Pursue What Matters
Episode 154: When Self-Esteem Backfires
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Dr. Melissa Smith 0:00
Are your efforts to help yourself or those you care about backfiring self esteem is an important human need. But if you’re not careful, your efforts to cultivate self esteem can backfire on you, and those you love.
Dr. Melissa Smith 0:16
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 last week, we answered the question is self esteem bad for you, we talked about secure versus insecure self esteem. And I gave you three guidelines to keep you on the right path when it comes to self esteem because this can be a tricky characteristic. So today, I want to talk about the problem of self esteem. So while self esteem is a really important human need, sometimes we don’t fully understand it. And our efforts to increase self esteem can absolutely backfire on us. So it’s not an absolute good necessarily. There can be some challenges with self esteem.
Dr. Melissa Smith 1:21
So of course, every week with a podcast, my goal is to help you pursue what matters by strengthening your confidence to lead in one of three ways. So leading with clarity, helping to connect you to purpose leading with curiosity, helping you to increase self awareness, and self leadership, and leading and building a community. So really helping you to communicate well work well with others. And so today, primarily, we’re really paying attention to leading and building a community because how we approach self esteem both for ourselves, and others can really backfire on us if we’re not careful. This is also really good for curiosity, right, like having some good self awareness, and self leadership.
Dr. Melissa Smith 2:04
So let’s start by talking about the problem with self esteem. So what is the problem after all, so today, I want to share with you four problems of self esteem. So again, better understanding how self esteem works, can ensure you maintain the benefits of self esteem. Without your efforts backfired on you. This is particularly relevant when it comes to parenting, but also leading folks at work because the way we structure things can really make a big difference. So if you recall from last week, we talked about self esteem being a fundamental need. And so self esteem itself is not a problem, it’s an important need, we all have. But the pursuit of self esteem can be very problematic. And that’s an important distinction to make. So with that, let’s jump into the first problem, which is that we overvalue the importance of self esteem. So this is for all of you anxious parents, right? When we’re anxious, we want a solution, we want an answer tell me to do this. So I will get the right outcome. So if I do this, I’ll get the desired result. So the truth is, so many parents have fallen into the trap of overvaluing self esteem. So parenting is complex, there’s so much to get right and so many ways to get it wrong. It’s just the hard truth. But when we overvalue self esteem at which really happened in the 80s, and the 90s, self esteem became the One Ring to rule them all right? The message was, if you pay attention to self esteem, and you build good self esteem in your children, they’re going to be fine. They’re going to be awesome and productive members of society. And so if I can cause self esteem to happen for my kids, then they’ll be okay. And I’ll be okay. But what’s true about self esteem is that it’s a very complex construct, that’s very tricky to pin down. So as a result, it is often overvalued and misunderstood. So what happens we place too much emphasis on self esteem, when really there are many important factors that we might be ignoring.
Dr. Melissa Smith 4:14
So this comes from a researcher, Grace Chou, a developmental psychologist. And what she said is it’s unclear actually just how important self esteem may be in terms of predicting healthy outcomes. So you know, we overvalue it, and there really no, no guarantees. And so what she says is the literature is actually really kind of messy and mixed when it comes to self esteem, and positive life results. So the other thing to pay attention to is that self esteem is a construct of the West. It’s really hard to know if this characteristic is universally applicable. We don’t see this overvaluation of self esteem in other countries. And here’s the thing they do just fine. Their children do just fine. And so, you know, it’s so highly valued in the West. And so of course, the influence of self esteem is deemed very important in the West. But it might just be because we’ve decided it’s important not because it actually is important for our health and well being. And I think that’s a really important distinction to to make when it comes to self esteem. So the truth is, we’ve believed that it’s the end all be all construct for raising healthy kids. And we’ve really done our kids a disservice in the process. So self esteem is no guarantee. So this is from Moyer, this is a great article from the Atlantic. There’s also a great book from her that she said “having healthy self esteem does not ensure that kids will fare well or stay out of trouble.” So in a large review of the research literature, the Florida State University social psychologists, Roy Baumeister and his colleagues concluded that raising self esteem will not by itself, make young people perform better in school, obey the law, stay out of trouble, get along better with their fellows, or respect the rights of others. And here’s the thing that you really need to pay attention to, that hyper focus on self esteem can actually contribute to narcissism, selfishness, and unawareness of the needs of others.
