Over the past decade or so, there has been an interesting turn about regarding how people view self-esteem. Twenty years ago, the evidence seemed clear that high self-esteem was crucial if people were to have happy, productive lives. Nowhere was this belief more influential than in the school system. Research conducted in the 1960s appeared to prove that school achievement was influenced more by children’s self-esteem than by their intellectual ability. These studies inspired educators to do everything they could to help children feel better about themselves in the belief that this would help them become better students. As everyone knows, these programs have become the target of numerous vitriolic critics.
Research in psychology is always difficult. A typical study may focus on a handful of variables while, because of practical limitations, it ignores countless other variables that are potentially important. This means that virtually any research study is open to alternative interpretations, and it is up to subsequent researchers to untangle the myriad possibilities that account for the results of any one study. I believe this is what happened to the research regarding the relationship between self-esteem and school achievement in the 1960s. People were too quick to accept the results at face value. Before designing school programs that focused on increasing children’s self-esteem, they would have been well advised to wait for further research to provide a clearer picture as to how things really worked.
Had they waited a few years, the educational gurus who wanted “I am a wonderful person” to be every child’s mantra would have realized that high self-esteem in a vacuum is not necessarily a good thing. Children who are praised for their ability regardless of their work are likely to learn that not much is expected of them; they would have every reason to feel good about themselves even if they produce mediocre results. We know that children are more likely to master difficult material if we comment on their efforts rather than on their ability. Indeed, psychologist Carol Dweck found that the performance of students who were given tasks that were too difficult to complete and were told that they failed because they did not try hard enough improved more than students who were given easy tasks in order to encourage them to feel good about their ability. The moral of the story is clear—self-esteem should be earned, not provided unconditionally.
Indeed, extremely high self-esteem may be a sign of maladjustment. We have all known people who think they are the most wonderful human beings alive, even though their flaws and limitations are obvious to all who care to take even a cursory look. Sometimes called defensive high self-esteem, the people with this quality seem to be capable of putting a positive spin on even the worst failures. It appears to be the case, that people with moderately high self-esteem are the best adjusted. They generally feel good about themselves, but they are capable of acknowledging their flaws and doing something about them.
Now that I’ve vented my frustrations about the view that all children should be praised unconditionally, let me say that I have seen a number of clients who suffered terribly from poor self-esteem. Perhaps one of the most poignant examples was a graduate student I’ll call Doug. He suffered from intense anxiety and depression even though his life was going pretty well. Doug had had a successful academic career, was married to a woman who loved him, and was a doting, caring father. Yet he was incapable of articulating anything good about himself. During one therapy session, I told him I was going no further until he could say one positive thing about himself. He spent five agitated minutes mulling over possibilities before he said, “I used to play the piano well.” When I told him that he had to tell me something good about himself in the present, he was completely stumped. I finally gave in and asked him to tell me what his wife would say about his good qualities. He was able to list several qualities she would point to, but then immediately dismissed them as unreliable. After all, Doug’s wife loved him and consequently she could not be objective. Just as people with defensive high self-esteem cannot acknowledge any negative information about themselves, people such as Doug cannot recognize anything positive about themselves.
It took people many years before they felt generally comfortable with them self, but one can speed up the process by making a concerted effort. Make a list of your strengths. Ask your family and friends for their suggestions. When you find yourself obsessing about your limitations, get out your list and read it out loud. You can also use your self-doubts to your advantage. If you are convinced your negative self-evaluation is justified, do something about it. I have known students who have a low opinion of their academic abilities who use their feelings as an excuse for giving up. They skip class, fail to prepare for tests, and then complain, “See, I just can’t hack it.” Your self-doubts should motivate you to do your best. And if your best is still not good enough, you can be sure that there is something else you can do where your best will be more than good enough. As long as you do not give up, you can feel good about yourself. It’s up to you.
My belief is.. as a person ages, their self esteem improves because they start feeling more comfortable in their own skin. At least that's how it is for me. Asking people about my "personal self" doesn't work and usually just puts more doubt in my mind.
I enjoyed your hub. Thanks.
Welcome to HP! This would make a great Hub! It sounds as though we share some common interests - I'm in my final year earning a Master's in Counseling (assuming I survive this semester's Research and Stats course )
I think you've made an excellent point here...Self-esteem is important, but we must also balance it out with a realistic viewpoint about our achievements as well as motivation to do better, or just do anything.
There's a great book about how our expectations of our children/adolescents determine what they will strive for called _Do Hard Things_ I can't remember the authors' names offhand, but they're a couple of teenage boys, and I thought they did a great job. (The book does have a Christian slant, but overall the info/ideas are universal).
I hope you'll enjoy your time here!
indeed. This would make a good hub, especially if accompanied by some relevant cartoons/jpgs and some good recommended reading
Throw in a cookie and I'll be a follower for life!
Are you in some SM thing? I just got the picture of you in all fours !
Call me old but I'm not sure what you meant from your post. Clueless from southwest Iowa.
SM = sadomasochism. You know...dominatrices and submissive boys and...well, I'm sure you get the picture.
Sorry, I don't get the picture. Not sure if I want to. Anyhow, I'd rather think of "SM" as "Subway with Mayo." If the other meaning is that of something inappropriate I'm afraid I've no pictures anywhere like that sorry.
LOL you get the picture...you just don't LIKE the picture - there's a difference. But hey, that's cool with me, I was just letting you in on the abbreviation there.
Enjoy your Subway with Mayo...I didn't know they'd put it all over the whole store.
Where do you get those nasty little smileys!! LOL
I can't help it, I love mayo. But mustard is cool too (esp. on ham). I'm one of those people who, apparently, likes to have their cake and eat it too...after all, what's the point of having cake if you can't eat it? What am I supposed to do, just look at it?
Oh my goodness, goldenpath!! I strongly recommend you clean out your fridge more often!!!
Thanks for the smileys!
Maybe you are letting a few words ruin your appetite - it may say it has expired, but you have been eating it ok so far and it is obviously ok. You should try not blindly following the words and go with common sense, throw away the label, the words, not the truth in the bottle. Amen
Definitely make this into a Hub. I know exactly what you are talking about here. Being a mental health professional, I've seen both the positive & negative of the effect you speak of.
Too much self esteem boosting could possibly result in an adult with a self ingratiating outlook expecting a free handout. On the other hand, not any self esteem & encouragement can make a shy, withdrawn adult with no confidence in their abilities. If you have a balance, which I would consider similar to the "authoritative" style of parenting (don't confuse this with the 'authoritarian' style of parenting please), you will see a level, balanced adult emerge.
I've seen em all......
Is there a scraper tool for removing low self esteem??
I have a friend whose self esteem is so low that it's stuck to the bottom of his shoe and keeps ruining our carpet
Cool Thanks... I've heard of that one... Doesn't it remove Dogshit too?
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