The Misunderstood Notion of Self-Esteem

"Self-esteem" is a word that is now so commonly used, that it feels like it has lost all of its value. I can't remember when was the first time I heard the term, but it must have been very early in my life, because it seems that it has been part of my vocabulary for as long as I can remember. Going as far back in my memory as I can, I had always associated the concept of self-esteem with how a person was treated - someone might have high self-esteem as a result of receiving a lot of praise and affection, or more generally, hearing good things about himself or herself. Similarly, a person of low self-esteem is someone who has been treated negatively and harshly by others.

A natural extension of this view is that to improve someone's self-esteem (something that I had always thought of as desirable), you should be nice to them. In fact, so they say, you can improve your own self-esteem, by saying nice things about yourself, to yourself.

Such is the view of "self-esteem" that I grew up with. Because neither me nor my parents were particularly interested in psychology at the time, I assume this understanding of the concept was part of the culture of the society I was growing up in.

How does this understanding of self-esteem affect the way we live our lives and organize societies? Does it hold up to scrutiny? How does it compare to writings of the psychologists associated with the concept of self-esteem? How can we utilize the concept to live better lives?

The Popular Understanding of the Concept of Self-Esteem & a Critique of it

It seems to me that this popular understanding of the concept of self-esteem had been a major factor driving the dynamic between adults and children when I was growing up. On the one hand, there were parents who thought that their job in raising their children was to provide them with the highest possible degree of positive emotion. This was called "stress-free" upbringing. Let's call these people "cool parents".

On the other hand, the more conservative parents ridiculed this approach by saying that such children would never learn self-discipline, obedience, or good manners (having "good manners" mattered a great deal in the environment I was growing up in). Let's call these people "strict parents".

When a child was doing poorly in school, "cool parents" felt that it was right to tell them not to worry about it, and "strict parents" thought it was only right to discipline them into making a greater effort. "cool parents" thought it was okay for the child to be whoever they wanted to be, while "strict parents" wanted to maintain a high level of control over their offspring. The level of control some families exercised over their kids seems ridiculous to me today - for example, some boys weren't allowed to have long hair.

Who was right? To be fair, the culture of self-esteem probably had its root in legitimate academic research. A multitude of studies had been piling up showing that people who feel good about themselves generally do better in life. For example, students who have high self-esteem get better grades than those who lack it. It seems to me that educational researchers in the United States and elsewhere started applying the results of those studies to train a new generation of teachers, and so, the popular notion of self-esteem became a new paradigm, that was then accepted by others uncritically.

I say "popular" because I want to distinguish the aforementioned notion of self-esteem: one that is centered around the idea that seeking positive emotions and avoiding negative ones moves the person towards desirable life outcomes, from another, which can be found in the writings of psychologists such as Nathaniel Branden. The latter, even though it appears under the same name, is a radically different concept, as I will show.

The usual objections to the popular paradigm of self-esteem brought on by researchers are based upon a closer examination of the studies on the relationship between one's self-perceived ability and objective measures of performance mentioned above.

First, people who hold themselves in high regard score better on the metrics of performance, the researchers say, but it's the latter that comes before the former. You feel good because you are good, not the other way around. For example, as Baumeister and Tierney describe in the book "Willpower" (Baumeister & Tierney, 2012), students' grades in tenth grade predict self-esteem in twelfth grade, but self-esteem in tenth grade fails to predict grades in twelfth grade (Baumeister, et al., 2003).

Second, even if high self-regard is correlated with success, it does not follow that the road to high self-regard is through telling people how wonderful they are. Again, in "Willpower", Baumeister and Tierney cite a study by Donald Forsyth who tested this by sending a weekly self-esteem boosting message to some of the students in his class (who were the participants of the research), and a neutral message to others. He found that students who received extra encouragement got worse grades than the ones who didn't (Forsyth, et al., 2007).

Criticism of the self-esteem "movement" usually boils down to these two arguments. Those are both valid points, and they pretty much disprove any validity of the popular self-esteem movement, but they seem to attack views that are not those of the original theorists of self-esteem.

