The subject of self-esteem has become immensely popular and pervasive in our increasingly complex world. What is self-esteem and why is it important to get a handle on? Unfortunately it is not entirely clear. It reminds me of soap in the sense that it is slippery concept that can be at times hard to grasp. But on the other hand the idea of self-esteem has had enormous consequences for our thinking and culture. It has become so pervasive we hardly notice its effects on us.


Here is how psychiatrist and author Glynn Harrison puts it:

“Self-esteem is a slippery concept that means so many different things to so many different people that it’s impossible even to begin to meet expectations. It impacts upon a huge range of disciplines – psychology, psychiatry, biology, sociology, education, social policy, philosophy, theology – each with a contentious literature that stretches back decades, if not centuries, and leaves more questions than answers.”

In a blog post like this we can only briefly and relatively simply touch on the issues and ramifications. (For a more detailed understanding please read Harrison’s book that is available from a link at the end of the post). The understanding and ideas around self-esteem are so broad it’s hard to know how to approach it.

Putting it in the simplest way, self-esteem has to do with how we look at ourselves. How much do I value myself and what is my self-worth? So self-esteem has to do with how I regard myself.

The concept was introduced in the late 19th century by the psychologist William James who described it as the ratio of our actual achievements compared to our expectations. In other words, how much does my life measure up to what I hope, dream and am ambitious for? When I get closer to what I expect and hope for in life then the greater is my self-esteem. I feel better about myself and have a sense that “I’m worth it”. But it also goes the other way – when my life does not measure up to my expectations then I am likely to feel worse about myself and my self-worth will go down.

In the last 50 years there has been an explosion of research and publications on self-esteem and these ideas. Reinforced by academia, the idea has developed that the wrong amount of self-esteem, be that too little or too much can have major psychological consequences. Research measuring self-esteem with relatively easy to measure rating scales has shown that people with low self-esteem have:
– a huge variety of mental health problems (anxiety, panic attacks, depression and anorexia nervosa to name a few).
– as children greater behaviour problems and low academic achievement.
– as teenagers  greater relationship problems, higher pregnancy rates and more sexually transmitted diseases
– a greater tendency to belong to criminal gangs and become alcohol and drug addicts.

Over the last 50 years the concept of low self-esteem has united psychologists, psychiatrists, education advisors and politicians as a major cause of problems in society. However, Harrison points out that because there is a correlation between low self-esteem and all these problems in society that does not necessarily mean the one is causing the other. For example, another author Tyler Vigen has shown an almost 100% correlation between the amount the United States spends on science and the rate of suicides. But it would be ridiculous to say that government spending on science is causing an increase in suicide in the United States. Correlation (even at 100%) does not necessarily mean causation.

Why is this confusion over correlation and causation important? Because over the last 50 years it has led to a huge effort to raise self-esteem in large numbers of adults and children. The unproven assumption has been made that if low self-esteem is bad for us then simply by raising self-esteem lots of wonderful benefits in terms of prevention of mental illness and societal problems as well as an overall increase in human flourishing would follow.

That does not mean to say for some that may well have been helpful, but for the vast majority of people and our culture the consequences have not provided the benefits hoped for and are likely to have caused more harm.

By boosting young people’s self -esteem, it would appear that this harm has come in the form of encouraging self-centredness (narcissism and entitlement along with a rise in unhappiness and discontent.

Here is how Simon Sinek who we refer to in the post How To Fail and Lose Well puts it:

“Disappointed and disillusioned, baby boomers are killing themselves in greater numbers than ever before. According to a 2013 study by the Centres for Disease Control, suicide rates among Baby Boomers rose nearly 30% during the last decade, making suicide one of the leading causes of death in that age group, behind only cancer and heart disease. The biggest jump in suicides was among men in their fifties – this age group experienced a whopping 50% increase. With the increase of suicides among Boomers, more people die of suicide than from car accidents.
Unless we do something, my fear is that it is going to get worse. The problem is that in 20 to 30 years when our youngest generation grows up and takes charge of government and business, its members will have grown up using Facebook, prescription drugs or online support groups as their primary coping mechanisms rather than relying on real support groups: biological bonds of friendship and loving relationships. I predict we will see a rise in depression, prescription drug abuse, suicide and other anti-social behaviours.”

The American psychologist Jean M. Twenge has researched changes in self-esteem over the last 50 years. The consistent finding has been dramatic increase in reported self-esteem. So for example in the early 1950s 12% of teenagers between the ages of 14-16 agreed with the statement, ‘I am an important person’. By the late 1980s this had risen to 80%. Changes in thinking over this time were reflected with an increased tendency to agree with statements such as, ‘I find it easy to manipulate people’ and ‘I insist upon getting the respect that is due to me.’

Over the last few decades there has been in the Western world growing social instability with rising divorce rates and family breakdown along with significant rises in self-esteem that has been taught and encouraged in school and society. Twenge’s conclusion is “Today’s young Americans are more confident, assertive, entitled – and more miserable than ever before.”

We are going to continue to look at the subject of self-esteem in future blog posts.

What questions and issues does this trend and findings raise for you?