Published: 2010-01-16
Clive Nayler

The commonly endorsed assumption is that people need to feel good about themselves (Brown, 1998 as cited in Heine et al., 1999) and seek to enhance and maintain their positive self-view (Pyszczynski et al., 2004).

Self-esteem is “a good opinion of oneself (The Oxford Compact English Dictionary, 1996) where ‘good feelings’ are craved over ‘bad’ (Brown, 1993 as cited in Leary et al., 1995).

High self-esteem feels good, whereas low self-esteem does not (Scheff, Retzinger, & Ryan, 1989 as cited in Leary et al.,1995).

What Exactly is Self-Esteem?

Self-esteem is frequently viewed as the most significant gauge of mental well-being and good adjustment, with high self-esteem related to many positive life regulating skills and low self esteem correlated to aggression, poor school achievement, depression, eating disorders, drug and alcohol abuse, teenage pregnancy and marital dysfunction ( Diener, 1984; Mecca, Smelser, & Vasconcellos, 1989 as cited in Crocker & Wolfe, 2001).

what is self-esteemSelf-esteem has mixed connotations and is emotionally charged in a positive way in prestige, admiration, respect, loving, and liking, but perhaps in a more negative light with regards to conceit, arrogance, pride, egoism, honour, superiority and narcissisism.

Despite a tendency to appear modest to our friends and family, self-esteem may be a burden to everyone else (Tice, Muraven, Butler, & Stillwell, 1994 as cited in Baumeister et al., 1996) and in Japanese culture, to emphasise the positive self is to risk alienation (c.f. Bond, Leung, & Wan, 1982 as cited in Heine et al., 1999), making it something to suppress, not celebrate or bolster.

In the United States, a culture where self-esteem is held in such high regard as a measure of personal worth and positive feeling and where to suffer low self-esteem is akin to being somehow damaged and broken, (it has been known for some psychologists in studies to compare those with low self-esteem against a group labelled ‘normal’ (Taylor & Brown, 1988 as cited in Heine et al., 1999), the individual alone has the responsibility of creating a place for himself in society and is encouraged from childhood to become separate, autonomous, efficacious and in control (Heine et al., 1999).

Hewitt (2005) stated that although self-esteem is a culturally accepted goal to strive for, there is much ambiguity around how to achieve it. People debate the real nature of self-esteem and wonder on what basis they can feel good about themselves. There is ambivalence to equality of opportunity in American culture which provides ambiguity over definitions of self-worth. Self-esteem therefore functions as a language for discourse between individuals, society and competing definitions of success and happiness and its contradictions.

Baumeister, Campbell, Kreuger, & Vohs (2003) concluded that other than a strong correlation to happiness, there was no evidence that self-esteem predicted anything. Seligman (1996, 2002) speculated that since the late 1950’s, the ongoing increase in levels of depression in America, now being encountered by lower age groups, could not be explained by genetic or biochemical factors.

Individually and collectively, children are positively encouraged to think of themselves as ‘above average’ or ‘winners’ (Markus, Mullally, & Kitayama, 1997 as cited in Heine et al., 1999). The goal of achievement had been replaced by the pursuits of happiness and self-esteem. The specific focus on instilling feelings of high self-esteem by educators and parents was a “manifestation” at the “heart of the epidemic of depression,” (Seligman ,1996, p.40).

It seems essential that the conditions promoting optimal human functioning should be emphasised which in turn promotes self-esteem (Hewitt, 2005). However, this approach focuses predominantly on only one component, pretensions (or feeling good about ourselves) of William James’s (1890) self-esteem equation, which is shown below:

Self-esteem = Success / Pretensions

Placing this amount of emphasis on only one aspect seems just as empirically unproven and potentially damaging (Crocker & Wolfe, 2001). In Japanese culture, the pendulum may have swung too far in the other direction where teachers believe students thrive the most when set extremely challenging tasks and have to exhibit perseverance, discipline and hard work rather than bolstering self-confidence at all (Lewis, 1995 as cited in Heine et al.,1999). Their quest for improvement is likened to a national religion (Rohlen, 1976 as cited in Heine et al., 1999).

However, there seems little point in the various bolstering programs if they fail to foster the underlying skills to achieve success and good behaviour. An uncritical endorsement of self-esteem’s value might be counterproductive, perhaps even dangerous. America’s violence rates have exceeded any other modern industrialised nations and one of the reasons behind self-esteem programs seemed to be the acceptance that low self-esteem and violence are strongly correlated (Baumeister et al., 1996) notwithstanding the lack of direct or scientific evidence or any definitive or authoritative study that concluded the same.