Self-Esteem as a Function of Personal Conduct

In particular, the writings of Nathaniel Branden, who is considered to be one of the fathers of the self-esteem movement, seem to be immune to these criticisms.

For Branden, who is best known for his book, "The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem", self-esteem reflects the disposition for a feeling of self-worth that is the result of proper ethical behavior. This is a crucial point, because this type of self-esteem is very difficult to measure, and not everyone who is feeling good about themselves (or rather reporting that they're feeling good about themselves), has self-esteem in the Brandenian sense.

On the other hand, questionnaires used in self-esteem research, such as the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale, take a very simplistic approach to the subject. To understand this difference, consider the following points:

Clearly, this concept of self-esteem is significantly different from the popular one (Branden, 1994, p.43 ff.).

The key idea of Branden's philosophy is to establish a link from expressions of confidence and feelings of self-worth that we want for ourselves to beliefs and behaviors that we consider morally commendable. To raise one's self esteem, rather than seek approval and positive affect, one directs one's attention to those areas of one's life that need improving. Quite simply: if you're feeling bad about something, make an effort to change it (for an outline of specific principles that facilitate development of self-esteem, see the section at the end of this article).

It is self-evident that there's a link between adherence to ethical principles and feelings of high self-regard. Yet, it seems impossible to deny that the correlation isn't perfect. There are plenty of morally reprehensible people who hold themselves in high regard. Undoubtedly, some of these people are example of what Branden calls "pseudo self-esteem" (Branden, 1994, p.51 ff.), the idea being that these people look confident on the outside, but in reality are plagued by negative emotions.

Even if that's true, we have to assume that there exist people who do, in fact, feel good about themselves while being morally reprehensible (simply because it would be dangerous to assume otherwise).

If that's true, why devise a philosophy that principally links feelings of high self-regard to character? Why talk about self-esteem development at all? Why not say "character development"? If we use this term instead, it seems to me that, in terms of prescriptive rules to live by, there is nothing in "The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem" that has not been written by others before Branden. It seems that the entire controversy could have been avoided had Branden phrased his philosophy differently.

But this link is the greatest strength of Branden's philosophy and the cause of its popularity. It appeals to our personal needs. It gives us a practical reason why be a person of good character - because human existence is structured in such a way that that pursuing character development is the way to happiness. Selfish as it may be, it makes this perspective seem very appealing, and it serves as a motivation to pursue ethical endeavors.

Of course, the perspective of gain is always more attractive than the perspective of the work that one has to put in order to realize the gain, which is why the self-esteem culture adopted a "feel good" distortion of the concept. Ultimately, the thing that is so appealing about Branden's philosophy is also the cause of its misuse.

Self-Acceptance & Unconditional Positive Regard

So much for the relationship between personal conduct and self-regard. Hopefully I've defended that aspect of the self-esteem philosophy quite well. Essentially, my argument can be summarized in a single sentence: "If you do well, you will feel good". But there is another aspect of the self-esteem philosophy that is more difficult to defend, and we arrive at it by considering what happens if you, in fact, don't do well.

In that case, Branden recommends absolute "self-acceptance" (Branden, 1994, p.90 ff.). This stance is much more difficult to defend, because it sounds exactly like what the popular self-esteem movement advocates. Isn't he essentially saying that you should feel good about yourself no matter what?

It is easy to think that absolute self-acceptance is a kind of passive resignation, where one is encouraged to do whatever one pleases and not care about the consequences. However, on the contrary, it seems to me that self-acceptance is in opposition to the passive indifference which it is often associated with in popular understanding. It's a view that is difficult to defend, because the only defense I can offer is by recourse to mental experiences rather than objective data. I believe the only way you can become convinced of it is by trying it.

