Pursue What Matters
Episode 153: Is Self-Esteem Bad for You?
Please excuse any typos, transcripts are generated by an automated service
Dr. Melissa Smith 0:00
is self esteem bad for you? We’ve all been assuming for a long time that self esteem is an absolute good. But what if this assumption is wrong?
Dr. Melissa Smith 0:09
Hi, I’m Dr. Melissa Smith, welcome to the Pursue What Matters podcast where we focus on what it takes to thrive in love and work. So as a child of the 80s and 90s, I grew up with a message that self esteem is where it’s at, if you want to be happy and successful, this was the message peddled to American parents and parents in the West during the 80s and 90s. So I know I’m not alone. This is not right. It’s not that my parents were parenting gurus, right? Far from it. They weren’t reading the latest self help books on raising successful children. But they did get the message loud and clear that the best way to raise healthy, well adjusted kids who will then contribute meaningfully to society is to make sure you inject them with vitamin E, as in self esteem. So I’m calling all of you children of the 80s and 90s, to tell you that our parents, while well intentioned, may have done us a disservice in overvaluing, self esteem, and more than that, right? Many of us are now parents, and we might be making the same mistakes our parents made. So let’s not do that.
Dr. Melissa Smith 1:42
So every week with a podcast, my goal is to help you pursue what matters by strengthening your confidence to lead. I try to do that in one of three areas, leading with clarity, which is all about vision and purpose. Where are you going? Why does it matter? Leading with curiosity, which is all about self awareness, and self leadership, you got to take responsibility for yourself, and leading and building a community, which is all about strengthening your interaction skills, cultivating trust and psychological safety. And so today, when we’re talking about self esteem, we’re really focusing on two areas.
Dr. Melissa Smith 2:21
So first, curiosity, understanding what self esteem is. And, you know, what role does it play in our self development, right, whether we’re kiddos or whether we’re adults, and then I think this information can be super helpful when we’re working with teams, because sometimes, if we’re not careful, we reinforce behavior that isn’t helpful to our teams and isn’t helpful to well being and successful work. So it matters. There’s a there’s a good business case to be made for understanding this. So let’s jump in today. My question is this is self esteem bad for you. Now that might seem like a crazy question, because there’s been an assumption that self esteem is, is an inherent good. So were all the efforts to help us feel competent, and confident for not was it just a waste of our parents time? So what about the soccer games where scores stopped being kept? so as to avoid upset kiddos? What about the tournaments where everyone walked home with a blue ribbon? What about a school where A’s and B’s have been switched to some obscure system? Because our teachers and our parents worried that if we saw see on our report card, we’d never be able to cope in society? Or the schools that have done away with grades, and report cards all together? Maybe we’re not helping to really strengthen our children.
Dr. Melissa Smith 3:54
So what about parents who turn their lives upside down? So as to never miss a moment of their child’s life? What about the kids who carry an inflated sense of their own importance, because they know mom and dad will drop everything to meet their every whim, and therefore, they never learn to tolerate distress. They never learned to develop really important skills for adulthood. And maybe they don’t learn how to problem solve for themselves. This is one of the biggest problems with helicopter parenting. Kids don’t learn how to problem solve, they don’t learn how to tolerate distress. And what about the entire generation of teens who don’t drive who don’t want to drive? Who fell to launch and are perfectly comfortable watching relationships on TV, but we never actually go on a date. Yikes, people we have got some work to do. So I want to help you learn some of the details about what self esteem is why it matters because it does. I don’t want to I don’t want to send the wrong message and how to best cultivate it. And then Next week I will be talking about when self esteem backfires. So some of the things that I just mentioned here, we’re going to dive in a little bit deeper, and look at how sometimes self esteem can backfire. Because here’s the truth. When it comes to self esteem, having good intentions is not good enough. And right, our good intentions can and do go off the rails at time, at times, and nowhere is this more clear than when it comes to self esteem. So we really want to understand this. And so we’ll be spending a little bit of time on this topic over the next few weeks. And I hope it’s interesting to you. I think that research is really fascinating. And I think we’ve all, you know, had some common experiences, or many of us have any way that when we understand the research can kind of help us to think about this a little bit differently.