Dr. Melissa Smith 6:21
Okay, we don’t want that to happen. So I’m going to talk more about that in a minute. But the craze around self esteem really began and peaked in the mid 1980s, and 90s. And so as a child of the 80s, I really remember this focus. So self esteem was seen as a cure all for anxious parents, hoping not to mess up their kids. So from that, that Atlantic article, which I’ll link to in the show notes, Moyer talked about her in 1986, the governor of California, so I apologize, I don’t know how to pronounce his last name is George Deukmejian. I’m sure if I heard it, I’d be okay. But I apologize. So he was the governor of California in 1986, he signed legislation that created the task force to promote self esteem and personal and social responsibility. And so it was really focused on boosting California’s collective levels of self esteem. And this was quite a task force. And they, they believed that if they could just raise self esteem among the children, and adults of California, that that would result in lower rates of crime, lower teen pregnancy, lower drug abuse, lower welfare dependency, and Lower School under achievement. So, you know, that’s a lot for one characteristic that they thought it was kind of a cure all, for many of society’s else. So we’ll talk a little bit more about, you know, what happened with that research in a minute. So that’s a law for one characteristic to carry. And so they undertook this large task force. And what they found is, it was not successful. So the efforts to raise self esteem, it did work to raise self esteem, but it also backfired in some big ways. It led to more problems.
Dr. Melissa Smith 8:20
So let’s dig in a little bit more. So right, low self esteem was seen as an epidemic. So there was a bold assumption that the US was suffering from an ongoing epidemic of low self esteem, and that this deficiency was dangerous that they needed to do something about it. But what we know from the research, and this comes to us from Moyer is that teens with low self esteem are more likely than other kids to be depressed, to be anxious to drink, to do drugs and to commit crimes. So all of that is true. But what might come as a surprise, is that the inverse of this statement is not also true. So Moya reports in the Atlantic article that high self esteem is not a panacea, against all things bad. And kids with high self esteem often make bad choices to write and think about that. If you have a kiddo with high self esteem, they might take more risk taking behavior, because they believe they’re invincible or they believe that they can’t fail. And so self esteem is not a total good. It can lead to some big problems. But back there, and then 80s and 90s, self esteem was also seen as a social vaccine, right?
Dr. Melissa Smith 9:35
That’s exactly how the governor of California approached it. So the tasks for the task force is final report. So this is from the state of California refer to self esteem as a social vaccine. And that is central to most of the personal and social problems that plague human life in today’s world. So they, they pinned it all on self esteem. But here’s what we know. And it moves us into our second Problem efforts designed to raise self esteem mostly backfires. And this is known as the paradox of self esteem. And that is that efforts to raise self esteem actually leads to lower self esteem. So all those kids and that task force in California actually lead to lower self esteem. So the steps parents take to foster self esteem and their kids often have the paradoxical effect of undermining it. So our over the top efforts to ensure that our kids feel valued and adored, can actually make our kids feel inept. So that comes to us from wire.
