Why increasing your self-esteem may be costing you

1st February 2020 | Author: Bianca Skilbeck


"[Self-esteem] is the disposition to experience oneself as competent to cope with the basic challenges of life and as worthy of happiness"

- Nathaniel Branden, Psychotherapist 


I still remember being a teenager, almost twenty years ago, sitting in self-esteem classes.

Having had difficulties with disordered eating, relationships and suicidal ideation, the verdict was in; I had low self-esteem.

I guess that made sense.

As I looked around the class, I made an assessment of my counterparts. Middle-aged women lacking confidence to re-enter the workforce after motherhood. Shy and awkward teenagers. Unemployed twenty-somethings. Perhaps their parents suggested they be here as well? A collection of misfits; all lumped in to this one room so as we could ‘fix’ our self-esteem and re-enter society as new and improved versions of ourselves.

As I sat there, trying to figure out what I was supposed to get from this crash course on self-esteem, or even how to participate; part of me was also confused.

It was evident that I was making life choices suggestive of a general lack of care or regard for my own wellbeing. Yet all the same, I didn’t actually feel that I lacked confidence. I did well at school, I got good marks. Whilst I was neither popular nor unpopular, I had a few close friends who I could count on. When I thought about what the future might look like, I had vague plans and no particular doubts that I could achieve the things I set out to achieve. I felt okay about my prospects and the value that I had in other people’s lives.

Yet as I sat there, I had to keep trying to reconcile this cognitive dissonance. I repeated in my mind; “Obviously I have low self-esteem. Right?”

"We’ve all heard that one of the secrets to improving our lives, our mental health and our overall wellbeing is to improve our self-esteem"

I know I’ve been hearing this since I was a teenager back in the 90’s, and perhaps even before then.

As the above quote indicates, the definition of self-esteem involves in large part, how we esteem and perceive ourselves. For a long time now, experts in psychology have been telling us about the importance of developing good self-esteem in order to live a healthy and well-rounded life. The idea sounds fairly logical.

Nonetheless, the construct of self-esteem hasn’t always been with us. So where did this idea come from?

American philosopher, psychologist, geologist and anthropologist, William James was the first to identify and use the term ‘self-esteem’, as a distinct psychological construct in his work published in 1980, ‘The Principles of Psychology’ (James, 1890).

As interest in the construct grew, social psychologist, Morris Rosenberg, went on to develop the Rosenberg self-esteem scale in the 1960’s, which to this day is the most-widely used assessment measure of self-esteem (RSES; Rosenberg, 1965).

Since then, Western psychology and popular psychology, have touted the wonders of increasing self-esteem as at least one integral part of the cure for just about any or all mental health ailments, ranging from depression and anxiety, to eating disorders and addiction.

Indeed, the belief in the powers of self-esteem have gone as far as to impact public policy, with endorsements from government and non-government groups for campaigns to increase self-esteem in the general public (Baumeister, Campbell, Krueger & Vohs, 2003)

These fundamental ideas about self-esteem are reflected in the below quote from Nathaniel Branden (Baumeister, Campbell, Krueger, & Vohs, 2003), a leading figure in the self-esteem movement, when he says:

"I 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 traced back to the problem of low self-esteem"

At this point, all of this seems fairly self-evident. If we increase our self-esteem, we will be less vulnerable to lapses in our mental health and related conditions, right?

Well, perhaps it is not quite so cut and dry.

You see, the issue is that despite how logical all of this sounds; increasing self-esteem hasn’t appeared to necessarily or always lead to better health or mental health outcomes.

Despite all of our knowledge and emphasis on raising self-esteem, the state of the world’s mental health doesn’t seem to have gotten any better. According to Our World in Data, it is estimated that globally, around one billion people have a mental health or substance use disorder. Though this is not actually an increase over the last two or three decades per capita; nor is it a decrease. Figures have remained much the same.

So why hasn’t our knowledge of self-esteem led to an improvement in our overall mental health?



 Let’s take a look at the definition of self-esteem for a moment by breaking it down in to its two respective parts;


‘Self’, noun.

A person's essential being which distinguishes them from others, especially considered as the object of introspection or reflexive action.


‘Esteem’, noun.

Respect and admiration. "They were held in high esteem by their colleagues".


Looking at the ‘esteem’ part of this equation; when we ‘esteem’ someone, quite simply, we ‘rate’ them. We deem them to be worthy of praise, adulation, high estimation and we might even aspire to be like them.