In fact, the opposite had been shown in that those with low self-esteem appeared ambivalent or even avoidant of circumstances where self-esteem could be increased (De la Ronde & Swann, 1983; Swann, 1987; Swann, Griffin, Pedmore, & Gaines, 1987 as cited in Baumeister et al., 1996). There is evidence to suggest those with stable high self-esteem have the lowest rates of anger and hostility (Kernis, Grannemann, & Barclay, 1989 as cited in Baumeister et al., 1996) and may actually defend against bullies and aggression.

However, unstable and narcissistic high self-esteem has been shown to be associated with increased vulnerability and aggressive retaliation to ego threats when an individual is avoiding lowering, or is unable to mark down, their self-esteem (Baumeister et al., 1996; Baumeister et al., 2003) rather than those with low self-esteem.

In such circumstances, reactions can be quite drastic over-reactions to the actual level of the threat (Kernis, Cornell, Sun, & Harlow, 1993 as cited in Baumeister et al., 1996). Narcissistic or unstable self-esteem may therefore be being fostered by wholesale praise given its heterogeneity (Baumeister et al., 2003) which could be counterproductive (Kling et al., 1999).

On the particular subject of self-esteem and its correlations with aggression and violence, the research by Baumeister et al (1996) seems to identify self-esteem as a particularly blunt measure with the emphasis keenly transferable to both narcissism and ego threats for further research.

Should self-esteem sit in the positive psychology arena; is it helping people to ‘fidget’ their life away a little more efficiently? Despite an often wayward tack since its historical origins, empirically sound research in more recent times has helped to straighten its course, dispelling a number of misconceptions.

However, after more than a century of research, self-esteem as a psychological and social construct that still refuses to be contained and continues to tease with abandon, but valuable lessons are there to be drawn. If the pursuit of self-esteem is detrimental to the individual and society, it is a reflection of the values that society offers up for internalisation. The following quote by Tocqueville (1835) perhaps illustrates what social progress has been made in 172 years and why Positive Psychology needs to continue to be mindful:

The Americans, in their intercourse with strangers, appear impatient of the smallest censure and insatiable of praise. The most slender eulogy is acceptable to them, the most exalted seldom contents them; they unceasingly harass you to extort praise, and if you resist their entreaties, they fall to praising themselves.

It would seem as if, doubting their own merit, they wished to have it constantly exhibited before their eyes. Their vanity is not only greedy, but restless and jealous; it will grant nothing, while it demands everything, but is ready to beg and to quarrel at the same time. (p.1)

References and Further Reading

Baumeister, R. F., Campbell , J. D., Krueger, J.I., & Vohs, K.D. (2003).Does high self-esteem cause better performance, interpersonal success, or healthier lifestyles? Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 4 (1). pp. 1-44

Baumeister, R.F., Smart, L., & Boden, J.M. (1996). Relation of threatened egotism to violence and aggression: The dark side of high self-esteem. Psychological Review, 103 (1), pp. 5-33

Crocker, J., & Wolfe, C.T., (2001). Contingencies of self-worth. Psychological Review, 108 (3), pp. 593-623

Heine, S.J., Lehman, D.R., Markus, H.R., & Kitayama, S. (1999), Is there a Universal Need for Positive Self Regard? Psychological Review, 106 (4), pp. 766-794

Hewitt, J.P., (2005). The social construction of self-esteem. In Snyder, C.R., & Lopez, S.J. (Eds.), Handbook of Positive Psychology (pp.135-148). New York : Oxford University Press

Leary, M.R., Tambor, E.S., Terdal, S.K. & Downs D.L. (1995). Self-esteem as an interpersonal monitor: The sociometer hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 68 (3), pp. 518-530

James, William. [1890] 1950. The Principles of Psychology. New York : Dover .

Kling, K. C., Hyde, J. S., Showers, C. J., & Buswell, B. N. (1999). Gender differences in self-esteem: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 125(4), pp. 470-500.

Pyszcynski, T., Greenberg, J., Solomon, S., Arndt, J., Schimel, J., (2004).Why Do People Need Self-Esteem? A Theoretical and Empirical Review. Psychological Bulletin 130(3), pp. 435-468

Seligman, M. (1996). The optimistic child. New York : HarperCollins

Seligman, M. (2002). Authentic happiness: using the new positive psychology to realise your potential for lasting fulfillment. New York : Free Press

Tocqueville,, (1935). Why the national vanity of the Americans is more restless and captious than that of the English. Democracy in America . (Volume 3, Chapter 16).