Saturday, November 29, 2014

The problem with "self-esteem"

I suggest reading the whole article at the following link:

By Jennifer Crocker and Jessica J. Carnevale, Republished from the Scientific American
Scientific American Mind Sept./Oct. 2013

The Ego Trap

Having high self-esteem has a few modest benefits, but it can produce problems and is mostly irrelevant for success.
The pursuit of self-esteem through a focus on greatness makes us emotionally vulnerable to life’s disappointments—and can even lower our chances of success.
Compassion, along with a less self-centered perspective, can motivate us to achieve while helping us weather bad news, learn from our mistakes and fortify our friendships.


Self-esteem, or a person’s overall sense of self-worth, is generally considered to be critical to healthy functioning. Its darker side, however, has been largely overlooked. As Cassassuce’s experience suggests, the quest for greater self-esteem can leave people feeling empty and dissatisfied. Recent research bolsters the case. Even when we achieve goals we anticipate will make us feel good about ourselves, high self-esteem may still elude us because self-esteem that is contingent on success is fragile.

It turns out that having self-esteem, as a fairly stable personality trait, does have a few modest benefits. High self-esteem also has drawbacks, however, and is mostly irrelevant for success. Further the pursuit of self-esteem is clearly detrimental to well-being. When people chase after a stronger sense of self-worth, it becomes their ultimate goal, leading them to sacrifice other aspirations, such as learning or doing what is good for others.

The hunt for self-esteem through a focus on achievement makes us emotionally vulnerable to life’s inevitable travails and disappointments. It also causes us to engage in behaviors that can actually harm our chances of success, our competence and our personal relationships. A far better way to bolster your sense of self-worth is, ironically, to think about yourself less. Compassion toward others and yourself, along with a less self-centered perspective on your situation, can motivate you to achieve your goals while helping you weather bad news, learn from your mistakes and fortify your friendships.


Yet even as the self-esteem movement gained momentum, scientific research began to undermine some of its major assumptions. For one, the data did not show that many of us suffer from low self-esteem. On the contrary, most of us already feel pretty good about ourselves. In a study published in 1989 psychologist Roy F. Baumeister and his colleagues Dianne M. Tice and Debra G. Hutton, all then at Case Western Reserve University, found that the average American’s self-esteem score is well above the conceptual midpoint of self-esteem scales—the point that denotes a moderate or decent view of the self. Like the children in Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon, most of us have decided we are above average.


While documenting a plethora of self-esteem, researchers began to discount its importance. In a comprehensive review of the literature published in 2003 Baumeister, now at Florida State University, and his colleagues stated that people with high self-esteem perform only slightly better academically and at work than do those with low self-esteem. Likewise, self-esteem is only weakly related to children’s popularity in school and tenuously tied to the quality of a person’s relationships in general. It also has little effect on how likely someone is to be violent or engage in risky behaviors such as smoking and drug use.

High self-esteem does have some benefits. It seems to make people more persistent, Baumeister and his team found. Those with high self-esteem also reported feeling happier and less depressed. Yet whether high self-esteem causes pleasant feelings, or vice versa, remains unclear.

High self-esteem seems to have at least one serious drawback: difficulty in seeing your own shortcomings. A great deal of research conducted for several decades shows that people with high self-esteem tend to have unrealistically positive views of themselves. They think they are more attractive, successful, likable, smart and moral than others do—and are unaware of their deficits or incompetence. When they get negative feedback, they tend to be defensive, blaming the test or the messenger, rather than owning up to a mistake or deficiency. In this way, high self-esteem can impede learning and growth and impair personal relationships. When it comes to your brain surgeon (or spouse, for that matter), most of us would most likely prefer that person to have a realistic view of his or her abilities and a willingness to learn from mistakes—rather than high self-esteem.


Pursuing self-esteem also undermines intrinsic motivation, the type driven by interest in the task itself. Psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan of the University of Rochester and their colleagues have argued that contingent self-esteem is a form of ego involvement, in which people focus on how successes and failures reflect on the self. Their research, conducted over several decades, shows that individuals who are ego-involved do things such as studying and exercising because they feel that they have to, rather than because they want to. This sense of obligation and pressure takes away the satisfaction that can come from working hard at something difficult.

Personal relationships also suffer from the quest for self-esteem. People focused on boosting their own self-esteem tend to put their own needs before those of others. Because they are preoccupied with questions about their own value, their friends, family and acquaintances serve mainly as potential sources of validation or invalidation, making their interactions with others ultimately all about themselves.


Although the pursuit of self-esteem has many negative consequences, it also serves an important purpose: motivating us to action. Without the urge to prove our worth, might we turn into slackers? Fortunately, we can adopt another approach. Instead of focusing on our own status, we can focus on others or the collective good. For example, an individual might work just as hard at the office, but with the primary goal of contributing to the team’s mission or supporting his or her family rather than earning individual recognition. Goals directed at being constructive, supportive and responsive to others lead to feelings of connectedness, closeness to others, social support and trust, as well as reduced feelings of conflict, loneliness, fear and confusion.

Compassionate goals appear to engender a sense of worth and connectedness without the devastating drops that come after feedback suggestive of failure.


You can be compassionate toward yourself and others. If you find yourself upset by a mistake or downfall, self-compassion can make for a softer landing for your fall. People with self-compassion treat themselves kindly, as they would a close friend. They are patient with themselves, nonjudgmental and understanding of their own imperfections, according to work by psychologist Kristin Neff of the University of Texas at Austin. They also avoid harsh self-critiques or negative generalizations about self-worth following one negative experience. Self-compassion helps you accept life’s inevitable setbacks as simply part of what it means to be human. It allows you to see failure as a learning opportunity rather than a threat, something that can motivate you to work toward your goals.
Compassion for the self seems to be linked to compassion for others.


A further way to reduce an obsession with the self, and the problems that fixation generates, is to use a technique called self-distancing. Using this strategy, you see yourself from the perspective of a third-party observer, the proverbial “fly on the wall,” rather than from inside your own head.


All these alternatives to pursuing self-esteem reduce the tendency to judge the self. By focusing on others, having self-compassion or adopting a distanced view of yourself, you can work toward your goals without constant self-evaluation and self-criticism. If we were to design a new self-esteem movement, it would teach people to reduce focus on the worth of the self altogether because any action designed to enhance self-esteem is destined to have, at best, temporary benefits and most likely will fail because such actions are motivated by a toxic preoccupation with self-judgment.


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