Dr. Melissa Smith 5:51
So first, let’s start with the history of self esteem. So let’s learn about the history of self esteem. So this was first developed by Alfred Adler, and Abraham Maslow. So these guys are really considered some of the fathers of psychology, they first use the term self esteem. And this term was studied by both men beginning in and as early as the 30s. And they were the first researchers that really inspired the self esteem movement that swept the West in the 1980s, and 1990s. Now, sometimes they’re blamed for that, and sometimes they are seen as the inspiration depending on your perspective. So unfortunately, they are blamed for some of the unintended consequences. But this is an example of the importance of really studying and understanding research. Because if you, you know, if you just kind of take a pop culture perspective of it, you miss what’s really there, because both Adler and Maslow were quite clear in their conceptions of self esteem. But those that followed, were not so those who, who continue the work of Adler and Maslow really created some problematic situations and some unintended consequences.
Dr. Melissa Smith 7:12
So some of those that followed Adler and Maslow really claimed that self esteem was the master characteristic, right, that it’s really the only factor that we need to focus on. And, you know, that claim really led a lot of parents and a lot of us today, down a rabbit hole that we are still trying to overcome. So some of the unintended consequences of this overvaluing of self esteem has actually led to low self esteem, not what we were aiming for low self worth, fear, anxiety and depression. And one of the most insidious results of this well intentioned, but wrongheaded focus on self esteem is narcissism, we have more narcissism, and a lot of the research is pointing to this overvaluation of self esteem. So hang on for next week’s podcast as I share what happens when self esteem backfires. And we’ll talk about some of the results of the self esteem movement in the 80s and 90s. Right, and if you’re like me, right, we are the product of that, and it hasn’t always been great. So we will, we’ll take a deep dive into that, and really help you see how maybe that’s showing up for you, maybe, maybe you bring it into your own parenting, maybe you bring it into your work relationships. But for now, we want to understand the difference between secure and insecure self esteem.
Dr. Melissa Smith 8:44
So this was a distinction that Maslow taught very early in his studies on self esteem. So he said that there’s a difference between secure self esteem, insecure self esteem. So when it comes to insecure self esteem, there’s a drive for power, there’s a drive to dominate others, this often comes from compensating for a lack of confidence or competence. So we don’t feel very good about ourselves, right? So our self worth is pretty low. And so we seek after power over others dominance over others, comparing ourselves against others, as a way to compensate for a lack of confidence and competence. And you can see right just on the surface, how that’s not really helpful for relationships because we compare and compete instead of connecting, and it’s all about who’s better. And clearly, that’s a problem. So it with insecure self esteem, we’re more interested in dominating and hurting others, not helping them. And of course, when we’re focused on that, it doesn’t help us either. Okay, in contrast, Maslow talked about secure self esteem so this is the good stuff This is where we think about real strength and earned confidence, right? So how do we earn that confidence? By becoming competent, right? We’re good at things, we develop our skills, and strengthen our abilities. So when we’re coming from a place of secure self esteem, we’re interested in strengthening and helping others, because others are not seen as a threat, right? So I don’t need to be better than you, I don’t need to dominate you, maybe I can learn from you. Maybe you have something to teach me. And so it’s a very different dynamic when we think about secure self esteem, versus insecure self esteem.