Dr. Melissa Smith 10:36
So one of the ways that this shows up is indiscriminate praise, when we’re praising our kids, we’re walking behind them, you know, just applauding them at every moment, it was assumed that this would help our kids increase self esteem, but you’re much more likely to do more harm than good. So let’s think about the example of awards for everyone. no winners or losers in kids sports, right. And this indiscriminate praise creates a disconnect between parents praise, and the child’s own estimation of their skills. Okay, because they know, right, they’re playing the soccer game, they know they’re not as good as the other competitors. But when they receive this high praise, when everyone gets a blue ribbon, it actually makes it difficult for the child to have a clear estimation of their skills, it leads to confusion, because the child has to reconcile what they are hearing from praising parents, and what they recognize to be an accurate estimation of their skills. Like they’re really not as good of a soccer player, and they need to understand that right not to beat up on themselves. But to really recognize, okay, is soccer for me? Do I want to continue with this? Or what do I need to do to improve my soccer skills. So this also leads to a misperception of one’s skills, and where one needs to improve skills, it can also ultimately lead to feeling worse about yourself, because you can’t measure up to what your parents are claiming for you. So in a very real way, this indiscriminate praise, feeds shame and hiding, and keeps you from asking for help. Because if your parents think you live on a golden pedestal, you’re not going to, you’re going to be kind of hesitant to ask for help, because they already are overestimating you. So when parents overly praise, right, they’re saying positive things all the times about the kid or to the kid, it actually contributes to these kids with low self esteem, actually feeling worse about themselves, because they become acutely aware of how much they don’t measure up to the positive statement. And so what we see is that kids with low self esteem are experts at dismissing and discounting their victories because they don’t, they don’t receive an accurate estimation of their skills, because parents aren’t blinded, or parents are, you know, just trying to encourage without actually helping kids skill build. And that leads us into the third problem. And that is we’ve removed challenges.
Dr. Melissa Smith 13:08
So in an effort to bolster our kids self esteem, we’ve protected our children from challenges, believing that challenges are the problem. And I gotta tell you, this is so backwards to think about how this might show up at work. What we know is that it is in facing challenges that we actually grow in self esteem. And what I would say more importantly, in self efficacy, which is this belief that you can take on challenges, that you can help yourself that you can learn skills, and be successful. So when we, when we intentionally expose our kids to disappointment and failure, which is actually what I’m advocating to do, this can give children a satisfying sense of self efficacy. Most parents run from that thought, we believe our responsibility is to protect our children from the challenges of life. Now, of course, there’s a duty to protect children from harm, to make sure they have a safe and healthy place to live and to grow. But that’s not the same as protecting our children from life, protecting children from challenges and appropriate risk taking.
Dr. Melissa Smith 14:19
So you know, the reality is that we grow in self esteem and self efficacy by facing challenges and learning from them, not by being protected from them. So the well intentioned efforts by parents to protect their kids has led to kids being coddled kids having lower competence and lower confidence. Kids being anxious and afraid of the world and their ability to be successful. And kids that don’t launch they’re failing to launch. They’re not driving, they’re not getting their driver’s license, and they aren’t taking on the challenges of development that will help them grow in their abilities. So you know, when we everyone gets an award, there are no losers. You know, we, we miss opportunities for our kids to learn to cope with disappointment, loss and sadness. And as a licensed psychologist and leadership coach, I’ve got to tell you one of the core issues that I see across the spectrum, whether it’s with leadership clients, or whether it is with clinical clients is this difficulty tolerating distress. We live in a world where it’s always immediate gratification that we shouldn’t ever feel sad, we shouldn’t ever have a down moment that we need to remedy that very quickly. And, you know, that’s actually not very realistic.
Dr. Melissa Smith 15:43
One of our most important responsibilities is to learn to tolerate distress. And that is not because, you know, we want people to be unhappy, but because that’s the reality of being human life is challenging. It requires us to face our challenges, cope effectively. And not not medicate, not numb, not run or avoid the challenges of life. So when it comes to parenting, don’t remove these growth opportunities during childhood, because this is where we really set the foundation for coping effectively in adulthood. If you protect your kids, and then the first time that they have to face challenges is when they go away to college or when they have their first job, it’s going to be a very rude awakening, and chances are, they will have a hard time launching. So of course, I want to be really clear that this parenting is well intentioned, but it backfire. So we have good intent. We don’t want our kids upset when they lose, we want them to have a good experience. We want sports to be a positive experience. We don’t want too much focus on competition. But Hello, right, like, especially when we’re thinking about sports, it’s all about competition. And competition is not a bad thing. Competition is not inherently bad. We want to be careful about that. That competition is good and healthy for our development. So parents protecting against challenge and the potential distress of kids, makes them less prepared for life, and for the challenges of life that parents can’t protect against. And of course, those challenges will be much bigger than the challenges faced on the soccer field or the lacrosse field. And of course, if we if we are protecting our kids, our kiddos won’t develop the resilience that needs to be cultivated over time to be able to face challenges and bounce back even stronger.
