“Praise that bolsters self-esteem in recognition of good performance can be a useful tool to facilitate learning and further improve performance in the future. Praising all the children just for being themselves, in contrast, simply devalues praise and confuses the young people as to what the legitimate standards are. In the long run, if such indiscriminate praise has any effect on self-esteem, it seems more likely to contribute to narcissism or other forms of inflated self-esteem than to the kind of self-esteem that will be best for the individual and for society.”
— Roy F. Baumeister and associates, Does High Self-Esteem Cause Better Performance, Interpersonal Success, Happiness, Or Healthier Lifestyles?
Everyone wants to improve the lives of all around them. Sometimes in this effort society causes more harm than good. The pursuit of self-esteem is one of these instances. In modern society’s attempt to raise better children and create better citizens, it has breathed life into a vast wave of narcissism and a lack of self-awareness.
If you want to see this epidemic of self-esteem run amok, turn on your television. You’ll quickly be familiar with the sight. A contestant on “Our Country Has Talent” charges out on stage to perform. They’re utterly awful.
The audience sees it, you see it, the judges see it, and the announcer sees it, however, the performer is totally oblivious. When the one mean judge confronts the performer with the truth, he’s utterly shocked. Often these contestants dismiss the well-qualified judge and climb back into their untalented bubble to continue with the illusion.
Perhaps you’ve seen it on Facebook? You have at least a few friends who spend hours a week taking and posting selfies. If they’re not taking pictures of themselves, they’re taking pictures of what they’re eating.
You’ve most likely seen it in the workplace too. You know that special co-worker or boss who’s totally oblivious to all those around them and their own poor performance when it should be completely obvious. Calling them out is like waking a sleepwalker in the middle of a dream — dangerous and chaotic.
These individuals haven’t sprung up suddenly. They were crafted and molded over time by well-meaning members of society in an effort to do good. Good intentions created the beast. Moreover, if you challenge the beast of good intentions, you become the monster. So, what do we do about it?
Read along and find out.
The Age Of Esteem
“Though no one wanted to admit it, the idea that self-esteem predicted life success was, to put it bluntly, a total and complete farce.”
— Dr. Tasha Eurich, Insight: Why We’re Not as Self-Aware as We Think, and How Seeing Ourselves Clearly Helps Us Succeed at Work and in Life
Organizational psychologist and author Tasha Eurich spends a good deal of time studying companies and organizations. A modern problem she continually finds is employees, partners, and managers who have a severe lack of self-awareness. She thinks one of the main drivers of this has been society’s self-esteem movement and delves into that in her book Insight.
In the 1900s to the early 1950s, which she calls the age of effort, society shunned the glorification of the self. This changed in the 1950s, which began the age of esteem.
She states that Carl Rogers, a founder of humanistic psychology, said, “Humans can only achieve their potential by seeing themselves with unconditional positive regard.” Around that same time, Abraham Maslow became popular as well.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs’ top rung was self-actualization where total happiness and fulfilment would occur. Self-esteem was the rung right under that.
In 1969, Nathaniel Branden penned the popular book The Psychology of Self Esteem. In this book, Branden said, “Self-esteem has profound consequences for every aspect of our existence”. Moreover, he explained that he “Cannot think of a single psychological problem — from anxiety and depression, to fear of intimacy or of success, to spouse battery or child molestation — that is not traceable to the problem of low self-esteem”.
Dr Eurich then goes on to describe one of the biggest shams in the self-esteem push. John Bernard Vasconcellos, a California politician, put together a task force at the cost of $ 735,000 in 1986 to promote self-esteem.
This task force searched for statistical evidence to prove enhanced self-esteem reduced crime, drug & alcohol abuse, teen pregnancy, child and spousal abuse, and welfare dependency. There was one problem though: the findings proved self-esteem really had no effect on these things. The report went on to say:
“The news most consistently reported is that the association between self-esteem and its expected consequences are mixed, insignificant or absent.”
According to a story in The Guardian, Vasconcellos buried this finding and made it look like the task force was successful in proving a link between self-esteem and all social ills. This started a self-esteem boom in the 1990s.
Participation trophies and awards for everyone began to appear as humanity jumped on the self-esteem bandwagon. Red ink was exchanged for purple when marking tests. Plus, society preached the ills of hurt feelings and poor self-esteem.
Vasconcellos mainly did this because he knew in his heart self-esteem was the cause of every malady, even if science proved otherwise. His deception wouldn’t be found until years later.
