Is “Self” the Problem in “Self-Esteem”?

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Self-esteem, once the darling of the psychologically-minded, has fallen into disrepute in recent years. But perhaps the problem with this construct isn’t what we think it is.

Could it be Low Self-Esteem?

When I talk with parents about their children, the topic of self-esteem comes up again and again. If a child is using drugs, failing at school or missing out socially, then low self-esteem is one of the “usual suspects” that parents round up when they’re looking for a cause.

The purported effects of low self-esteem include poor grades, difficulty relating with peers, and overall success as adults. Legendary psychologists including Abraham Maslow have asserted the importance of having positive self-esteem. And while people with high self-esteem do self-report being happier, none of the other measurements pan out in peer reviewed studies.

Aside from self-esteem’s intuitive draw as an explanation for childhood and adolescent troubles, I suspect that parental guilt also has a role to play. As a parent, it can be incredibly hard to resist the urge to criticize, badger, and belittle our children when they’re acting out. And once the urge is satisfied, guilt is usually quick to follow. Combine guilt with the natural human predisposition to see everything as something we caused or contributed to, and the story becomes “I criticized my kids, so they have low self-esteem, and now they’re failing.”

High self-esteem has problems as well. Someone who thinks too highly of themselves can overextend and invite failure if they’re not realistic about their capabilities. Equally bad is the potential for those with elevated self-esteem to come across as pompous or arrogant. So, is the aim to have enough self-esteem, but not too much?

Who am I?

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When we think, we use ideas or concepts. They help to take a messy world and simplify it so we can think about what’s happening more easily. However, concepts have a way of overlooking important details, and ideas about ourselves are certainly no exception to the rule. Usually we think of our identity as fixed: “I’m bad at math,” “I’m shy,” or “I like sports.” While any of these statements could be largely true of someone, they’re not true all of the time. But if our thinking is lazy, then we can get stuck with the implicit assumption “…and I always will be.”

Stanford Psychologist Carol S. Dweck points out another pitfall associated with self-concept. She describes two different ways or “mindsets” to think about ourselves. The first is the “fixed” mindset, which is intolerant of change. We either are good at math, or we aren’t. The fixed mindset comes back to bite us because we’re usually heavily invested in preserving our self-image. If we’re good at math, maybe it wouldn’t be such a good idea to sign up for the more advanced classes because if we failed, we’d have to revise our self-image. People with fixed mindset spend more time preserving who they think they are than improving themselves.

Dweck describes a second, more adaptive mindset. The “growth” mindset looks at failure not as a demonstration of our low self-worth but as a necessary stage in development. According to Dweck, people with a growth mindset do not shrink away from challenges, but see them as a way to change who they are for the better.

Who Needs a Self Anyway?

Buddhism, which forms much of the foundation of the mindfulness tradition that underlies the mindfulness-based therapies such as Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT) and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), has an even more radical take on self-esteem: there’s not only no need for self-esteem, but no need for a self at all! In its more extreme and esoteric forms, Buddhism proposes that having any sort of self-image leads to suffering, as whatever we say about ourselves, good or bad, will be at odds with what we observe at least some of the time.

Ultimate self-realization, in the Buddhist way of thinking, requires relinquishing any ideas of self. To Western ears, this sounds unlikely at best, perhaps nihilistic, and maybe even self-destructive or suicidal. But there is a more practical way to look at the idea of “no self”. All of us have had the experience of being caught up in a book or a movie or some activity that completely consumed our attention and capabilities. While we’re absorbed in this way, there’s no room left to consider the self. It’s not that your self actually ceases to be, but rather that you stop considering it, and in doing so, you free up your faculties to attend to the task at hand. Psychologist ‎Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi studied this mental state in depth and he is credited with giving it the name “Flow.”

To recap, low self-esteem can be a problem, but so can high self-esteem. Having a fixed self-image, whether positive or negative, gets in the way of growth. Whatever we say about ourselves, we tend to behave as if that’s true — whether what we tell ourselves is positive or negative. People with a fixed mindset are prone to protect their self-image, whereas those with a growth mindset are willing to stretch. Perhaps the best way to deal with self-esteem is to recognize that self-image is not even necessary and our best performance may be at those times when we lose our sense of self entirely.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Pat Orner Oliver on .

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