Dr. Melissa Smith 17:37
So let’s look at how this plays out in the context of sports, right? So let’s think about a soccer game. So what is the impact for those kids who are achieving, but they’re not being acknowledged or rewarded for it? Right? So they’ve won the game, you know, they’ve really played their heart out, they’re clearly very skilled. But at the end of that, there are no winners or losers, everyone gets a blue ribbon. So for these kiddos who are achieving, but not being acknowledged for it, they lose intrinsic motivation to continue competing. Because what’s the point? Right, if a kid superior efforts aren’t acknowledged or recognized, then why work hard, the natural reward is missing, right? The natural reward and the of winning is missing. And so we’re kidding ourselves. If we assume rewards don’t matter, they do matter. They’re not the most important thing, but they’re an important factor. So the small extrinsic reward of a blue ribbon is gone. But taking away these small rewards also kills intrinsic motivation. So why work hard if the outcome is leveled, why work hard, if not working hard, is equally rewarded. Now, this has big implications for the world of work. So pay attention to that. Pay attention to your incentive system, pay attention to how your folks are acknowledged at work. We don’t want, you know, a dog eat dog environment, but we should not eliminate healthy competition.
Dr. Melissa Smith 19:06
So what happens for the kiddos that are not achieving, but they are being rewarded for it, so they’re clearly not as skilled, but they get that blue ribbon at the end of the game. These kids also lose intrinsic motivation to continue pushing themselves toward more competence, because hey, it doesn’t matter. I’m gonna get an award either way. You’ve removed the target for what they can develop to what is the point we all get a reward at the end anyway, these kiddos also feel worse about themselves because they are being rewarded falsely. And this is one of the biggest ways that self esteem backfires on us and actually leads to lower self esteem. So these kids know when they don’t have the skill. And yet the disconnect between the skill and the reward or the praise, right, that indiscriminant praise creates dissonance within the child Old. And it makes it harder for those kiddos to develop an accurate assessment of their skills, their gaps and their needs. So kids will develop self esteem as a result of facing challenges in life, not by being protected from them or praised unnecessarily. That’s where we get self esteem backfiring. So kids will develop self esteem the same way all of us develop self esteem. And that’s by taking on life’s challenges, taking smart risks, and learning the hard knocks, lessons of life. So next week, I’ll talk with you about two things to focus on to help yourself or those you love. But for now, let’s stick with that concern with problem three of removing challenges.
Dr. Melissa Smith 20:48
Okay, so there there can develop an underlying belief about fragility, right that your kid or maybe you can’t handle the stress or disappointment, or anything bad happening. But what’s true is this is the heart of vulnerability. It is a dance to be danced, not something to be bludgeoned, or eliminated. So the work when it comes to life, is to equip your kids with the skills they need to take on challenges, not to protect them from challenges, which is no protection at all, because you’re actually opening them right up to the challenges of life without being skilled. So right. Sometimes we think about this as helicopter parenting. So we’re hovering over the child’s path. We’re calling everyday at college, we’re worrying we’re controlling, we’re undermining undermining a kid’s self efficacy by questioning them constantly, or by doing things for them. Now, that’s helicopter parenting hovering over the child’s path. When we think about bulldozer parenting, it’s clearing the path to ensure there are no challenges. So you’re actually clearing the path so that your children can just have a nice, easy walk. So think about the college entrance exam scandal. This is a perfect example of bulldozer parenting, right, the rules don’t apply to us, we’re gonna get our kids in the college we want them to be at. So contacting professors for kids, calling in sick for kids. And when I say kids, most of these individuals are adults. But certainly if you’re doing this for your teens, that’s a problem. Parading a boss who gives your adult child consequences. Believe me, I have heard these accounts, it is such a problem. And so we really want to stay away from both helicopter parenting, and bulldozer parenting. So as your children get older, more and more, we want you as parents to act as wise mentors, right, where you’re, you’re consulting with your children, you’re collaborating with them, you’re giving them advice and feedback, but they’re learning more and more to make decisions for themselves and to live with the consequences of those decisions.
