
When I was discussing self-esteem with a researcher friend of mine he told me that there were four main factors inherent in resilient businesses: attitude, flexibility, strategic thinking and foresight. Is this not reflected in our toddler to some extent?
So, I wonder, should we not be talking about resilience rather than high self-esteem? Notice, I am placing an emphasis on the word high in relation to self-esteem. I am not arguing against self-esteem. We need to regard ourselves positively, to place worth on ourselves. When we don’t care for ourselves, we are likely to become depressed and anxious, to place ourselves in a real and existential danger. The question is what level of self-esteem is healthy for us and those around us.
Baumeister, Campbell, Krueger and Vohs made some interesting observations in their paper Does High Self-Esteem Cause Better Performance, Interpersonal Success, Happiness, or Healthier Lifestyles? They pointed out that high self-esteem does not necessarily lead to good performance at school but rather the inverse: that high self-esteem is partly the result of good school performance. In addition they found that people with high self-esteem in general did not necessarily perform better that people with low self-esteem. However, they did tend to have greater persistence despite failure. Neither did they find that self-esteem predicted the quality or duration of relationships. Nor did they find that people with high self-esteem made better leaders. Instead, people with high self-esteem tended toward group favouritism with the consequent potential for increased prejudice and discrimination.
So why are we putting so much emphasis on high self-esteem? Should we not be reducing the emphasis on high and just consider the right level of self-esteem required to achieve what we want to achieve and what that might mean? Indeed, Baumeister, Campbell, Krueger and Vohs concluded that the benefits of high self-esteem fell into two categories: enhanced initiative and pleasant feelings. They did not find evidence that boosting self-esteem was necessarily beneficial to fostering improved scholastic or leadership outcomes. They further concluded that indiscriminate praise as a means of building high self-esteem was likely to promote narcissism and its less desirable consequences.
Buckland points out that the Chinese do not have a concept of high self-esteem and that, in fact, we did not have the same positive regard for it as recently as 50 years ago when it was regarded as a negative personality trait. High self-esteem is therefore a relatively new concept and quite possibly, a Western preoccupation. The Chinese apparently have zì bei, low self-esteem, and words for pride, arrogance, entitlement (zì ào) as well as over confident and conceited (zì shì). Buckland suggests that the closest phrase to our concept of high self-esteem is zìwo pìnggù, meaning self-assessment.
Rather than focussing on skills to build high self-esteem, perhaps we should be focusing on learning how to self-assess dispassionately – acknowledging what we do well and what we don’t; what is important for personal growth and living an enriched life.
Self-assessment allows us to consider what we can do to improve ourselves, to measure ourselves against the values that we hold dear. Ideally we want to measure our worth for what it is: not too high and not too low.
Most of us can do a bit of this or a bit of that with varying skill. Some of us are exceptional. But most of us are what Buckland calls “muddlers”. We are subject to doubt, variable self-belief, optimism and confidence. We are bits of this and bits of that: winning at one thing, not succeeding at another, persevering at what is important to us despite adversity. Can we accept ourselves even if we sometimes don’t like bits of ourselves? Is it possible to step beyond ourselves and our achievements and failures and learn from them while holding onto our integrity – that fusion of values that informs us of the rightness and wrongness of what we do, so that we can continue learning not only about ourselves, but also about others, our community and its environment?
Should we not be aiming to develop a level of self-esteem that allows us not to over rate ourselves, to have the right level of humility and that enables us to contribute positively to the community and environment around us? Surely this approach will make us feel more positive and optimistic, kinder and humane?
Neil Buckland (2014). The Myth of Self-esteem. Psychotherapy in Australia, 2,1, August. (www.psychotherapy.com.au)
R.F. Baumeister, J.D. Campbell, J.I. Krueger and K.D. Vohs (2003). Does High Self-Esteem Cause Better Performance, Interpersonal Success, Happiness, or Healthier Lifestyles? Psychological Science in Public Interest. http://intl-psi.sagepub.com. Accessed on 9 January 2015.