Archive for July, 2011

The light and dark side of self-esteem

Posted on July 12, 2011 in FiM, WaW

When my sons were in their formative years, I often worried about their sense of self-esteem. I wanted them to see themselves as people of value and worth. I wanted them to think well of themselves. Part of my concern grew out of parental love and my desire to see my sons thrive. Part of it also grew out of my understanding of research on self-esteem. I thought that studies had shown that, in general, high self-esteem was related to a variety of positive outcomes such as higher academic performance, greater ability to withstand negative peer pressure, and high levels of well-being.

At the same time, I did not want my sons to have such high self-esteem that they tipped into arrogance or narcissism. That is, while I wanted them to think well of themselves,  I also wanted them to think well of others. I thought that research suggested that self-esteem has a “Goldilocks” point and that the best kind of self-esteem was not too much and not too little.

I was right, but only partly so. To be sure, there is such a thing as too little or too much self-esteem. A good-sized portion is a very good thing indeed. It is equally good to see others as persons of worth and value. However, there is such a thing as too much. A super-sized portion of self-esteem can cause us to ignore  wise admonitions, engage in risky & detrimental behavior, and to undervalue other people.

In addition, the pursuit of self-esteem can often, as Jennifer Crocker and Lora Park emphasize, be very costly. Pursuing a sense of self-validation in the eyes of others is a natural human tendency, but too often we spend too much in that pursuit. Professors Crocker and Park note that:

When people have the goal of validating their worth, they may feel particularly challenged to succeed, yet react to threats or potential threats in ways that are destructive or self-destructive. They interpret events and feedback in terms of what they mean about the self; they view learning as a means to performance outcomes, instead of viewing success and failure as a means to learning; they challenge negative information about the self; they are preoccupied with themselves at the expense of others; and when success is uncertain, they feel anxious and do things that decrease the probability of success but create excuses for failure, such as self-handicapping or procrastination.The pursuit of self-esteem, when it is successful, has emotional and motivational benefits, but it also has both short- and long-term costs, diverting people from fulfilling their fundamental human needs for competence, relatedness, and autonomy, and leading to poor self-regulation and poor mental and physical health…We argue that in the pursuit of self-esteem, people often create the opposite of what they need to thrive and that this pursuit has high costs to others as well. People pursue self-esteem through different avenues, and some of these have higher costs than others, but we argue that even “healthier” ways of pursuing self-esteem have costs, and it is possible to achieve their benefits through other sources of motivation.

Their research suggests that we need to be very careful about whose opinions matter and also very careful about when, where and how we seek self-validation. We should value the opinions of those who love and care about us. These people act out of beneficence, seeking to help us grow, develop, and become better, more capable people. However, our tendency is to seek validation from too many people and we can become something like weathervanes, pushed by the winds of social pressures.

I also found it interesting that, in addition to strength, self-esteem has another dimension: stability. The right kind of self-esteem seems to be moderately strong and moderately stable. We need enough strength to see ourselves and others as precious and valuable. We need enough stability to be able to push forward in the face of  “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,”  but not so much that we cannot change and grow into better people.

Interestingly, it appears that narcissists may have high, but fragile self-esteem (see research by Kernis, Lakey, and Heppner). Narcissists think highly of themselves, but they must have those self-views regularly validated. They seem to need a constant source of external validation that their self-views are correct. As such, they spend a great deal of time trying to get others to tell them that they are right — “you are great!” This makes me feel a bit more sympathetic to their plight: it must be exhausting work. Of course, I wouldn’t know from personal experience…

Wishing you Goldilocks self-esteem and much  flourishing in life




Jennifer Crocker and Lora E. Park. 2004. The Costly Pursuit of Self-Esteem. Psychological Bulletin, 130: 392–414

Kernis, M H., Lakey, C. E., & Heppner, W. L. 2008. Secure Versus Fragile High Self-Esteem as a Predictor of Verbal Defensiveness: Converging Findings Across Three Different Markers. Journal of Personality 76: 477-512