When we esteem ourselves; we rate ourselves. We see ourselves as being 'good', or ‘good enough’, in some way or another. Successful enough, hardworking enough, attractive enough, nice enough, the list goes on.

The problem with this ‘rating’ system, is that it necessarily engages our competitive and comparing minds. We look around and attempt to estimate whether or not we are good enough; whether or not we are enough; compared with what we perceive we should be.

When we esteem ourselves, we must necessarily engage the ego. From which point I suggest, we are engaged in a losing battle.

The further issue with self-esteem is that our rating systems are invariably prone to faulty perceptions. Without full consciousness, we are all prone to the same types of attributional, stereotyping, negativity and self-serving biases, to name just a few.

Think about it; do you know someone, who despite everything they’ve going for them, just doesn’t seem to think much of themselves and you can’t make sense of it? Conversely and arguably more dangerous; do you know of someone (or can you think of any celebrities, media personalities or politicians), who despite their flaws, failings or short-comings, still seems to think that they can do no wrong?

"Focusing on raising self-esteem just doesn’t seem to work in the way we might have hoped"

Focusing on self-esteem for the more humble or self-deprecating of us, leaves us in danger of always esteeming ourselves lower than we arguably should. Focusing on self-esteem for the more robust (or dare I say), narcissistic of us, leaves us in danger of esteeming ourselves far higher than what is merited.

Focusing on self-esteem takes us away from the actual reality or truth of our strengths and weaknesses. Focusing on self-esteem kind of misses the point, if what we are aiming for is more stability, resilience and better mental health.

Now, perhaps I am being unfair to the original conceivers or self-esteem. Likely, they had something slightly different in mind when notions of self-esteem were first introduced, which I can appreciate. Perhaps instead of self-esteem, we could talk about concepts such as self-respect, self-efficacy or self-care, just to name a few. They would all be valid lines of enquiry.

Instead, however, I would like to turn to self-compassion.

The roots and traditions of self-compassion can be found in ancient Buddhist psychology and philosophy. However it wasn’t until 2003 that psychology professor at the University of Texas, Kristin Neff, actually developed an empirically valid and reliable scale to measure self-compassion; increasing the Western world’s interest in this construct of self-compassion.

Self-compassion refers to the way that we relate to ourselves. Amongst many things, self-compassion entails kindness towards self, supportiveness, understanding, gentleness and forgiveness.

Where self-compassion differs to self-esteem, is that self-compassion recognises that things will go wrong in life. It recognises that we won’t always do our best. We won’t always (or ever!) be the best; we will make mistakes. We will slip-up, we will do things that we regret and we will get things wrong. What matters however, is how we treat ourselves and perceive ourselves in such moments. Will we be our harshest critic; chastising and demanding that we do better next time? Or will we treat ourselves with the loving kindness that we would so readily offer to our nearest and dearest?

With the recognition of the importance of self-compassion, the following are a few tips for developing more self-compassion in your recovery and your life in general.


1. Practice forgivingness

We’ve all had times when something didn’t go the way that we wanted it to go or the way we had planned. Practice what it would be like to forgive yourself; not unlike the way you would forgive another person who you cared for if they said or did something out of character. Forgiveness reminds us that we are all fallible human beings, capable of making mistakes but also capable of repair.


2. Progress, not perfection

Remind yourself that making mistakes, slipping up or getting things wrong from time is a necessary and inevitable part of being human; we all do it, no one is immune. Remind yourself that you are on a path, and that path is about making progress, not reaching perfection (which doesn’t actually exist)


3. Remind yourself that you are not alone

We all make mistakes from time to time. We all feel lonely. We all feel lost. Disappointed, let down, frustrated, angry, resentful, helpless, the list goes on. However, the worst thing that you can do when these feelings come your way, is believe that little voice inside that says that you’re alone and there must be something especially wrong with you. That is just not true. When these experiences or feelings come your way, remind yourself that these feelings are a normal and natural part of the human experience. They will pass and the truth is that you are not alone.




Branden, N. (1995). The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem. New York, N.Y

Baumeister, R. F., Campbell, J. D., Krueger, J. I. & Vohs, K. D. (2003). Does High Self-Esteem Cause Better Performance, Interpersonal Success, Happiness, or Healthier Lifestyles?. Psychological Science in the Public Interest. 4, 1–44. doi:10.1111/1529-1006.01431

Rosenberg, M. (1965). Society and the adolescent self-image. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

William, J. (1890). The principles of psychology. New York: Holt


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