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Is Self-esteem Over-rated?

Wikipedia defines self-esteem as an emotional judgement that a person makes about their own worth. A google search of self-esteem reveals 65 million hits, suggesting how widespread interest in this concept is. However, how people feel about themselves wasn’t considered a serious question until the early 1960’s, when the self-esteem movement took roots in American culture.

Self-esteem gained momentum in the 1980’s after John Vasconcellos, a US politician, began promoting the idea that low self-esteem was the cause of crime, teenage pregnancy, drug abuse and school underachievement. He believed that by boosting childrens’ self-esteem, they would ultimately live happier lives. Vasconcellos' ideas were adopted into mainstream attitudes around how children should be educated and raised. Parents began to take on the notion that building their children's self-esteem was critical to their future. Self-esteem became a household word.

The United States emerged from WW2 as an economic powerhouse, with rising levels of wealth in the general population. This gave birth to the rise of consumerism in parallel with the self-esteem movement. It wasn’t long before the two became linked as vehicles to success, with marketing companies promoting consumption as a kind of panacea for making everyone feel better about themselves. Philip Cushman published an article (available on google) in 1990, titled Why the Self is Empty, in which he describes how companies began promoting the idea that we all need retail “spakfilla” (consumer goods and services) to make us more attractive, healthy, wealthy, happy and successful.

More recently social media enables people to post online their own images of success and happiness, reinforcing the idea that somehow, the grass is greener on the other side, and if we are not happy and successful there is something wrong with us. Recent research is showing the link between screen time and increased anxiety and depression, especially in young people.

In 2003 Psychology Professor Roy Baumeister exposed the link between self-esteem and happiness as a myth. Baumeister stated that efforts to boost self-esteem in the classroom did not improve academic performance, that bullies can, in fact, have an inflated sense of self, that high self-esteem does not lessen a tendency toward violence, alcohol or drugs. Baumeister also concluded that a heightened sense of self-worth could lead to a sense of entitlement in which people demand preferential treatment over and above others. In describing these characteristics, the term narcissism, once used in psychiatric and psychology circles, has now entered mainstream conversation.

The promise of “you can have it all” seems to be a double-edged sword with many young people feeling anxious and depressed because they don’t seem to be able to reach the lofty heights of body image, popularity and happiness that are promoted as the ‘holy grail’ of reaching one’s potential. Could it be that self-esteem has been over-promoted as a pathway to happiness?

One of the problems in regarding self-esteem as a goal is that it involves an emotional evaluation of oneself – in other words, a feeling. Our feelings fluctuate. They can be influenced by our mood, sleep, the weather and our relationships. It’s good to be aware of our feelings, but they are not meant to be a benchmark for where we are at in life. Also, if we overly focus on how we are feeling, it can lead to inward preoccupation, which can fuel self-doubt and worry.

Rather than promoting self-esteem as a universal social vaccine, Baumeister recommended careful use of self-esteem, suggesting that praise is better used as a reward for socially desirable behaviour and self-improvement. Baumeister also emphasised other expressions of self: self-acceptance, self-awareness, self-respect and self-control, as attitudes and behaviours that build a more balanced, healthy sense of self. These other expressions of self-involve personal effort and do not rely on material possessions or the approval of others to feel ok about oneself.

Perhaps with less pressure on achieving an ideal future, we might be freer to take life one step at a time, with an eye on the future, but also being able to savour moments of being ordinary.

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