The commonly held view
Surely it’s a good thing. Don’t we want to encourage it in our children – and in ourselves? Doesn’t low self-esteem make us more vulnerable to depression, lack of motivation and limited achievement? And wouldn’t this be counteracted by cultivating higher self-esteem?
Certainly, low self-esteem is no fun. But high self-esteem has its own problems, too.
What ‘self-esteem’ means
Take a step back and look at what the words mean.
‘Esteem’ comes from the word ‘estimate’ and involves rating. And what do we rate? Ourselves, of course. But how can we? The ‘self’ is the composite of everything about us – our lifetime’s experience, our emotions, our behaviour, our dreams, fantasies, thoughts and beliefs, our characteristic talents, skills and abilities. It makes no sense to give ourselves an overall evaluation when we are such complex and multi-faceted creatures.
What we’re doing if we’re seeking high self-esteem
When we do make this global assessment of ourselves, it is usually by comparing ourselves with others. The result is that we either judge ourselves to be somehow lacking and therefore less worthy than others – or else we reverse the process and judge other people to be somehow less worthy than us. So both low and high self-esteem involve judgements which can be corrosive to our souls and unlikely to help us to become the sort of people we want to be.
The process of making judgments distorts our perceptions of ourselves and others. It focuses our attention on the condition that we – or others – lack, which narrows our perspective. We no longer see the whole person.
It increases the likelihood of our making biased responses in ambiguous situations. For example, if your self-esteem is low, you will interpret people’s lack of attention to you at a meeting as confirming your lack of worth. If you have high self-esteem, and the chair of the meeting addresses her questions to you, you would most likely interpret that as confirming your worth. Your mindset colours your assessment and prevents you from seeing reality.
Drawbacks of seeking high self-esteem
Raising self-esteem has particular drawbacks. It tends to be based on making ourselves different from others. It’s no longer OK to be average or ordinary. We have to feel above average in order to feel good about ourselves. And if we are above average, by definition others have to be below average. This is not a recipe for mutual respect and consideration.
The potential downsides of high self-esteem don’t stop there. The desire to feel good about ourselves can become dependent on other people’s assessments of us – and so it is inevitably transitory, fluctuating with changes in our circumstances. And when we depend on others for our sense of self-worth, we may tend towards ignoring, distorting or covering up our less desirable characteristics and shortcomings.
What’s the alternative?
For me, the answer to cultivating a healthy mindset lies in ‘unconditional self-acceptance’. This means acknowledging that we are complex, fluctuating, fallible and unique human beings that should not be subject to global ratings. Whilst we may be unequal in many respects, we are all equal in humanity. That is the message I want to put out into the world.