Is self esteem all it’s cracked up to be?

Updated: Oct 26, 2018

For decades we have been told in the media and by psychologists that high self esteem can be the panacea for everything from reducing anxiety and depression to increased confidence and success. This would appear to be based on the observations that many unhappy and distressed people have low self esteem while confident people have high self esteem.

So what is this magic bullet called self esteem? Mind, a leading UK mental health charity, defines it as “... self-esteem is how we value and perceive ourselves”; but if we look at what the term actually means, ‘Self’ is what distinguishes us from others and ‘esteem’ means admiration. So in short, self esteem is how much we admire ourselves. So this seems to suggests that self admiration is a virtue and one of the most important measure of our value.

This is what the fashion industry would like us to think so and feeds on our desire for increased self esteem. They show us the most attractive models in aspirational situations wearing their clothes, makeup, jewellery or whatever else they want to sell us, so that we will think, "I could be like this if I buy their products, and I will feel better about myself, and people will envy and admire me". In fact we could go as far as to say, that the whole advertising industry preys on our desire for admiration for ourselves or from other people.

But as I mentioned in a previous post, adverts that present us with aspirational people and life situations have the pernicious effect of making us feel inadequate in comparison. It seems the way to make us buy things is to dent our self esteem and then offer us what they are selling as the way to rebuilding it! So is there another solution?

Since the 1970’s schools, charities and countless self help books have introduced us to their programmes to help improve our self esteem. One example is, Young Minds, the leading UK mental health charity for young people’s, programme called ‘Believe in Yourself’. No doubt these types of programmes have helped countless people feel better about themselves. But as we hear in the press, the incidence of mental ill-health is growing at an alarmingly increasing rate. The number of children and young people in the UK, being referred to mental health services has been increasing by around 10% year-on-year since 2014. This is in spite of 40 years of attempting to improve self esteem.

Indeed, research has shown that a high degree of self esteem is related not to mental well being, but to aggression and violent behaviour. Steven Pinker, who is a Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, notes that it is "the psychopaths, street toughs, bullies, abusive husbands, serial rapists, and hate-crime perpetrators" who are highest in assessing their own self worth, adding that people who think highest of themselves do so, "not in proportion to their accomplishments but out of a congenital sense of entitlement. When reality intrudes, as it inevitably will, they treat the bad news as a personal affront, and its bearer, who is endangering their fragile reputation, as a malicious slanderer".

Maybe the whole premise that the solution of increasing self esteem is flawed and that is because self admiration is actually part of the problem!

Young minds: Believe in Yourself

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