Dr. Melissa Smith 10:40
Okay, and then the next point that we want to know about self esteem, is we need to know that it is a fundamental need. So I’m not trying to say that self esteem isn’t important. It is important, but we want to understand self esteem, in context. So self esteem is seen as a fundamental need, that must be regulated and expressed in appropriate ways. Okay, so that appropriate way, is really key. So this comes from Abraham Maslow, all people in our society have a need or desire for a stable, firmly based high evaluation of themselves for self respect, or self esteem, and for the esteem of others. Okay, that is a natural and normal need. And so, you know, one way to get at self esteem, is to look at your attitude towards yourself. So how, what do you believe about yourself? How do you feel about yourself? What is your attitude towards yourself? So a basic sense of self worth, which is this idea that I matter and confidence, which is this idea of I believe in myself.
Dr. Melissa Smith 11:51
So a basic sense of self worth and confidence in the effectiveness of our actions, provides a fundamental foundation for growth, okay. So when we think about self esteem, we really want to think about having a foundation of self worth, I believe in myself, I matter and confidence I can, I can take on challenges, I have trust in myself. And so self esteem is one of the strongest correlates of life satisfaction. So people who have higher self esteem, also tend to have higher life satisfaction, right? So this is valuable. But an important caveat when it comes to self esteem is the role of culture. So in the West, especially with the self esteem movement of the 80s, and 90s, self esteem was over valued. And so where, where this factor is overvalued, it’s also seen as more important, right? But there are plenty of cultures out there who never really highly valued self esteem. In fact, if you went to some of these cultures, and you talked about self esteem, they wouldn’t know what you’re talking about. And so of course, in those cultures, self esteem is seen as less important, they would pay attention to other factors for looking at life satisfaction. The other thing to understand about self esteem is that low self esteem is one of the biggest risk factors for depression. So our well intended parents, you know, they, they had the right idea that they wanted to protect their kiddos from low self esteem, because low self esteem is a predictor, or risk factor for depression, those with high self esteem, tend to have more life satisfaction. But this is the really important point is we need to recognize that how we attempt to meet our need for self esteem can actually undermine it.
Dr. Melissa Smith 13:48
So I want you to think about the distinction between what and how I think this distinction is really helpful for making sense of self esteem. So with this point, we’re making clear that the what, so self esteem is a good thing. It’s a fundamental need. It’s important, and it helps us function well in society. But when we think about these factors, we also need to consider how Okay, so we agree that self esteem is a good thing. But we need to pay attention to, you know, this question of how do we cultivate self esteem? So how do we parent our children with self esteem in mind, and this is really a place where application matters. So most of the trouble with self esteem is in how we go about securing it. So this is this is the point here. It’s not that self esteem is bad, but how we attempt to secure self esteem can be very bad indeed, and it can really backfire. So insecure ways of regulating the need for self esteem can actually for Our growth and development as a person. So think about that example of parents protecting their children from challenges protecting their children from distress. It’s in an effort to protect their self esteem, but it actually thwarts their child’s growth and prevents them from developing the confidence and the skills and the self worth necessary to actually have high self esteem.
Dr. Melissa Smith 15:29
So here’s the here’s the distinction, right? Having healthy this having healthy self esteem is important. But actively pursuing self esteem can be a problem. So what happens is we become too focused on dominance over others, that we lose sight of helping others, we become more interested in comparing and competing than connecting with others, we become more selfish and self centered. Because it’s all about dominance, it’s about being better than another. And if we’re not careful, we lose perspective about what matters, right, we have this focus on achievement, above all else, that achievement is really the indicator of self esteem that we can’t feel good about ourselves, unless we are achieving higher or more than others. And so you know, Maslow and I talked about Adler before, but also Carl Rogers, have kind of been blamed for inspiring the self esteem movement that really hit its peak in the 80s, and 90s. But most of this, most of this really, the following research fell to appreciate the nuance of their research, so that the problem isn’t with self esteem, but with the pursuit of self esteem. So when parents pursue or trying to instill or bestow self esteem on their kids, this is the problem, right? Kids will develop self esteem as a result of taking life’s challenges on. And so now hopefully, you understand a little bit more about some of the history of self esteem where it came from what it is. And you can add a little more nuance in terms of understanding the difference between secure and insecure self esteem, we recognize that self esteem is a fundamental need. But we want to be careful about how we attempt to meet our need for self esteem, because this is where we can get off track and actually undermine our self esteem. And so now I’ve got some solutions for you. So I’ve got three solutions to really help you to make sure that self esteem is good for you and not bad for you. Because how we approach it makes a difference.
