Self-Esteem: Even the Experts Don’t Agree

You may have heard the term ‘self-esteem’ a great deal, but have you ever wondered exactly what it means? Some people equate self-esteem with confidence, self-love or self-interest, but none of those concepts really captures what is meant by the term.

At this point, let’s agree that self-esteem is ‘the way in which a person judges their own value.’ What that means, basically, is that if a person judges himself to be without value, he has poor self-esteem. On the other hand, if he feels he’s very valuable, he exhibits good, or healthy, self-esteem.

Keeping that in mind, let’s move on to the way that poor or healthy self-esteem predicts whether a person will be successful in life. It may surprise you to know that recent research has raised questions about the beliefs that formed the ‘self-esteem-based education movement’ of the past twenty five years.

You may already know that, beginning in California in the early 1980s, educators had formed curriculae around the concept that children who develop good self-esteem tend to resist peer pressure more successfully. That, in turn, has been thought to be an effective way of reducing drug use, high school dropout rates and teen pregnancy.

The leaders in this school of thought believed that children’s self esteem was impacted most by the things that happened to them early in life. Millions of dollars have been spent nationwide teaching children they are valuable members of society, in the hope they will grow up to be responsible and successful.

But two surprising notions have come to light: recent research seems to indicate that healthy self-esteem is not a reliable indicator of success in life, in fact, the reverse appears to be true.

What I mean by that is that, according to a large study conducted by Brown University, an increase in self-esteem seems to follow successful completion of a goal. Put another way, a person begins to feel better about himself only when he begins to succeed.

Here’s the other commonly-held belief that may have been shattered: since the 80s, educators and psychologists have followed the notion that self-esteem is based largely on the information they receive from their parents, teachers and others close to them. In contrast, the respondents in the 2003 study, and others since, seemed to base their feelings of personal value on how well they measure up in society at large.

Said another way, one’s social values, or what one’s society determines to be valuable, create the basis for whether or not they feel that they, themselves, have an internal sense of value. For instance, if the society in which one lives places a high value on knowledge, and they have the capability to study and learn easily, then self-esteem increases as ‘measure-up’ to that social value.

And so, we circle back around to our original question: ‘what is self-esteem?’ I hope you’ll agree to a slight refinement in our original definition. And here it is, “self-esteem is the way a person looks at himself against the backdrop of what his society defines as valuable.” Keep that in mind if you decide to look further into what influences a person’s self-esteem.

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