Wellness & Lifestyle

More Than Anything, I Want Self-Esteem—The Dangers of Self-Esteem

Hold on a second! Isn’t self-esteem supposed to be good? After all, we live in a culture that emphasizes a feel-good, you-can-get-through-anything-with-self-esteem attitude. So how can this be?

A study from Ohio State University, granted by the National Health Institute and the National Institute of Drug Abuse, found that college students greatly prefer self-esteem boosts over pleasurable things. In two separate studies, Brad Bushman, a professor of communication and psychology, and his colleagues, Scott Moeller and Jennifer Crocker, asked 130 University of Michigan students to rate how much they would want to participate in a pleasurable activity. The six activities were seeing a friend, receiving a paycheck, having sex, eating a favorite food, drinking alcohol, or getting a self-esteem boost. In what forms do these self-esteem boosts manifest? Among college students, confidence boosts usually take the form of compliments and receiving good grades.

Having self-esteem isn’t bad. It is the want of self-esteem that is detrimental. The overarching problem is that people often see self-esteem as something that is gained and earned rather than something that comes from the self. When we perceive self-esteem as something that is to be earned, we blur the distinction between narcissism and authentic self-esteem. First of all, those who want self-esteem are often those who are “entitled,” according to Bushman’s team. They measured entitlement by asking students to choose from a series of pairs of statements which declaration they would most agree with. Those who had high entitlement scores agreed with statements like “If I ruled the world, it would be a much better place” as opposed to “The thought of ruling the world frightens the hell out of me.” This sense of entitlement is deeply connected with the want for self-esteem. People with a greater sense of entitlement tend to fall into the trap of narcissism. In projecting and wanting self-esteem, these individuals often fail to admit to and learn from their mistakes. Such a mindset can act to perpetuate dissatisfaction.

The second problem is that the want of self-esteem strips away the pleasures of authentic feelings of self-esteem. Students don’t like self-esteem; they want it. This want is similar to the problems of addiction that can develop with drug usage. Understanding the distinction between liking self-esteem and wanting it is very important. When students only seek self-esteem, feelings of guilt and shame are left unevaluated and buried away beneath feel-good boosters, which is detrimental to personal growth and relationships. In the study, Bushman’s team also revealed that those who want self-esteem are also more likely to set up “maladaptive standards of self-image” to gain self-esteem. In other words, many young people set off to match impossible, culturally inculcated standards of beauty. When they attain these standards, they get self-esteem, but they are never truly satisfied.

A better, healthier goal to keep in mind is developing self-respect or self-confidence. As opposed to self-esteem which increases, self-respect is a given. Self-esteem is something that is evaluative while self-respect is given—you either love yourself or you don’t. Developing self-respect is better than wanting self-esteem because it can help us understand our mistakes, have more positive relationships, and fuel authentic, lasting self-esteem.

Article by Stacey Nguyen

Feature Image Source: Kiran Foster, Flickr