Does Your Pursuit of Self-Esteem Damage You?

self-esteem

We tend to define ourselves and our self-worth in terms of our accomplishments.

How do we increase our self-esteem, and how do raise children with high self-esteem? Many self-help books try to answer questions like these. So, the pursuit of self-esteem is a central preoccupation in our modern culture. 

Self-esteem is a popular topic within psychology. Some psychologists believe that self-esteem is a universal human need (see Allport, Baumeister, Maslow, and Rogers).

On one side, psychologists have positive beliefs about high self-esteem and its effects on behavior, on the other side, psychologists argue that the benefits of high self-esteem are small and limited:

“… a recent and extensive review concluded that high self-esteem produces pleasant feelings and enhanced initiative, but does not cause high academic achievement, good job performance, or leadership …” (Crocker & Lora, 2004, p. 2).

The benefits of self-esteem have been the primary foci in the literature, but the pursuit of self-esteem can be destructive as well.

Jennifer Crocker and Lora Park (2004) emphasize the fact that when we become what we want to be, we get satisfied, at least temporarily, but when we fail, we experience many negative emotions such as anxiety and shame.

So, the pursuit of self-esteem can have huge emotional costs. The authors further argue that the pursuit of self-esteem can harm people’s physical health:

“People concerned about how they are perceived and evaluated by others tend to consume more alcohol, smoke, sunbathe, diet excessively, undergo cosmetic surgery, use steroids, drive recklessly, and engage in unsafe sex” (p. 23).

So, other people’s approval of us boosts our self-worth, meaning that we derive value from other people’s judgement of us. OK. That’s all right. But if our self-worth relies too much on other people’s judgment of us, we may experience more negative emotions when we fail to live up to others’ expectations.

Please consider this scenario: If all people lost their ability to show their approval of you, you would be in a very unfortunate situation if your self-worth relied solely on them. You would probably feel insignificant.

Luckily, we derive our self-worth from many sources, e.g. love, friendships, joy and values, and these sources may not have the same mental costs as the pursuit of self-esteem.

That being said, I don’t suggest that we should give up our pursuit of self-esteem as it can motivate us in many circumstances, but I think that the benefits of the pursuit of self-esteem have been overemphasized in the literature.

Photo: Kiran Foster