Dr. Melissa Smith 23:03
Okay, so now we are at problem four. So what’s the fourth problem of self esteem, and this is a big one, I think we see it all the time. And that is the the relationship between self esteem and narcissism. So Scott Barry Kaufman, in his great book, transcend, has taught that self esteem is not the problem, but the pursuit of self esteem is. And so this really brings us to the intersection of self esteem and narcissism. So self esteem is a good thing. And it’s not the same as narcissism. Okay, so sometimes we get those mixed up. The two factors have different developmental pathways. So when we think about high self esteem, this is where we believe we’re worthy and competent, and strive for meaningful, intimate connections with others. With high self esteem, we don’t view ourselves as superior to others. And that’s a contrast to narcissism. With narcissism, there’s very often high self esteem, but there’s also this superiority component of believing you are better than others. And so let’s just think about how self esteem and narcissism develop over time. So both of these constructs develop at about age seven. So think about a seven year old kiddo. Where there is a lot of social comparison. Kids are asking, How am I doing compared to peers? This is a natural process. Right? So some of the questions are, am I a loser? By special do I stand out? So children tend to view themselves as they perceive they are seen by others. This is a very normal developmental process. It’s known as egocentrism. And so we really look to others as a mirror for ourselves. This is social comparison. So we’re often looking side to side to kind of see how we’re doing compared to others and this is normal. But what we see Is that self esteem and narcissism are mirror images of one another. So self esteem tends to be lowest in adolescence, right? I mean, just think about adolescence, think about junior high, and then it slowly increases throughout life. So as we gain competence, as we gain confidence, our self esteem kind of naturally rises as we face challenges. But here’s what we see with narcissism. So it tends to peak in adolescence and gradually declines throughout life. So self esteem and narcissism are influenced by parenting styles. So that narcissist, that budding narcissist has parents who over value them, so they overclaim a kid’s knowledge, they overestimate a kid’s IQ, they overpraise a kid’s performance, they, these parents will even give their kids special names, or unique names to help stand them out from the crowd. And so that’s a big problem, right, that indiscriminate praise, that is often a well intentioned effort of parents to help their kids with self esteem, actually can result in narcissism.
Dr. Melissa Smith 26:13
Okay. So in contrast, when we think about high self esteem, kiddos, their relationships with their parents are characterized by parental warmth. So they treat their kids with affection and appreciation, they treat their children as though they really matter. Their kids are not objects, to praise or to, you know, achieve or to be a reflection of parents, but they respect their children, they regard their children. And so those are some of the distinctions between self esteem and narcissism. But we’ve got to be careful about parenting, as it can be a factor that contributes to the development of narcissism. So another factor here that we see is self, you remember what I said, Right? Self esteem is not a problem. But the pursuit of self esteem can be a problem. And what can happen, this is another dynamic that we see is that people can become addicted to self esteem. So power is intoxicating for any of us, we like the rush of power, and the feeling of being highly respected by others, right? Like it is the life of the ego. And so there can be this addiction, to the feeling of high self esteem, to this to the feeling of achievement and accomplishment. And so what happens is, there can be a pendulum swing between moments of high achievement with a rush of pride and excitement. But then there’s adaptation, right? This is known as the hedonic treadmill, or tolerance if we’re using the language of addiction, so we have these moments of high achievement, there’s a rush of pride, it feels so good. And then we adjust right? This is this is that hedonic treadmill. And so what happens then, so that drug rush of pride, and high self evaluation wears off, and self low self worth sets in. And so what happens is there’s a rapid cycling, between feelings of superiority, and inferiority, right. So extreme feelings of I’m better than you. And I’m worse than you. And so we want to pay attention to this cycle between grandiosity and vulnerability. And that recognizing Of course, that grandiosity isn’t sustainable. That leads to withdrawal, shame, depression, and extreme vulnerability. Like if you have to achieve every moment of your life, you’re going to be very fragile. And so when, when those feelings of worthlessness settle down, right, we kind of move out of that end of the cycle, that craving for inflated self esteem tends to kick up again. And guess what happens, the cycle begins again. So we push towards achievement, we get that rush, and then we kind of crash and burn. And then you know, we’ve we isolate and pull away from people, we feel horrible about ourselves. And then we’ve got to find a solution. So what’s our solution? Let’s push towards more achievement. And so in this way, we can become addicted to self esteem, which of course, is a big problem. It leads to, you know, more depression, more anxiety, undermining of relationships, everything becomes a comparison and a competition, rather than, you know, focusing on excellence and collaboration and connection. And so what do we do about this?