Let me compare these two mental qualities that I'm talking about. The major difference is that self-acceptance is reality-oriented, while indifference often denies reality. I might be accepting of parts of myself that I consider to be bad, but, in contrast, under type of indifference that is associated with self-esteem in the popular sense, hides the inability to tolerate certain facts about oneself.

You can (and should) hold yourself to high a standard while at the same time having a high degree of self-acceptance. These are not the same thing, and are often confused. Having high self-acceptance means not being overly disturbed by unpleasant facts about oneself or negative events that happen to you. It means being optimistic about life, not because of blind belief that only good things will come to you, but precisely because you accept that bad things will happen in your life. All the same you should hold yourself to high ethical standards, not out of fear and shame, but out of joy - out of a desire to bring positive contributions to your community and the world.

This short description summarizes why I think that self-acceptance and ambition are orthogonal. I have to admit that I'm not happy with my argument, not because I'm not confident about the position that it represents, but because I think it's a relatively weak argument. Ultimately, the best test of this concept is to try it in one's life. Self-acceptance is something that has to be practiced. It's not an intellectual concept to be apprehended. Rather, it's a habit to be developed, and a difficult one too.

Elements of Self-Esteem Philosophy

Before I finish, I'm going to describe in a bit more detail specific principles of the philosophy of self-esteem. These are rules that, if you follow them in your life, you will see an increase in your feelings of self-worth and your estimation of your competence. This section is written based on my experience with the topic, and is not a guide to Nathaniel Branden's or Carl Rogers' works, but it is largely inspired by them (I've not written about Carl Rogers here, but he's another psychologist that has similar ideas who is worth checking out).

I have already said how this approach is based on adherence to one's system of ethics. It follows that the most basic rule, one that comes before everything else is that one must be conscious of one's values. I have to understand what I believe is right and wrong, how my actions affect other people, in what way I want to contribute to the well-being of the society, what my needs are, what makes me feel happy or sad or scared, what my strengths and weaknesses are.

After I've realized that, it's important that I accept life with an attitude of acceptance of the external reality and the reality of myself (self-acceptance). I've already spoken about this in the previous section.

Next, I need to learn to respect each individual's needs equally. This means that other people are not to be persuaded act against their interest. It also means that my needs and wants matter, and so do the needs and wants of other people. As far as it is possible, my life shouldn't be a zero-sum game, the success of one person shouldn't be realized at the expense of the other.

The rest comes from applying these principles in the real world. I need operate in such a way that brings about fulfilment of my goals, contributes to the lives others, tell the truth, assert what I think is right when facing opposition, and so on.

Once I have figured out what my values are, I need to find a way to contribute to the community in a way that is fun and meaningful for me. Everyone is different, and everyone has different ways in which they bring good to people around them. The trick is to stick to things that, while helping other people, are also the kind of things that I would want to do for fun.

Conclusion & References

In the paragraphs above, I have debunked the popular notion of self-esteem, introduced an alternative concept of self-esteem that I believe to be much more useful, and defended the utility of this alternative definition. At the closing of this essay, let me list writings on this topic that have been influential to me, some of them referenced in this article.

Branden, N. (1994). The six pillars of self-esteem. New York: Bantam.

Baumeister, R. F., & Tierney, J. (2012). Willpower: why self-control is the secret of success. London: Penguin Books.

Rogers, C. R. (2016). On becoming a person: a therapist's view of psychotherapy. London: Robinson.

Rogers, C. R. (1995). A way of being. Mariner Books.

Baumeister, R. F., Campbell, J. D., Krueger, J. I., & Vohs, K. D. (2003). Does High Self-Esteem Cause Better Performance, Interpersonal Success, Happiness, or Healthier Lifestyles? Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 4(1), 1–44. doi: 10.1111/1529-1006.01431

Forsyth, D. R., Lawrence, N. K., Burnette, J. L., & Baumeister, R. F. (2007). Attempting to Improve the Academic Performance of Struggling College Students by Bolstering Their Self–esteem: An Intervention that Backfired. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 26(4), 447–459. doi: 10.1521/jscp.2007.26.4.447