Self-esteem is great – so long as it is rooted in reality

William Reville: The misguided US self-esteem fad lingers on this side of the Atlantic

Many readers will remember the popular self-esteem movement that went viral in America in the 1980s. This movement quickly spread to Europe, although it never took root here as strongly as it did in the US. Although nobody would deny that building self-esteem is important, this popular movement seriously misunderstood the concept, used the wrong techniques to build genuine self-esteem and left a legacy of damage that continues to this day.

Self-esteem is a person’s overall sense of personal value or self-worth. If you have high self-esteem, you will like yourself and think that you are valuable. If you have low self-esteem you will feel you are of low value and you will probably not like yourself very much.

Obviously we should all strive to have a sense of high self-esteem but self-esteem cannot be acquired simply by wishing for it. It would be psychologically unhealthy to believe you are “God’s gift” if in fact you are lazy, shiftless, irresponsible and unreliable. Genuine self-esteem is a by-product of sustained effort to live well, build character and help others.

The popular American 1980s self-esteem movement quickly fell into serious error. In order to foster self-esteem, teachers and parents began to pour unconditional praise on children and to shelter them from adverse consequences and criticism. Many critics now blame this self-esteem movement for producing a generation of emotionally fragile young adults who expect praise simply for showing up for work, cannot accept constructive criticism, demand “safe spaces” on the university campus where they will not hear any challenging opinions and “trigger warnings” before lectures that might discuss “sensitive” issues.

‘I am special’

Canadian-American psychotherapist Nathaniel Branden (1930-2014) was the "Father of the Self-Esteem movement". He wrote the seminal book The Psychology of Self-Esteem in 1969 and the definitive book – The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem – in 1994. Branden sharply criticised the popular self-esteem movement in the book, describing it as distorted by the "oversimplification and sugar-coating of pop psychology".

Branden defined self-esteem as something one must work at to build, requiring reflection and concrete action. He scorned the popular idea that worthwhile self-esteem can be built merely by wishing for it and reciting affirmations such as “I love me” or “I am special” while admiring oneself in a mirror.

Branden was particularly critical of how this new movement promoted self-esteem in education. He said: “I have stressed that ‘feel good’ notions are harmful rather than helpful. Yet if one examines the proposals offered to teachers on how to raise students’ self-esteem, many are the kind of trivial nonsense that gives self-esteem a bad name, such as praising and applauding a child for virtually everything he or she does, dismissing the importance of objective accomplishments, handing out gold stars on every possible occasion, and propounding an “entitlement” idea of self-esteem that leaves it divorced from both behaviour and character. One of the consequences of this approach is to expose the whole self-esteem movement in the schools to ridicule.”

Discovery learning

Although the popular self-esteem movement in the US had fallen into disrepute by the 1990s, aspects of its mistaken approaches linger to this day on this side of the Atlantic – for example the notion that lavishing praise on schoolchildren, regardless of their educational performance, boosts or protects their self-esteem. This notion tends to accompany the currently popular educational method called “discovery learning”. I believe that discovery learning is a fatally flawed method and I wrote on this topic in a previous column.

Psychological research has shown that uncritically lavishing praise on children who already have low self-esteem only serves to inhibit their performance. For example, teacher telling a low self-esteem child in art class that his/her low-quality drawing is “wonderful” might be expected to encourage great effort from the child in future to improve drawing technique. But, in practice, the lavish praise actually discourages the child from doing anything different in future lest the effort fails and the quality of the drawing actually disimproves. On the other hand, praising high self-esteem children for good performance does spur them on to greater efforts.

High self-esteem is undoubtedly an important building block in a healthy personality but, like all worthwhile things, it is only attainable through effort and dedication.

William Reville is an emeritus professor of biochemistry at UCC