Dr. Melissa Smith 29:35
Right, so I’ve just shared four problems of self esteem. And so I’ve got three don’ts to to help you keep self esteem from backfiring on you. So the first Don’t, don’t over value the importance of self esteem. Recognize that self esteem is one of many factors that contribute to success in life. Focus on self compassion, and mastery when it comes to cultivating self self esteem. And then join me next week because I’m going to be talking all about these two factors. The second don’t don’t praise indiscriminately Encourage your kids, right focus on their behaviors and skills, not global assessments. So avoid these global statements of you’re so smart, you will be successful at anything you do. You’re the best artist I’ve ever seen, you know, instead of those kinds of statements focus on, you know what your shading technique is really good. I really appreciate the effort you gave to that game, right? So we focus on behaviors and skills, these are measurable, rather than these global assessments, which really run the risk of putting kids on a pedestal that they will inevitably fall from. And then the third, don’t, don’t protect yourself or your kids from challenges. So take on as many challenges as you can reasonably handle, I’m dead serious about that. This is how we develop grit and resilience. And another thing to protect your kids, in fact, give them challenges to face problems to solve and disappointments to cope with. So our oldest kiddo, back when he was a teenager, we took he and his cousin on their first trip to Europe. And we, you know, it was going to be a fun and exciting trip. But we also wanted them to really gear up for adulthood, recognizing that they would be living independently, very quickly. And so we kind of set up some challenges for them. So we made them lead us and we didn’t have to construct any challenges, right, that these are just the challenges of traveling traveling across across the world, right. So we made them lead us through the crazy train stations of Paris and Zurich. And you know, all the little little train stations to and, you know, being a child of the West, the European train stations, it’s like a foreign language, right. And some of them are in a foreign language. But that was like really hard for me to wrap my brain around. But we made these teenagers lead out, we encourage them to use their meager high school language skills to communicate with very patient Europeans. And it was good, right? Like they gained more confidence in their language skills. We told them our desired destination, and then left them to navigate the best course and the best prices. So yeah, like we can totally take the Euro jet and get there faster, but we won’t have any money left to eat the rest of our trip. So we need to come up with a different itinerary. Right? So we said yes, when they wanted to order S cargo in Paris, because if you are ever going to have s cargo, it should be at a Street Cafe in Paris with the Eiffel Tower as your backdrop. And then of course, we totally laughed and took photos when those kiddos decided that s cargo, even bathed in butter. And sitting at a Street Cafe in Paris is not worth it. Lesson learned. And so we really don’t want to protect our kids from challenges. We don’t want to protect ourselves from challenges.
Dr. Melissa Smith 33:05
And so there you go, we’ve talked about four problems of self esteem, how self esteem can backfire on you. And then I’ve talked about three don’ts to really help help prevent self esteem from backfiring on you. So first don’t overvalue the importance of self esteem. Don’t praise indiscriminately and don’t protect yourself or your kids from challenges. So I hope this is helpful for you. Definitely head on over to my website, check out the show notes with all the resources for this episode. Also check out last week’s podcast which was also on self esteem. And then next week, join me where I’m going to be talking about the two things to focus on for really cultivating secure self esteem. You can find all of that on my website at www.drmelissasmith.com/selfesteembackfire one more time. That’s www.drmelissasmith.com/selfesteembackfire. So I’m social. I’d love to connect with you on Instagram. I always have additional resources related to the podcast at that @dr.melissasmith. And I’d love it if you would consider giving the podcast a review. I’d love to hear what you would like to hear about. So in the meantime, I’m Dr. Melissa Smith. Remember love and work or can love. That’s all there is. Until next time, take good care
Transcribed by https://otter.ai