Why We Care About Self-Esteem, And What Matters Even More

"Self-Esteem" held so much promise. How did it work out?

Posted Oct 26, 2015

"...despite the enthusiastic embrace of self-esteem, we found that it conferred only two benefits. It feels good and it supports initiative."
Roy F. Baumeister

iStock photo ©Nebula
Source: iStock photo ©Nebula

Beginning over forty years ago, it was taken for granted that most if not all psychological problems could be traced to low self-esteem. “Self-esteem,” often used as a stand-in for self-worth, became a household word. Nathaniel Branden, in The Psychology of Self-Esteem, declared that everything from low achievement to narcissism could be resolved by improving self-esteem. Parents and educators began making efforts to raise children’s self-esteem, and the State of California even created a bipartisan task force on self-esteem. Self-esteem morphed from being an individual concern to a societal and even national issue. (We have the self-esteem movement to thank for living in Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon in which everyone is above average, and the “everyone-gets-a-trophy” syndrome.) 

But with the publication of the books, Mindset by Psychologist Carol Dweck, NurtureShock by Journalists Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, and The Narcissism Epidemic by Psychologists Jean M. Twenge & W. Keith Campbell, combined with research by Psychologists Mark Leary, Roy Baumeister, and their colleagues, our understanding of the nature and function of self-esteem was radically transformed. Through providing abundant empty praise, the kind of inflated self-esteem that the self-esteem movement produced has resulted in children and young adults who have an empty sense of self-worth.

Yet, even twenty-five years ago there were indications we were on the wrong track. In 1990, the California task force identified that the primary ingredients of self-esteem included a sense of belonging, likeability, a feeling of significance, and hard work—even concluding that not working hard is destructive and promotes learned helplessness. It appeared even then that self-esteem was an outcome rather than the source of all things good. While these findings didn’t seem to penetrate the self-esteem movement then, it foreshadowed research published fifteen years later.

iStock photo © lolostock
Source: iStock photo © lolostock

Psychologists Mark Leary, Roy Baumeister, and their colleagues determined that high self-esteem does not cause better school performance or interpersonal success, and in fact, the relationship seems to go in the other direction: it’s more likely that success at school and work boosts self-esteem. They also found that while people with higher self-esteem believe themselves to be more attractive and likable, think they have better relationships, and are convinced they make better impressions on others, a review of the research indicates that this is an illusion. In fact, self-esteem isn’t even entirely positive. Kids with higher self-esteem may be more willing to try things like cheating, stealing, having sex, and experimenting with drugs. What's more, narcissists and bullies (despite claims to the contrary) do not suffer from low self-esteem.   

Dweck’s research uncovered a thorny problem for parents and educators who attempted to bolster children’s self-esteem by telling them they were smart. It turns out that these efforts, while effective in raising self-esteem, in the end created an unwillingness to take risks or apply effort. The children’s inflated sense of self-esteem was associated with a fixed mindset resulting in a desire to maintain the image of being smart rather than putting in the effort necessary for continued achievement. Even the smartest children didn’t achieve at the level of their intelligence because they gave up when the going got tough. It turns out that children who are praised for being smart come to believe that needing to put in effort means they aren’t smart, and it is too much of a blow to their self-esteem to have to work hard. As a result, as researchers W. Keith Campbell and Jean M. Twenge concluded, while High Schoolers’ self-esteem rose between 1975 and 2006, their self-competence did not. 

iStock photo © grubsteaks
Source: iStock photo © grubsteaks

So now that the promise of self-esteem has been broken, what will provide the gifts that self-esteem promised but couldn’t deliver?

1) Effort

As Dweck found, the promise of achievement is not met by self-esteem, but by effort. Creating positive associations to challenge and effort provides an environment in which it is possible to succeed. In other words, believing that failures and setbacks are a result of something innate leads to giving up, but a belief that trying harder will make a difference leads to—well, trying harder. And it makes a difference. 

2) Willpower 

iStock Photo © Kuo Chun Hung
Source: iStock Photo © Kuo Chun Hung

Willpower is necessary to sustain effort in order to succeed. Having done a thorough review of the literature on self-esteem, Baumeister concluded, “After all these years, I'm sorry to say, my recommendation is this: Forget about self-esteem and concentrate more on self-control and self-discipline.”  According to Baumeister, failure of self-control is implicated in most of the problems that plague us.

The good news, says Baumeister, is that willpower can be developed when exercised like a muscle. When we practice overriding habitual ways of doing things, and exert deliberate control over our actions, over time we can improve overall self-control. We can even exercise the "willpower muscle" with meaningless activities such as changing the hand we use to brush our teeth. Or we can use something more meaningful such as eating in a more healthy way, or getting regular exercise.

©CZ used with permission
Source: ©CZ used with permission

3) Self-Compassion 

Given the magnitude of the promise of self-esteem, willpower and effort don’t tell the whole story. As Psychologist Kristin Neff discovered, self-compassion provides many of the gifts self-esteem promised but didn’t deliver. According to Neff, self-compassion entails three overlapping and mutually interactive components: Self-kindness (versus self-judgment), feelings of common humanity (versus isolation), and mindfulness (versus over-identification).

Many of us are quite capable of being compassionate with others, but treat ourselves much more harshly. Self-kindness involves being understanding and caring to ourselves rather than being harshly critical or judgmental. Add to that a sense of common humanity—the recognition that everyone makes mistakes and feels inadequate in some way, and that imperfection is part of the shared human condition. The Mindfulness component of self-compassion involves paying attention in a purposeful way in the present moment without ruminating on negative aspects of life or oneself, and while not ignoring them, not getting caught up in one’s "story."

There appear to be positive resonances between self-compassion and both willpower and effort. According to Neff, people who practice self-compassion tend to exercise more, maintain healthy diets, see the doctor more often, and even practice safer sex. And self-compassion is associated with learning goals rather than performance goals, so people who are self-compassionate are interesting in learning for its own sake, not for grades or to impress people. Having learning goals stimulates a different context for challenges than having performance goals, and using learning goals rather than performance goals is associated with persistent effort.

Neff also finds that higher levels of self-compassion are associated with greater curiosity, happiness, optimism, life satisfaction, emotional intelligence, social connectedness, and personal initiative; and less depression, anxiety, fear of failure, perfectionism, and eating disorders. And the final blow to the self-esteem movement is this: it is self-compassion—not self-esteem—that predicts stability of self-worth.

So forget about getting a trophy for showing up. In fact, forget about the trophy, period. Show up for the challenge, not the trophy. Work hard, and when you fail (and you will), have some compassion for the human being you are.