I Have a Problem with Self Esteem

Snow White Mirror 1by Erica Kleinknecht, PhD (2012)

 How I realized that I had a problem

It started about nine years ago, when I first began teaching educational psychology topics to upper-division university students, many of whom were working towards a degree in education. Eager as I was to share with them valuable insights from the annals of psychology that I was sure would make them better teachers, it turns out that I was woefully unprepared for their reactions! I knew that generally speaking, the notion of self esteem was misunderstood and my heart-felt goal as fresh and optimistic instructor was to set the record straight. I really thought it would be as easy as writing the definition on the board, opening up discussion, and then moving on, case closed and lessons learned. Here’s the gist of how I started the conversation:

Self-esteem does not cause good things to happen to you. It is not a cause of anything much at all. In fact, from a motivational perspective, it doesn’t even really matter that much.”

Before I could elaborate, students’ faces shifted from polite interest to utter dismay, their arms shooting up:

That’s not right!” They insisted, over and over. “It IS important, everyone knows that. Everyone knows that self-esteem causes your success and causes your failure. You talk like it is not important – but it is! It’s very important.” “I don’t believe you, this goes against everything I’ve ever been told.”

The first time these defenses came up, I blamed it on my inexperience as a teacher and awkward presentation style, so the next time I changed my tact. Same response, over and over – especially the last line: “this goes against everything I’ve ever been told.”  After a few semesters of this, my frustration mounted – why the resistance? Aren’t students in college here to learn, to go beyond their biases, and to build new skills? They don’t balk at other topics, only this one. I wasn’t ready to give up though and my next strategy was to just bring in the actual articles, thinking that when students saw the publications, they would be less inclined to think I just “got it wrong” (which some did). This backfired too – their defenses became stronger:

“It’s TRUE that self-esteem causes successIt’s the research that is wrong!” they insisted.

After several semesters of these kinds of reactions I could no longer blame my inexperience as a teacher. In fact, in those early years, my skills in the classroom were nicely shaping up – I was earning higher and higher marks in course evaluations, and of course I knew I wasn’t reading the research incorrectly.  I realized that my problem was much deeper than a poorly phrased discussion prompt. My problem is with our culture’s love affair with self-esteem. The reason why students resist this one “lesson” is because I am one of a just a handful of voices, speaking out against a cultural zeitgeist.

The love affair, in a nutshell

I can’t really pin-point where this love affair started, but I have my ideas. I suspect some of it started when Maslow’s theory of self-actualization was popularized, but cultural zeitgeists arise in unpredictable, multi-causal ways and I don’t want to digress here with an exploration of that. Rather, I want to just remind you (as if I have too) of how much we love self-esteem. A google search on the topic yields “About 56,300,000 results,” with the top hits starting off like this (after Wikipedia, of course, which comes up first):

  • You need self-esteem, but it doesn’t always come naturally
  • Self-esteem is a child’s armor against the challenges of the world. Here’s how you can promote healthy self-esteem in your kids.
  • Have you wondered about what self-esteem is and how to get more of it? Do you think your self-esteem is low? Do you know how to tell?
  • Not enough self-regard can lead people to become depressed, to fall short of their potential, or to tolerate abusive situations and relationships.
  • Building self-esteem and self-confidence is the key to happiness and success.

You’ve heard all of this before. Self-esteem causes our problems, and can fix them too! Self-esteem is touted as a gold standard, a cure-all, a coveted state of mind. Anyone who disagrees with this must be suffering from low self-esteem themselves – otherwise why be so cranky? Sigh.

My problem, in a nutshell.

Unfortunately, everything in that bulleted list above smacks of a misunderstanding – from decades of research on the connections between self-esteem and “all things good in life” it appears that self-esteem isn’t a cause after all, rather it is an effect (e.g., see Dr. Roy Baumeister and colleagues’ 2004 review if you want some scientific evidence for this bold claim). And when it is treated like a cause, bad things can happen. I worry a lot about these bad things and thankfully I am not the only one (but there aren’t nearly enough of us). Here’s a selection of recent writings about these bad things:

When we (parents, teachers, caregivers) boost children’s self-esteem with wild, gay abandon, bad things happen. At best, students become insecure and lose their motivation; at worst, students develop narcissistic tendencies that smack of a personality disorder . I really don’t want the leaders of tomorrow to be narcissists.  Because I care about things like learning, betterment, and promoting the generation of tomorrow to be the best it can be (yes I am idealistic – always have been), I have a big problem with self-esteem.

If not a cure-all, what is it?

Luckily, the problem can be fixed. With an open mind and a willingness to modify our mindsets, we can stop the self-esteem epidemic. We can break-up this love affair that has gone on too long. When we understand what self-esteem is, in the bigger picture of the self-system, we can appropriately foster it, while avoiding negative outcomes like insecurity and narcissism.

In classes, my discussion of self-esteem starts where studies on the topic began in the early days of Psychology, with William James’s  portrayal of the concept: self-esteem reflects the outcome of a conceptual comparison between who you are and who you want to be. You think about something you’ve done and reflect – does this match up to what I want? The reaction you have to such thoughts is emotional, an evaluation. In other words, self-esteem comes from how we feel about what we’ve done – it’s a “past-oriented” feeling. When we are thinking about the future, and what we want to accomplish, we don’t call that feeling “self-esteem,” rather we call that feeling self-confidence (or in motivational terms, self-efficacy). Confidence and efficacy are future-oriented feelings about ourselves, and guide our next-steps. Self-confidence and efficacy are motivational. With positive self-confidence, good things can come (see a previous post where I elaborate on this)including a boost to self-esteem.

