Common Misconceptions About Self-Esteem

The following is an account of some of the most common misconceptions I have encountered in my decades practicing psychotherapy:

Self-esteem means feeling good about yourself:

Self-esteem is not just a feeling; it is an experience.  It requires an emotional, evaluative and cognitive commitment.  It is a conscious decision to perceive yourself in a different light: to move toward life rather than away from it; to move toward consciousness instead of fleeing it; to treat facts with respect rather than denial; to operate responsibly rather than irresponsibly.

Self-esteem is not the fleeting euphoria or buoyancy that may be momentarily caused by a drug, a compliment or a love affair.  It is not an illusion or a hallucination.  It is concrete, solid and lasting.  It derives from acting responsibly, consciously and with integrity.

Lavish, unwarranted praise is one of the best ways to boost self-esteem and classroom performance:

Teachers who treat all students with respect and project a strong conviction about every student’s potential support both the self-esteem and the academic needs of their students.  Conversely, those who try to nurture self-esteem by heaping endless, unmerited praise on their students undermine both self-esteem and academic achievement.  We help people to grow by holding rational expectations up to them, not by indiscriminately praising them.

High self-esteem is the domain of a lucky few:

In instances of deep psychological wounds or trauma, an appropriate level of self-esteem can be difficult to achieve without psychotherapy.  But I have never met anyone who was utterly devoid of self-esteem, nor have I met anyone unable to grow in self-esteem, assuming the proper conditions were in place.

It is self-absorbed to devote too much energy to raising your self-esteem:

Excessive and inappropriate self-absorption is endemic to poor self-esteem, not high self-esteem.  If we are confident in ourselves, we enjoy what we have rather than dwelling on what we want.

There is such a thing as too much self-esteem:

It is no more possible to have too much self-esteem than it is to have too much physical or mental health.  True self-esteem is not self-aggrandizing; it is grounded, reality-based acknowledgment of personal worth.  Arrogance, boasting and grandiosity are the hallmarks of inadequate self-esteem.  Insecure people compensate for their lack of self-esteem by bragging, throwing around their weight and trying to prove their superiority.

Self-esteem is a godless pursuit:

Is watching one’s diet and eating intelligently a “godless pursuit?”  Is exercising?  Is striving to learn and better oneself?  If none of these pursuits are decried as godless, why is striving for improved self-respect viewed as such?

With regard to self-esteem, I do not see God as relevant- unless you believe in a malevolent God who wishes harm upon human beings.

Self-esteem is determined by parental upbringing:

Many factors – including our upbringing – impact our self-esteem.  Certainly parents can make the road to self-esteem easier or harder, but they cannot determine the level of their child’s self-esteem.  We are not putty, to be shaped and molded at the whim of an external source.  Ultimately we are responsible for the level of our self-esteem.

Self-esteem stems from the approval of significant others:

It is widely thought that the approval of significant others can have a profound and positive impact on a person’s self-esteem, and to an extent this is true.  However, one has to wonder about the enduring strength of a self-esteem that derives from the approval of others.

Furthermore, chasing approval and validation can only have a detrimental impact on your self-esteem.  When people betray their mind and values to win the approval of others, their self-esteem invariably suffers.

Good looks, popularity and material wealth guarantee high self-esteem:

People who lack self-esteem sometimes believe that looks, wealth and popularity would cure all their woes.  In reality, none of these qualities guarantee self-esteem.  Look no further than celebrities who, despite having physical beauty, millions of adoring fans and unimaginable wealth, cannot get through a day without using drugs.  Good looks, popularity and wealth are nothing without adequate self-esteem.  Lacking such self-esteem, it is easy to feel like an imposter waiting to be discovered.

Praising appropriate behavior engenders healthy self-esteem:

That depends on your definition of praise.  Indiscriminate praise of a child’s character does nothing to nurture self-esteem; it only serves to evoke anxiety in the child when they know it is unwarranted.  Specific, reality-based praise of a child’s actions can nurture their self-esteem and increase the likelihood that they will repeat the action.

Nothing bothers people with high self-esteem:

Some people believe that having good self-esteem can solve everything.  This is simply not true.  Anxiety, pain and suffering are a part of life, whether you have high self-esteem or not.  Consider the following: if someone you love dies, does having good self-esteem insulate you from feeling any pain?

Of course not.

Think of self-esteem as the immune system of consciousness.  If you have a healthy immune system, you may become ill, but you are less likely to.  If you do become ill, you recover faster.  Similarly, a healthy self-esteem does not make people impervious to pain or suffering, but it does better equip them to recover from these afflictions.

Self-esteem, once attained, lasts forever:

Every value pertaining to life requires constant maintenance.  If we do not continue to breathe, the breaths we took yesterday will not sustain us today.  Self-esteem is no different.  If we do not maintain the practices that helped us build good self-esteem, if we choose to operate mindlessly, irresponsibly and without integrity, our self-esteem will surely crumble.