Dr. Melissa Smith 17:51
So solution, one, don’t worry about self esteem. Okay, so self esteem develops as a result of living life, taking on challenges and learning to tolerate distress. I can’t say that enough. We in our society have, have not learned how to tolerate distress. We live in a society of fragile, broken people, not because of the challenges we face. But because we don’t believe we can take on challenges, or we believe we shouldn’t have to take on challenges. And all I can say is you’re not living in reality, we need to be willing to live life on life’s terms. And that includes facing challenges facing fear, learning to tolerate our distress, and not being undone by that. So for you parents out there, you don’t need to do anything except love your kids, and let them live life. Don’t wrap them in bubble wrap. That’s not going to help them. The way that this really applies at work is we need to have a tolerance for failure. We need to have a tolerance for mistakes. We need to be willing to delegate. This is how we build trust. This is how we build skills. This is how we build autonomy and purpose at work. And so giving folks good structure, good processes, and then getting out of the way and letting them figure it out. Being there as a support, but not micromanaging, managing, not meddling, not getting in and controlling. And this is a great recipe for success and well being.
Dr. Melissa Smith 19:27
So that’s the first solution. Don’t worry so much about a self esteem solution to take on challenges regularly constructed, if necessary. So you heard that right, like take on challenges. Look for challenges in your life. So when is the last time you challenged yourself? Maybe you did this with a physical feat. Maybe you signed up for a race, that kind of age, it makes you nervous. Maybe you accepted a new project at work that’s really going to require you to stretch Maybe you went up for a promotion, maybe you’re tackling a new home project as requiring a lot of learning as you go. So I hope that you are regularly challenging yourself. So take on challenges. This is how we grow in mastery. This is actually how we learn to tolerate distress. So Competence and Confidence develop as a result of facing our challenges. There’s no other way, we can’t just sit in our bubble wrap, and watch YouTube videos, we won’t ever develop competence, or confidence, not real life competence or confidence, at the very least. So it’s less about the accomplished goals, or the outcome than it is about the process of growth. And and I’m not saying that the goal or the outcome doesn’t matter at all, because it does, it’s evidence of the growth. But here’s the thing, the accomplishment of the goal matters.
Dr. Melissa Smith 20:56
Because it’s how you know that you can master something, right? It takes some perseverance, it takes some persistence, and commitment to a goal, to see it all the way through. And this is how we strengthen our skills and our abilities. So what I’m saying is the process and outcome both matter, but the process is more important than the outcome. Because what’s true is we don’t have total control over outcome, we can do everything we need to do to set ourselves up for success, we can learn everything we need to learn. And still, there might be a gap in the outcome. And you know, we don’t want to feel badly about that. Because we’ve probably gotten what we need to get out of the experience. So that solution to take on challenges regularly constructed is necessary. So build challenges for yourself, build challenges for your children, right. So when I think about this, I think about my mother, she’s the oldest of five children. Her parents were both educated, they had good, secure jobs. But my grandfather grew up on the family farm. And he always had a desire to have a farm of his own. And he didn’t need to have a good job, his wife had a good job. But this was a desire that he had. And part of that is, you know, he learned so much about work and about challenge by working and growing up on the family farm. And he wanted that experience for his kids, which, right, like, his kids might not have always appreciated that. But we want to think about the ways that we help set ourselves set ourselves and our kids up for success. And the hint is, it’s not by protecting them, right, kick them out the door, give them challenges, make them make them get their license, all these good things. Right. One of the things, you know, for our kids, and I think for for lots of teenagers, there’s lots of thoughts about jobs, I think one of the best things we can do for our teenagers is make them get a job, because in this one step, you’re creating lots of challenges for them. They’re getting a nice introduction to the real world, about responsibility about being a person of your word about being accountable about having some money in your pocket and learning to budget and managing complex schedules, right, like managing homework and practice schedules and work schedules. I think it’s one of the best things that we can do for our kiddos.