While he was well meaning, the politician also started shifting the playing field towards cancel culture. Eventually self-esteem became such an important part of the culture, anything said which might damage it became a threat. To some, on the same level as violence.
Cracks In The “Science” Of Self-Esteem
“Hitler had very high self-esteem and plenty of initiative, too, but those were hardly guarantees of ethical behavior. He attracted followers by offering them self-esteem that was not tied to achievement or ethical behavior — rather, he told them that they were superior beings simply by virtue of being themselves, members of the so-called Master Race, an idea that undoubtedly had a broad, seductive appeal. We have found no data to indicate that indiscriminately promoting self-esteem in today’s children or adults, just for being themselves, has any benefits beyond that seductive pleasure.” — Roy F. Baumeister and associates, Does High Self-Esteem Cause Better Performance, Interpersonal Success, Happiness, Or Healthier Lifestyles?
Professor of Psychology Dr Roy F. Baumeister was an early believer in the self-esteem movement. However, in his work, he couldn’t reproduce what was being reported in the media or written about in books. In a landmark 2003 paper, he’d find that self-esteem had no effect or negative effects on many things.
· Military cadets with higher self-esteem didn’t perform better as leaders.
· College students with higher self-esteem didn’t have superior social skills.
· Professionals with higher self-esteem didn’t enjoy better relationships with their coworkers.
· Boosting self-esteem could hurt performance instead of helping it.
· People with high self-esteem were more violent and aggressive.
· People with high self-esteem were more likely to leave relationships at the first sign of trouble. They also were more likely to cheat.
· Those with high self-esteem were more likely to drink and do drugs.
· Self-esteem was neither a major predictor or cause of anything — least of all success and personal fulfilment.
The doctor also found that Americans weren’t lacking self-esteem. He found the general American actually felt good about themselves for no particular reason. Baumeister warned pushing too much self-esteem could lead to narcissistic tendencies, especially when people were rewarded for no reason.
However, he thought that self-esteem shouldn’t be entirely abandoned. He found a possible link between happiness and self-esteem. If self-esteem were used as a reinforcement for good and positive behavior, through happiness it would encourage more of this proper behavior.
Wisdom From The Age Of Effort
Viktor Frankl (1965) — Picture By Prof. Dr. Franz Vesely, Wikimedia Commons
Dr Viktor Frankl went through hell and back literally. He’d survive the evils of the Holocaust and come back to civilization with a new view of the world and the psychology of man. In particular, he found what could motivate people to keep on existing when there was truly nothing to live for.
Frankl discovered that meaning and not happiness was a primary driver that could push anyone through anything, including depression and suicidal thoughts. In his book, Man’s Search For Meaning, he often repeated the words of Nietzsche, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”
He believed that man could develop meaning by taking on responsibility. Just like an arch becomes sturdier when it’s put under load, so do humans. He also believed that the United States should build a twin to the Statue of Liberty, called the Statue of Responsibility — he thought this idea was so important.
He also believed that “self-actualization” in Maslow’s hierarchy was ridiculous. True actualization could only come through meaning developed through others or work that benefited others — not the self.
How Do We Move Forward?
“Burning yourself on a stove is really useful in telling you where you stand, but we live in a world of trophies for everyone. Fourteenth place ribbon. I am not making this stuff up. My daughter got one.”
— Keith Campbell, professor of psychology at the University of Georgia, The Guardian
I believe Viktor Frankl teaches us a valuable lesson in our modern age. Our best bet for the future is to course correct from self-esteem to meaning and responsibility.
Stop insulating our children, ourselves, and society from failure. Let them take on the responsibility of failure. Let them take on the responsibility of suffering. This encounter with humility can lead to deeper self-awareness, which will benefit everyone.
By taking on this load, we’ll strengthen ourselves, like Frankl’s arch. This is exactly what our society that’s been weakened by selfies, self-esteem, and participation trophies needs. The insulation from pain and failure, while well-meaning, is not benefiting anyone. It’s not benefiting the recipient or the people around the recipient.
It’s also creating a group of self-esteem addicts driven to cancel others who have opinions contrary to that toxic esteem.
As members of society find their meaning and take on responsibility, only then should they be praised to develop their self-esteem. This praise will encourage more of this positive behavior.
Our road towards more self-awareness and a less narcissistic society begins with rewards based on doing and not being. Once we understand and promote this we’ll be freed from the curse of self-esteem, participation trophies, selfies, and cancel culture.