Throughout the years, we’ve been told that we need to develop high self-esteem. This means having high confidence and pride in one’s achievements. This can be a good thing because low self-esteem is linked to a variety of mental health issues such as depression, stress, anxiety and suicidal thoughts. However, that’s not to say high self-esteem does not come with its own problems. The overemphasis on self-esteem has led to a style of parenting that shelters children from things that would harm their egos such as criticism or any indication of poor performance. Unsurprisingly, such children grow up performing poorly, as they are not sufficiently challenged in order for them to reach their full potential. This, in turn, led to a generation of people who are overconfident in their own abilities and cannot take any form of criticism, constructive or otherwise.
On the other hand, those who do not have a reason for having such high self-esteem and yet are obsessed with or misguided about self-esteem usually take to the concept of “fake it ‘til you make it” where one imitates confidence and optimism until those become real. However, this is not necessarily good advice, as it entirely depends on whether you have correctly identified what’s holding you back. According to a study in the Journal of Consumer Research, this could even backfire tremendously and end up making the person feel like bigger failures. Worse still, a “fragile” high self-esteem tend to become aggressive and verbally defensive in order to protect their feelings of self-worth, and this often results in them becoming very unlikeable.
Recently, many experts are beginning to question the wisdom behind the importance of self-esteem. One such expert is Behaviour Expert Patrick Wanis, who explains that in this modern age of social media, the only way for us to get to a high level of self-esteem is by constant comparison with others. The pursuit of self-esteem produces a negative result as there will always be others better than us regardless of how hard we push ourselves, and also because social expectations are constantly changing. So, Patrick Wanis explains, rather than teaching self-esteem as he had done so for many years, he now teaches self-compassion. It’s about forgiving yourself when you make mistakes and learn from them, and accepting that we cannot ever be perfect because we’re human beings. Thus, his new approach is chiefly about self-acceptance and identification of one’s strengths and weaknesses and focusing on what one is really good at. In short, it is about putting aside society’s expectations and perfections and thus letting go of the social concept of self-esteem altogether.
Patrick Wanis’ advice to forgive oneself is quite similar to Rule 2 of the 12 Rules For Life by renowned clinical psychologist Dr Jordan Peterson: Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping. In his interview with Joe Rogan on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast, he says instead of feeling good about who you are, you should instead feel good about who you could be. This is in recognition of the fact that in this world that is less than idealistic, there are many imperfections such as terrible parenting, abuse, etc. and so it makes no sense to be feeling good about oneself in light of all that.
“It’s more like you should understand how much potential there is within you to set that straight. And then you should do everything you can to manifest that in the world and it will set it straight. And that’s better than self-esteem. It’s like you’re in a crooked horrible position, okay fine. There’s a lot of suffering and pain associated with that. Yeah, you can’t just feel good about that because it’s not good, but you can do something about it. You can genuinely do something about it, and I think all the evidence suggests that that’s the case. So I’m telling young people, ‘Look, no matter how bad your situation is, I’m not gonna pretend it’s okay. It’s not okay. It’s tragic. Tainted with malevolence. And some people really get hurt by malevolent people, like, you know, terribly hurt. Sometimes they never recover. It’s really awful, but there’s more to you than you think, and if you stand up and face it with the positive, with a noble vision, with discipline and intent, you can go far farther to overcoming it than you can imagine, and that’s the principle upon which you should predicate your behaviour.’”
That also ties to Rule 4: Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today.
Family psychologist John Rosemond also speaks of the drawbacks of high self-esteem: fear of failure, and ironically, people with high self-esteem are also prone to depression. He identifies the difference between confidence and courage, and that many great things were accomplished by modest and humble men such as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, whose achievements were the result of dedication rather than thinking highly of themselves.
So, is your self-esteem in check?