Self-esteem – it’s something we’ve been told endlessly by modern society must be prioritized over virtually everything else. After all, if you don’t feel good and confident about yourself constantly, there’s really no way to make it in this world, right?
That’s absolutely false and I’ll tell you why. Plus, I’ll explain why feeding the self-esteem monster leads to more misery and a wave of societal problems. This promotion of self-esteem above everything else has been disastrous.
I’d heard the counter arguments to the shameless promotion of self-esteem growing up, so I didn’t exactly live in a bubble. However, church leaders and other adult figures quite frankly couldn’t or didn’t articulate their points clearly enough. It wasn’t until I heard psychologists on a podcast frankly discussing the self-esteem movement and the unfortunately role psychologists played in promoting it that all the puzzle pieces clicked together.
In a nutshell, and I know this is a generalization, the so-called self-esteem movement which really picked up steam in the 1960s and is still going strong today preaches the doctrine of every child feeling good about themselves no matter what as if it were some inalienable human right. It sounds good because our nurturing side wants to see that the children (and ourselves) just feel happy. But life doesn’t work that way. Just as a car engine works through opposing forces, we can’t always be happy and we shouldn’t even try to pursue such an existence. Teaching kids that they need to always feel good about themselves is wrong and actually harms them.
Should you feel good about yourself if you just stole money from a store? What about pushing another kid in front of a city bus? Or slitting someone’s throat while they sleep? Those are extreme examples, but they demonstrate that remorse and feeling badly about one’s actions is absolutely necessary. We ignore that important function of our moral fiber at great risk.
Furthermore, teaching kids they need to always feel good about themselves is self-destructive. Everyone has down days, or maybe weeks and months of feeling down. Sometimes that feeling comes from a horrible life event like chronic sickness, job loss, or the death of a loved one. Other times the cause isn’t so obvious. People who struggle with other negative emotions might decide there’s something fundamentally wrong with them instead of realizing it could just be a signal they need to change their behavior or perspective, like your pain receptors telling you to let go of a hot pan.
Perhaps just as deadly is the research showing how artificially-inflated self-esteem leads to increasing narcissism, intellectual laziness, antisocial personality disorders, and anything which threatens a person’s self-concept. After all, if you’re completely awesome just the way you are, why would you listen to anything or anyone who pushes you to become better? They’re obviously wrong if they say you need to improve yourself because obviously you are the pinnacle of human evolution. Think that sounds ridiculous? I’ve dealt with that very mentality from a few close individuals in my life. If you haven’t you’re lucky, because research shows narcissism has been on the rise since about the same time the self-esteem movement really caught on. It’s not hard to draw a conclusion about what’s fueling this unabashed love of self above everything else. In fact, the phrase “self-love” has been held up by many in mainstream society lately like it’s something to be celebrated and is in short supply in this century.
If you think teaching your kid they’re the best and they can do whatever they want in life is helping them, think again. Yes, that might seem harsh and I’m not talking about crushing your children’s dreams, but you need to be realistic. We all have limits to our capabilities, no matter how intelligent, strategic, creative, etc. we are. Not all people are geniuses, not all are physically attractive, not all are charismatic. The term “average” means something we seem to have forgotten. Sometimes we can’t get beyond certain limits, so we direct our energies elsewhere. Other times those limits strengthen us as we push against them, until eventually we’re able to move beyond. And sometimes we realize the limits exist for our own benefit and protection. Knowing what kind of limits you’re dealing with requires wisdom.
Just to be clear, I’m not advocating you teach your kid the world is awful and horrible and they’ll never be able to realize any of their dreams. It’s self-evident that’s bad parenting.
As parents, we should be teaching our children that sometimes you feel badly because you need to change. You’re not the end-all, be-all of human evolution. You’re not some super hero just because you exist. This life is about learning to be a better version of yourself, journeying toward greater enlightenment. That involves change which can be painful but is necessary. Just like a weight lifter trying to build strength and dealing with muscle pains, you will feel discomfort as you push beyond the familiar and easy.
The worst thing you can do is provide your kid with false praise, like when they make some food for you and you rant and rave about how great it is even though it tastes like they poured half the salt shaker in it (maybe they did). You don’t have to be like Gordan Ramsay, but lying and telling them they’re really great at something they haven’t truly mastered is doing your child zero favors. They’re going to get out into the world and people who don’t love them are going to be far harsher, so if you don’t offer gentle guidance reality will offer less-than-gentle correction.
I still recall seeing this scenario play out on American Idol over and over. A parent is there with their child and they lavish that teenager or even young adult with praises for their supposedly genius-level singing talent. As a member of the audience you’re expecting something absolutely amazing, but then the kid does their audition and they sound like a mix between a dying frog and a semi-truck accelerating. That’s when you realize how full of crap the parent is because there’s no way they don’t know their kid is an absolutely awful singer. Still, they lead their crying child out of the failed audition and tell them how wonderful they are, trying to reassure them that the judges don’t know anything about singing. Let me tell you, that scenario will never end well for the child or the parent.
Some psychologists who say self-esteem isn’t real. They have their reasons and I understand them (like the argument it can’t be empirically measured), but I think it is real. However, I believe prioritizing self-esteem over everything else and teaching kids that always feeling good about yourself is the goal of life is wildly dangerous. We’re seeing the fruits of that with rising narcissism in modern society, a deep sense of dissatisfaction with life, etc.
Instead, we need to teach kids that feeling good about yourself comes from doing good things. It’s ok to teach morality to kids: that sadly has become controversial in some circles. Kids should learn to master a skill, which in turn will boost their self-esteem because they’re actually doing something well instead of being taught they’re wonderful just for having been born.
Some psychologists believe self-compassion is what we should be teaching children. I think there’s value in this, but I don’t believe it’s the entire solution. Self-compassion involves treating oneself kindly, like how you would treat someone you’re tasked with caring for. We’re often unnecessarily hard on ourselves, unless we’re a narcissist, of course.
Even more importantly, self-compassion teaches that your struggles in this life is part of the shared human experience. Being a narcissist or even scoring high on the narcissism spectrum is a self-isolating experience because if you’re better than everyone around you or even basically everyone on the planet, you’re truly alone. What an awful way to live! Realizing you’re connected to other humans and have similar experiences to millions if not billions of others is actually comforting. Humans are at our nature social creatures.
Finally, self-compassion means to be aware and mindful of painful thoughts and feelings you experience. The risk with preaching self-esteem is that kids and adults stuff those painful thoughts and feelings deep inside and hope they just go away since they conflict with how they’re supposed to feel. Eventually, those thoughts and feelings erupt in chaotic ways. Being aware of, acknowledging, and then seeking to understand that which causes you pain can help you to move beyond it, although it may take considerable time to reach that point. Avoiding the root of the problem solves nothing and can make life unnecessarily complicated.
This is why I don’t drink the self-esteem punch. As I’ve built awareness of this issue, I’ve noticed popular culture absolutely inundates us with messages of self-esteem being held above all. This includes shows, movies, and books aimed at kids. I purposely don’t communicate this message in my own writing because of the damaging effects it has on individuals and society as a whole.
Image by Steven Symes. All rights reserved for this blog post text and the accompanying photograph.