For over 50 years it has been widely assumed that a lot of society’s problems are a consequence of low self-esteem. By confusing correlation with causation, the unproven assumption has been made that by then simply boosting self-esteem there would be an overall increase in wellbeing and happiness. Even though there has been a lack of clarity as to what exactly self-esteem is, there has been a huge increase in programmes along with the investment of billions of dollars to raise self-esteem, especially in children and young people. (For more on this see How Is Your Self-Esteem?)
Putting it in simple term, children are encouraged to grow up thinking not only that they are special to their parents, but thinking they are special to everyone. Then why is simply boosting self-esteem a bad idea? According to Glynn Harrison in his book, “The Big Ego Trip” this focus on raising self-esteem has had 3 significant detrimental effects:
1.It leads to not trying hard enough which in turn impairs learning and growth.
Attempts at boosting self-esteem have led to a tendency to overpraise children with global statements such as ‘you are brilliant or smart or fantastic or special’ that have no real relationship to the context of their abilities or achievements. Whatever they do they are told they are wonderful and special. This in turn sends a seductive message that ability is a fixed characteristic you either have got or you haven’t got. The psychologist Carol Dweck talks of this in terms of a fixed mindset whereby children and subsequently adults are often frightened to fail. The reason is with so much overpraise at small successes, then the unspoken assumption is made that to fail is to be stupid. This leads to avoiding challenges and resenting negative feedback. (For more on this do see the blog post ‘Never or Not Yet?‘.)
2. It also leads to the opposite problem of trying too hard and becoming preoccupied with performance as a major source of happiness.
While there is certainly nothing wrong with working hard and giving of your best, the danger comes when we start thinking that the better I do the happier and more content I will be with myself. Or in other words, the more I achieve the more I will value myself because my self-esteem will then go up. I start to believe the lie that I will feel better by being better. We discuss this more on the podcast on success along with related blog posts).
3. It leads to increased self-centredness (narcissism)
By focussing on self-esteem without developing a healthy understanding of my own weaknesses and frailty it becomes easy to be more and more absorbed with oneself. Narcissus is a character from Greek mythology who was known for his beauty. He became proud and disdained those who loved him. On seeing his reflection in a pool he fell in love with himself and eventually drowned.
Narcissism can actually be measured using a psychological tool called the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI). Those who have high scores on the NPI tend to have an inflated sense of self-importance and grandiose thinking. They feel superior to others, are attention seeking and will manipulate situations to suit themselves. They feel they are important to everyone else and literally feel the world revolves around them.
Psychological studies consistently show an increase in narcissism in young people over the last few decades. So for example in the early 1950s only 12% of teens aged 14-16 agreed with the statement ‘I am an important person’. By the late 1980s this had risen to 80%.
As an example of an outworking of this, the following is a quote from The Economist 14 November 2015 in an article entitled Student Protests – The Right To Fright:
“Last year a debate on abortion at Oxford University was cancelled after some students complained that hearing the views of anti-abortionists would make them feel unsafe. Many British universities now provide ‘safe spaces’ for students to protect them from views which they might find objectionable. Sometimes demands for the safe space enter the classroom. Jeannie Suk, a Harvard law professor, has written about how students there tried to discussing rape when teaching the law on domestic violence, lest it trigger traumatic memories.”
So what can we do instead to help encourage an appropriate level of self-esteem? We will look at that in the next blog post. If you can’t wait till then you may want to look at How To Fail And Lose Well Part 1 and Part 2 along with 9 Ways To Look At Your Failures With The Eyes Of Faith
For now, please feel free to add your comments and reflections.