Saturday, March 03, 2007

"You're Ruining My Self-Esteem!" – Part 3

From Ash:

So picking up right where we left off yesterday – on Dr. Jennifer Crocker's work on the price unwittingly paid by people who pursue a positive self-esteem / self-image – Crocker is building upon the scholarship of Carol Dweck, Edward Deci and Richard Ryan (scholars leading work relating to intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation that we discussed in an earlier post) and others.

And she has found another twist in those who are invested in self-esteem. For those who become invested in maintaining their self-image (similar to Dweck's findings with younger students) – the confirmation they need to affirm that image increasingly comes from external sources. For example, the school-defined student doesn't define himself by the knowledge he's accumulated, but rather by the grades and accolades he has been given by faculty and peers. A student who thinks that her looks are a lot of who she is becomes dependent on keeping up with fashions set by others, and people telling her that she's pretty.

In other words, people who are attached to a label often become dependent on outside sources to tell them if they are living up to that label or not. Self-image becomes self-worth – but that self-worth is defined by someone else's terms, not one's own.

That's bad enough, but what makes this even worse is that external validations are inherently temporary – different grades come out with every assignment, fashions change with each magazine cover – and suspect. And of course, the more dependent these people become on those external validations, the more competitive, more frantic, they become. (Which is sort of where Crocker becomes an intersection between Dweck's research and that of Deci and Ryan.)

So now, in light of all that, consider Roy Baumeister's team's meta-analysis of self-esteem studies. Before their review, scholars (and many others) had operated on the assumption that building self-esteem lead to increased achievement at school, in careers, in romantic relationships. But that turned out to be completely unsupported by the research.

Now, it turns out that there is sometimes – but not always – a relationship between self-esteem and achievement.

Boosts in achievement can increase self-esteem. But a boost in self-esteem doesn't cause anyone increase his achievement. On the contrary, it's a one-way street.

In fact, if you try to drive backwards on this route – start at self-esteem to end up at achievement – you get just as far as you would on a real one-way road. Seriously.

Efforts to boost self-esteem caused college students' grades to go down, not up. Convicted wife-batterers actually beat their wives more after they'd gone to classes to boost their self-esteem. Women with high-self-esteem are more prone to have casual sex, and less likely to use birth control.

I don't want this to be an advice post – I'm not in any way a psychologist and don't pretend to be one – but I think the clearest way to show how this would actually play out in an adult's life would be a hypothetical. I'll take me. Say I want to feel better about myself, want to look better, and attract more guys, so I decide to go to the gym. The research says each of my three reasons for going to the gym have set me up for failure.

Because my success will be determined by other people, not me– and there's always going to be someone hotter than me in the mirror in the stationery bike room, and there's no guarantee about the dates either. So I'm probably not going to feel better about myself, no matter how much I work out – could end up feeling even worse than I did before. And I'm going to have to go off the work-out deep-end to compete with the Xena-types, or more likely, I'll just give up entirely, thinking I'm just no good at this and genetically-doomed to flab.

The better course would be for me to decide to exercise for its health benefits. Increasing my stamina, strength, etc., are goals I can set and meet on my own – no third party judgment needed. Now, by doing that for a while, I may actually improve my appearance, maybe a guy over at the weights will flirt with me. But if those don't happen, I still know the worth of going, I haven't lost my motivation. And maybe, I will eventually feel better – physically and emotionally.

So, is it possible to have a healthy self-esteem? Sure, why not. But the problem is it can't be the direct goal that a person is actually going for. Rather than working on building self-esteem, work on building persistence through setting goals that you hit . . . and miss. . . . Self-esteem apparently will hitch a ride somewhere along the way.

Gosh, almost makes me want to find a gym . . . .



Blogger Justin said...

I'm enjoying this self-esteem series! Well, I'm off to the gym. Check out my new website -


11:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting comments about low self esteem and high self esteem. Is there a difference between high self esteem and arrogance?

And where do "boundaries" come in?

And how do you define "self-esteem"?


8:18 AM  
Blogger Po Bronson & Ashley Merryman said...

From Ash:

There is a difference in high self-esteem and arrogance, I think because self-esteem is about how one views himself, whereas arrogance is about aggressively confronting others with one's opinions, talents, etc. They are two separate things. You can have a high self-esteem without being arrogant about it.

I'm sorry - but I'm afraid I don't understand your question about boundaries. I think of boundaries as being how people interact with each other - so I'm not sure how that ties in.

And as I sort of said, the definition we've been working with is that self-esteem is about self-image, because it's closest to both what experts and laymen both use the term for. If you want a little more meat to it, some define it this way - if a person had to write up a list of what traits make a good person, how many of those traits would he say he himself had?

But there are many many definitions for "self-esteem" - that's part of the difficulty in studying the issue - people argue about concepts they define very differently.

4:09 PM  
Anonymous Lisa said...

You've reported about tangible rewards being destructive for children's intrinsic motivation, and this post makes it even more clear that we need to help our children become more focused on intrinsic motivation and less on external validations. Seems like a good lesson for adults, too. Praise is out--where do we turn? How do we help our kids to define themselves on their own terms?

p.s. The past tense of "lead" is "led," not "lead."

5:00 PM  
Blogger Po Bronson & Ashley Merryman said...

From Ash:

Sorry for the typo: it's certainly not my first in this blog – nor will it be the last, I'm afraid.

As for your substantive point, yeah, I agree that it's difficult. But, so far, I think we have to trust in kids learning the value of achievement.

6:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Ash,

I think if you and Po are going to make this blog a progressive one in terms of the subject, then I encourage you both to write about "self concept", "values" and "self-esteem" as they relate to an individual. So far the coverage on self esteem has been okay. It would be interesting to see how it is tied in to one's 'self concept' and how that self concept leads us to discovering our values.
In essence we are all programmed. Finding out our programming and reprogramming ourselves is the first step towards transforming society. It starts with our selves.
But what IS our "self"? What composes "self" and how we project that 'self' to the world and how we organize our decisions about that projection and the vast collection of those memories is what constitutes our self concept in my humble opinion.
It seems to me and I've found the following to be true, from reading Po's books and from my own observations, that when one's self concept is aligned with one's values, one can enjoy high self esteem.
What do you think Ash? You may respond to any and all of what I've commented and asked. Be as thorough as you like.

Peace, Love and Hair Grease,
Fareed :-)

9:26 PM  
Blogger Po Bronson & Ashley Merryman said...

From Ash:

I think that you've raised very interesting questions, but they are extremely broad, and, in some ways, they're almost more leaning towards philosophy rather than psychology Po and I have been looking at lately. And I think it would take me months (years?) of research to answer any of your queries with real confidence.

For now, at least, rather than just bs'ing my way through all of philosophy/psychology's commentary on the nature of self, I think it's better for me to concentrate on smaller topics, e.g. praise, that perhaps can be illuminating on a broader basis but at least have a more concrete application as narrow as they are.

I am, however, interested in cultural influences on self-esteem, self-image, etc., and if anyone has a particular expertise, or reference point for me to check out on this, though, I'd be happy for the suggestion.

1:45 PM  
Blogger BoS said...

I enjoyed your posts on self-esteem. I have three children, now in their teens, and they noticed the hollowness of false praise very early on. They would turn to me as their compass on gauging whether their accomplishments were outstanding, good, average, or merely of the "certificate of participation" ilk... And I appreciated their trust then, as I do now. I do what I can to teach them to do their self-assessments of performance based on internal standards. Keep your fingers crossed for me!

9:23 AM  
Blogger Dr. Barbara Becker Holstein said...

As a Positive Psychologist, I agree with you, that you can't go directly for self-esteem. It will allude you or simply do you no good. Rather I have found in my practice of 25 years and in my research that led to THE ENCHANTED SELF, A Positive Therapy, the best way to find self-esteem is to recover and rediscover one's talents, strengths, coping skills, interests, preferences and even one's lost potential. Then one needs to dive into these areas and bring them to life in the unique ways that only one individual with a certain blueprint of a life can do! I teach many techniques to do what I have outlined above. I often teach via The Seven Gateways To Happiness. Each of these also put a person in a position where he or she is doing'and 'becoming'in ways that are sure to enhance self-esteem. These include what I mentioned above but also include discovering the story of your life, learning how to get your needs met, recognizing what brings you pleasure and happiness and going for it, mentoring and being mentored, belonging and joining and Positive Action and Good deeds. I would love to talk further about these subjects and also have a blog, The Enchanted Self on Dr. Barbara Becker Holstein, Positive Psychologist,

7:31 PM  
Anonymous said...

Hi Po,
First of all, I am a fan of your work.

Regarding the topic and blogging on self-esteem, my research and work has led me to draw some conclusions that I believe will be beneficial to share.

Over the last two years, I have spent considerable time researching the topic and more specifically, the work of Nathaniel Branden who has dedicated his career to the study of self-esteem. His book (one of many), "The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem" is a very good piece of work. This research led me and my partner to include an entire chapter on the topic in our book(Unleashed! Expecting Greatness and Other Secrets to Coaching for Exceptional Performance: As a side note, please let me know if you would like a copy. I would be happy to send one. Simply email me at to arrange.

Specifically, we have found that when people doubt the value they bring (have low self-esteem), their insecurities drive them to try to convince others in some way of their value - hoping that if others believe they are attractive, smart, funny, successful etc etc for example, that they will finally believe it too. (My best reserach subject has been watching myself do this!) In this way, each of us will seek external validation to fill a void we are not filling ourselves. However, the minor satisfaction and assurance it affords are ususally short-lived. Hence we will find ourselves repeating the associated behaviors - name dropping, directing conversations towards our achievements, spending money so that our possessions can show others we are somebody, for example - simply b/c we do not yet believe it ourselves.

With a high sense of true self-esteem, however, we know we are somebody. We feel good about ourselves and trust in the value that we bring. We are comfortable in our own skin and we treat ourselves well. Because we do so, we also treat others well. At the same time, we are honest with ourselves - we are aware of our shortcomings, flaws and failures. We can look at ourselves honestly; we can say "I was wrong" or "I made a mistake". With a solid sense of self (knowing and trusting in our own value), we do not need others to know it. It is nice to hear, but not necessary for us to feel good. We no longer feel the need to prove our worth to others and in fact, we can finally focus on others in an authentic way.

People with high self-esteem are easy to be around. They don't judge themselves too harshly, and because of this, we do not feel judged by them. In fact, we feel that we are accepted by them just the way we are and as a result, we like being around them. At the same time, they set a high standard for themselves and also a standard for us - and this is crux - in their presence we want to live up to it.

I don't believe anyone can give us self-esteem or ruin our self-esteem. The struggle for self-esteem is truly one that is up to us alone: to what extent do I believe in my own inherent value? To what extent do I believe in myself and give credit to my thoughts and experience? This is the journey we are all on. Self-esteem can only ever be granted to us by ourselves. What an incredible realization!

Thanks for allowing me to share. I'd be happy to send a recoomended reading list on the topic. If this is of interest, again, simply send me an email.

Warm regards, Susanne Biro.

7:07 AM  

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