Here’s how it works:

Positive example

  • I have a goal: I want students to enjoy class discussion
  • I have some confidence: I plan the discussion in advance
  • I act: discussion happens in class, and goes smoothly
  • I reflect: the discussion went as planned, and we enjoyed ourselves
  • I emote: I feel good! My self-esteem is positive.

Why do I feel good? Because my “actual-self” matches my “ideal self” and the conceptual comparison has a positive outcome.

Negative example

  • I have a goal: I want students to enjoy class discussion
  • I have some confidence: I plan the discussion in advance
  • I act: discussion happens in class in goes poorly
  • I reflect: the discussion flopped and it was awkward for all
  • I emote: I feel bad! My self-esteem is negative.

Why do I feel bad? Because my “actual-self” doesn’t match my “ideal self” and the conceptual comparison has a negative outcome.

We go through cycles like this all day long, every day, sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously. What this means is that self-esteem is always in flux. It rolls up and down, as our plans work and fail. Indeed, self-esteem is really complex – for any one person, at any one point in time, their esteem can be positive in some domains, negative in others, and these relative values can shift at any point, as goals change and as feedback changes. Here are some more examples to think about:

  • When you want to do well in math, and you score 100% on your in-class math quiz, your ideal and real behaviors match, and your esteem is positive.
  • When you want to do well in math and you score 50% on your in-class math quiz, your esteem is negative because your ideal and real behaviors do not match.
  • When you don’t care much about your math grade and you score 75% on your in-class math quiz, your real and your ideal behaviors match, and your self esteem is positive.

The latter scenario, I feel, is really important for us to recognize and think about. The quality of your self esteem depends as much on your desires as it does on the objective outcomes of your behavior. This is one reason why boosting esteem isn’t motivational at all – the “you” in that example is happy with that “average” grade, so heaping praise, if anything, will just reinforce the very same behavior not change it.

Over time, we can get into patterns or ruts, reflecting the typical outcomes we learn to expect. In this cycle, what changes motivationally is our confidence though, not our esteem.

  • When we have healthy confidence that arose from patterns of goal setting and achievement, healthy positive self-esteem follows, and we are set on successful, happy trajectory.
  • When we have unhealthy or poor confidence that arose from patterns of goal setting and failure, unhealthy self-esteem follows and we are set on a trajectory of misery.

In sum, self-confidence is the cause, self-esteem is the effect. And some form of esteem is always present in our minds. That is, in this way of thinking, demarcating self-esteem as “high” or “low” doesn’t make sense. It is not something you have more or less of. It can’t be added to or taken away. That’s not how the emotion works. Because we always have a sense of self (you can’t get rid of your self-concept, after all) we always have an emotional reaction to ourselves too. And this emotional reaction is what self esteem is. As long as you reflect on who you are, you will react to this reflection. Importantly, reflections vary in quality and can be more or less positive, or more or less negative. We evaluate ourselves differently in different aspects of our lives, and the typical kinds of things we evaluate change with age and with experience. In the context of school, elementary aged students typically evaluate themselves in terms of their scholastic abilities (i.e., their grades in various subjects), their physical abilities (how well they perform in PE, how fast they run on the play ground), and their popularity status. As students enter into secondary school, the quality of their friendships and romantic relationships enters into the equation as well.

So do we, or do we not promote self-esteem?

As I’ve already pointed out, the cultural holding pattern well-meaning members of our society have landed in is this: teachers and parents are told that when children feel good about themselves, then the “good life” will follow. They are told to do this by becoming cheerleaders, telling their children how great, smart, special, gifted, and talented they are. Trophies are given to all, kindergarteners graduate, praise flows freely, and the sugar-coating is thick. This is a big problem. Really, kids should be insulted by it to, but they are complex creatures. Kids know empty praise when they hear it. But they still like it. Praise is addictive- who doesn’t like a compliment?

We don’t complain when we receive empty praise, because sometimes let’s face it, the truth can hurt. But in the long run, the truth will help and the empty cheer-leading will hurt even more. I discuss this in my previous post “Planting seeds of change” and will say it again here. In the context of education, empty cheerleading – praise that is not tied to a specific behavior – will make children insecure and eventually ego-defensive. They won’t know where the praise is coming from, but will want more of it. So what then starts to drive their behavior is a desire for more “sugar” and they will take the path of least resistance to get it. In the long run, this is a narcissist in the making. In contrast, when praise and constructive feedback are given in clear response to specific student behaviors, something else happens. Students learn to keep doing what works, and to change what doesn’t work. This builds their confidence, leads to real academic growth, and creates opportunities for positive self-regard to thrive.

In sum – here’s how we can fix this problem:

We can actually boost our children’s self-esteem. We can do this by not giving it any mind at all. Instead, what we need to do is work on helping children build confidence and skills. From this, self-esteem – the good solid “reflective” kind – will follow. And that is the cycle we want to promote.

So, what do you say? Will you help me out, in my aims to fix this self-esteem problem? It would make me feel really good if you would…it might make you feel good too! I love a happy ending.


  1. I am dismayed that your students couldn’t relate, understand, and utilize the concepts in this post. I will join you in combatting the idea that empty self-esteem is worth more than the self-efficacy and confidence that really get the job done. I look forward to your next post.

  2. Wise words….. “In contrast, when praise and constructive feedback are given in clear response to specific student behaviors, something else happens. Students learn to keep doing what works, and to change what doesn’t work. This builds their confidence, leads to real academic growth, and creates opportunities for positive self-regard to thrive.”

    Thank you.

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