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Stay Afloat

The problem with self-esteem

Echo and Narcissus — John William Waterhouse, 1903.

The idea that in order for people to thrive they must display high levels of self-esteem is both wrong and potentially dangerous. Since the 1980’s there has been a never-ending drive to raise self-esteem in the misguided attempt to correct everything from unemployment to low academic attainment. The premise seemed logical enough — if we help people to feel better about themselves they will grow in confidence, be more motivated and develop higher levels of self-belief.

The problem arises, in part, due to the way self-esteem is related to success, in that we have a tendency to gauge our own success against others. Self-esteem then becomes less about realistic outcomes and more about peer approval, perceived physical appearance and erroneous notions of success. People with very high self-esteem are often more concerned with being at the top of the social hierarchy and being seen as above average intellectually, rather than with self-development for its own sake. Some may fear their own fall and adopt Machiavellian strategies in order to remain at the top of the pecking order. Those with high self-esteem also tend to score low on agreeableness which is related to high levels of narcissism, a trait that is often maladaptive in nature and part of what some personality researchers call the dark triad (along with Machiavellianism and psychopathy).

Some have claimed that this emphasis on self-esteem has resulted in a generation of narcissists, of selfie-snapping millennials. While there is some credence to this notion, much of the evidence is based on correlational studies in the absence of causation and suggestions that current teaching and parenting practices have led to increase in narcissism remain largely unproven. Nevertheless, society needs to remain cautious about raising levels of self-esteem to the point that narcissism becomes an overriding motivation.

Others have suggested that the notion of unconditional positive regard (developed by the humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers for use primarily in clinical settings) has also played a role in creating a so-called society of narcissists, but this is likely based on a misunderstanding of the term. That said, interventions aimed at raising levels of self-esteem in young people as a means of raising educational attainment, are now common.

Indeed, in education, raising levels of self-esteem has done little or nothing to raise levels of attainment. While high academic attainment does appear to be a causal factor in higher levels of self-esteem, the reverse is not the case. This means that self-esteem is a product of academic attainment (when students achieve, their levels of self-esteem go up) but when we attempt to raise levels of self-esteem in struggling students, there is little or no change in levels of achievement.

But is self-esteem a problem in itself? This all depends on how we pursue self-esteem and how it makes us behave around other people. If self-esteem is pursued or encouraged as a way of making us feel uniquely special, above average or better than everyone else, then yes. Being rewarded for something we haven’t worked hard at or have won by dubious means feeds the feeling of being special, better and more worthy than those around us. Contrary to the view often presented, a bully doesn’t suffer from low self-esteem, in fact, bullying appears to raise narcissistic levels and is based more on a defensive personality than on low self-esteem.

What’s wrong with average?

The idea of being average is viewed with negativity in many societies, despite most of us falling into the average category. The feeling of being average is, therefore, associated with underachieving or not being good enough, intelligent enough or worthy enough. These notions of inadequacy then lower levels of self-esteem or increase our propensity to raise our perceived feelings of importance, to the the detriment of those around us.

Many aspects of who we are and how successful we are in life fall generally within a bell curve when plotted on a graph. This is perhaps most associated with psychometric intelligence (or IQ). At the apex of the curve we find the average IQ (100), while much smaller groups gather around the two extremes, most of us cluster at the top. Curiously, people with an above average IQ will often underestimate their own IQ while those with a below average IQ overestimate their own IQ, a phenomenon known as the Downing effect. While men are more likely to overestimate their IQ, woman have tendency to underestimate it.

Our self perceptions, therefore, influence how we gauge our own abilities and we aren’t really very good at such self-evaluations.

We also tend to rate ourselves as above average drivers, leading to the prospect that the majority of people have higher than average driving skills — a statistical impossibility. This phenomenon (a form of cognitive bias) is often referred to as the above-average effect or the superiority illusion. Young drivers, especially, have a tendency to view themselves as more adept than they actually are, leading to risky behaviour and greater likelihood of collision, serious injury and death. In the majority of cases these collisions involve stationary objects such as trees and walls.

Although the evidence supporting a link between superiority bias and high self-esteem is weak, some studies do appear do show a relationship. This would obviously have to take into account the relationship between narcissism and self-esteem, as the two don’t always appear together. However, higher levels of self-esteem can impact the way we perceive ourselves in social situations.

For example, higher levels of self-esteem have been found to distort our perceptions of how other people see us. Those with very high self-esteem consider themselves to be very popular, a conclusion that isn’t supported when we include more object measures of popularity, that is, if we ask others how popular the individual is, there is likely to be a distinct discrepancy between the individuals’ answers and those of his or her peers.

From self-esteem to self-compassion

Despite it’s failings, self-esteem isn’t all bad and, as I’ve pointed out, it’s more to do with how we attempt to raise it that leads to negative outcomes. The way we attribute the causes of success and failure are often maladaptive as are our beliefs in such things. Society looks unfavourably on failure and favourably on success, perhaps ignoring all the failures we often suffer on the way to becoming successful. The truth is that we all fail and we are all imperfect and these truths are part of the essential human condition — they are part of a our existence and we share them with every single other person on the planet.

It’s an interesting observation that we will often try and comfort a loved one who is going through a rough patch by emphasising these points — that failure is part of life, that we all go through hard times and that there a plenty more fish in the sea. Unfortunately, we rarely have these conversations with ourselves. What we tend to do is ruminate on our shortcomings, berate ourselves for our missed opportunities or criticise ourselves for failing.

Psychologist Kristin Neff suggests that we should treat ourselves in the same way as would treat a loved one who is going through a hard time. Rather than being over-critical, we should treat ourselves with kindness, compassion and understanding. Neff describes this as self-compassion. We should neither pity ourselves nor attempt to become better than others, but rather admit the we (like everyone else) are imperfect and prone to err.

There is certainly merit in this approach. Self-compassion eliminates the destructive elements of self-esteem while at the same time accepting that our imperfections are as ubiquitous as taxes and death — they are with us to stay. We then remove the pursuit of perfection, an inadequate goal state, one that is neither realistic or achievable.

Of course, self-compassion also needs to ensure that we can move forward towards fulfilling our goals. When we set our goals we must factor setbacks into our plan, self-compassion allows us to evaluate these setbacks without feeling that they were brought about due to our own failings. Setbacks, then, became part of the pursuit rather than a personal failure.

Is is, therefore, high time that we rid ourselves of the view that self-esteem is the silver bullet that will cure all social ills and, rather, is just as likely to add to them. Self-esteem might create the illusion of progress, yet an illusion it surely is.

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Advice and musings on getting through the day to day

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Marc Smith

Marc Smith

Chartered Psychologist. Behaviour Change. Becoming Buoyant — out now https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/0367441624

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