In my work as a Calgary psychologist and a Cochrane psychologist, clients often ask for my help in improving their self-esteem. These are typically people who can clearly benefit from changing the negative view they have of themselves with its deleterious effects on their moods, relationships and performance in various domains including work and school.
In turn, when these clients take steps toward developing a more positive view of themselves it typically results in significant improvement in these areas of their lives. So taking steps to foster self-esteem in yourself and others is recommended to the point of being a slam dunk, right?
Not so fast. There have been critiques of the ‘self-esteem movement’ from people who cite negative aspects of a person feeling positively about themselves. Some of the critiques point to problems such as people having inflated egos and carrying a sense of entitlement from having been spoiled by their parents in the name of giving them good self-esteem.
Critics have also pointed to an increasing reluctance to provide children with any negative feedback, even if it is warranted, because of concerns that this would damage their self-esteem. Concerns about self-esteem have also driven the move away from giving failing grades and holding competitions in which some children win prizes and others don’t based on performance.
In the following sections, I will provide my views as a psychologist on the possible downsides of having good self-esteem and whether self-esteem in oneself and others runs the risk of creating these negative effects.
What it means to have good self-esteem: The misconceptions and realities
One reason for the mixed views regarding self-esteem is that there are many misconceptions about what it entails. Having good self-esteem does not mean that you view yourself as superior to others, that you are preoccupied with yourself at the expense of others, that you believe you have qualities you do not possess or that you can do no wrong.
In reality, having good self-esteem means that you believe you are a person who is worthy of respect. This is reflected in awareness and acknowledgement of your positive qualities and strengths while also recognizing that there are areas in which you need to improve. People with good self-esteem surround themselves with people who treat them with respect and spend less time with those who do not. They also manifest their self-respect by behaving assertively and setting boundaries when others do not treat them with respect.
They have an inner confidence and self-respect which means that, although they appreciate the validation they receive from others, they do not need it to feel good about themselves. The result is that people with good self-esteem are less likely than people with poor self-esteem to brag or to diminish others in order to feel good about themselves. In fact, their inner security makes them more likely to enjoy it when others do well. To this end, they will often take steps to help others feel good about themselves.
How to improve self-esteem: The misconceptions and realities
Just as there are misconceptions about what self-esteem is comprised of, there are also inaccurate beliefs regarding how to facilitate good self-esteem. Self-esteem is not facilitated by spoiling a person, letting them know they are better than others, telling them they have no areas in which to improve or protecting them from failure and other kinds of adversity.
On the contrary, good self-esteem is facilitated by letting the person know that you value them for who they are. You help them to appreciate and manifest the good qualities and strengths they have while encouraging them to work on improving themselves. Rather than shielding them from failure and other kinds of adversity, you allow them to experience it.
This helps them to learn coping skills for dealing with adversity and build resilience so that they can cope with life’s challenges. In turn, this reinforces their feeling of inner confidence and self-respect. You also let them know that others deserve respect just as they do and encourage them to treat others as they would like to be treated.
The bottom line: Is there a downside to having and building good self-esteem?
Having good self-esteem along with helping to facilitate it in yourself and others does not have a downside. The inner confidence and self-respect which comprises good self-esteem produces positive effects on mood and happiness, enjoyable and fulfilling relationships and contributes to success in a multitude of performance areas.
Unfortunately, a lack of understanding regarding what comprises good self-esteem and how to foster its development has led to many counterproductive actions and unfavourable results. This has led some people to erroneously conclude that having good self-esteem and taking steps to foster it in oneself and others is inherently problematic. My professional opinion is that, if done properly, fostering good self-esteem in yourself and others is one of the most worthwhile endeavours you can pursue.
May you foster good self-esteem in yourself and others,