The concept of self-esteem features prominently in our commonly shared vocabulary; it is deeply engrained in our culture.
Low self-esteem is typically associated with many serious personal and social problems.
In fact, some experts in the field of psychology have made the strong claim that many of the serious problems that plague our societies can be traced, at least in part, to low self-esteem.
Based on these pervasive cultural beliefs, it is presumed that high self-esteem is something worthwhile having. And that the more you have the better. And that increasing self-esteem will lead to happy and well-adjusted people.
But are these claims true or is the power of self-esteem just a myth? Is there any real value in feeling good or positive about yourself other than it feels good? Does having higher self-esteem lead to positive emotions and behaviours?
It is certainly true there is a fairly consistent association between high self-esteem and a wide range of positive emotions and behaviours, from feelings of happiness to successes at school and work.
Is the Power of Self-Esteem a Myth?
However, and this is important, many years of research shows that high self-esteem is not the cause of the many positive outcomes associated with high self-esteem. Nor does low self-esteem cause negative outcomes such as criminality and difficulties in the work place.
High self-esteem does not cause positive outcomes.
Instead, it’s the actual achievement of valued outcomes (for example, passing an exam, graduating from university, securing employment, maintaining a stable relationship, losing weight, etc) that contributes to high self-esteem.
Self-esteem acts as a gauge that helps us to monitor and scrutinise our social worlds for indications of acceptance and/or rejection, which in turn motivates us to make ourselves more acceptable to others.
Self-esteem is therefore not a function of praise, external validation and affirmation. It’s a function of attaining positive outcomes and discerning indications of acceptance in our social worlds. That is, one’s self-esteem goes up when we feel valued and accepted, and down when we feel devalued and rejected.
Moreover, the need for acceptance represents an inherent disposition; one that we have inherited from our evolutionary ancestors. There is strong evidence that in our evolutionary past our survival was significantly contingent on the extent to which we were accepted into the tribe or community.
Even though our survival in modern societies is far less dependent on the acceptance of others, nevertheless, we go to great lengths to make ourselves acceptable. Sometimes we go about gaining acceptance in ways that are ineffective, problematic and even dangerous. For example, some people ingratiate themselves to others, becoming excessively preoccupied with trying to please others. This can lead to a vortex of over-thinking and a tendency to over-analyse things people say and do.
Others join deviant social groups; and still others withdraw from social interaction entirely, because they have become disillusioned, feeling completely hopeless, and that all their efforts are useless.
And so, many individuals sadly arrive at the “I’m not good enough” conclusion, so why bother? Unsurprisingly, such individuals are vulnerable to developing symptoms of depression.
Achieving Positive Outcomes
So, if one accepts that high self-esteem is an ‘’accidental” by-product of achieving positive outcomes and not the direct cause of behaviours that lead to positive outcomes, then how are these positive outcomes (that is, successes in relationships, educational objectives and career progression) to be achieved?
The positive outcomes referred to in the aforementioned entail a wide and diverse set of capabilities, including for example, the capacity for perseverance and resilience, problem-solving skills, effective communication and interpersonal skills. The achievement may even require something as subtle and humble as the ability to ask for and accept help and support.
To be sure, psychotherapy may be helpful to individuals who are struggling in this regard, by way of identifying and overcoming barriers that thwart or inhibit our efforts in achieving positive outcomes.
Author: Cobus Kleynhans, BA (Hons), MA (Clin Psych).
A Clinical Psychologist with over a dozen years’ experience in working with adults, teenagers, children, couples and families, Cobus Kleynhans has extra training in the techniques and practice of Brief Therapy and systemic Couples and Family Therapy.
He has pursued extensive development in mindfulness-based treatment models, and is excited by the wealth of research revealing how mindfulness is effective in helping to enhance and promote healthy brain function.
Please note: Cobus’ books are currently closed.