Dr. Melissa Smith 23:32
So the next solution, let’s talk about solution three is don’t go it alone. Connection really, really matters when it comes to self esteem. So self esteem develops in the context of relationships. But it’s not something that is bestowed upon us, right, that one will backfire. We’ve already talked about that. We’ll talk a lot more about it next time. But self esteem develops in the vulnerability and trust of loving connection. Knowing that we are loved and accepted. Knowing that we don’t have to be perfect frees us up to develop the skills we need without the paralyzing pressure of high achievement, right? This is the epitome of the growth mindset, we see growth as an opportunity to learn without intense pressure to achieve. And what happens is when we can release some of that pressure, we actually end up achieving more, but we’re not setting out for achievement because that kind of it It poisons the well when it comes to self esteem. So part of what we get from connection is a knowledge that we can make mistakes and still be loved while also being called to responsibility, right there are consequences for our choices.
Dr. Melissa Smith 24:50
So we think about with kiddos and they get a bad grade right? So if you as a parent, blame the teacher, or go in and fight your kids battles that’s gonna be a big problem. But maybe you respond with curiosity, what happened? That’s really disappointing. What do you need to address? How can I support you? What’s your part in this? So right? What might be true is they didn’t take the class seriously. So is it more likely that the kiddo didn’t do their part in the class? Or is it more accurate to say, it’s probably a mean teacher who’s out to get them? Okay. So helping your kids call to responsibility will definitely be in their best interest. And this shows up at work all the time. Don’t protect your folks from the natural and logical consequences of their choices. You can always be encouraging, and empathetic, but you’ve got a call to responsibility. So what is the standard? And why does it matter? And then, of course, providing good support in that.
Dr. Melissa Smith 25:55
So when it comes to connection, we also want to be able to ask for help when we stumble and fell, because we will, we absolutely will. So being able to ask, What did I miss here? What do I need to learn? How can I improve. So having someone that can help us pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off becomes such an important foundation for the development of secure self esteem, knowing that we can make mistakes and we’re still loved. And we’re still encouraged and we can still learn is a game changer when it comes to our feelings of self worth. So this is the first in a three part series, where we’re really unpacking self esteem and understanding it. And so today, we really looked at this question of is self esteem bad for you, and hopefully, you have a more nuanced understanding of that now. And I gave you three solutions to help you as you are on this path. So the first solution don’t worry too much about self esteem solution to take on challenges regularly construct them if necessary. And three don’t go it alone. Connection really matters when it comes to self esteem. And then next week, we’re going to be talking more about when self esteem backfires. There might be some things that you are unwittingly doing that might not be helping yourself or others. And it’s not about indicting anyone but really helping you understand the nuance of self esteem. And then from there, we will focus in on how do you cultivate this secure self esteem? Like what are the two things that you really want to pay attention to? So we don’t want to overcomplicate it, we want to go directly to the research. And there are two very clarifying needs that will really help us to cultivate secure self esteem. So we’ll talk about that in a couple of weeks.
Dr. Melissa Smith 27:46
So for now, head on over to my website, to check out the show notes with all the resources for this episode, you can find out at www.drmelissasmith.com/153-isselfesteembadforyou So that’s kind of long, but it’s just the question that we have with this podcast. So one more time that’s www.drmelissasmith.com/153-isselfesteembadforyou. So I’m social. I’d love to connect with you on Instagram @dr.melissasmith. I’d also love it if you would consider giving a strong review of the podcast letting people know about it, and give me some feedback. What would you like to hear more about? In the meantime, I’m Dr. Melissa Smith. Remember love and work, work and love. That’s all there is. Until next time, take good care.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai