Mind Matters --December 2005
Written by Ron Sterling, M.D. and Published in Northwest Prime Time Magazine

Self-Esteem Reevaluated
by Ron Sterling, M.D. -- December 2005

    Dear Dr. Ron:

      I read your recent article about laughter and humor and it made me want to ask you a question I have been thinking about for quite some time. My feeling is that the concept of self-esteem is overrated. I know a few people who apparently have high self-esteem, but they are just plain mean to others. I have argued about this with my friends. Any comments? -- Signed: Questioning Conventional Wisdom.

    Dear Questioning:

      Thank you for writing! My short comment to your opinion is -- I think you are correct in your belief that the phrase "self-esteem" has real-world limitations. My longer comment in this column will spotlight the phrase "self-appreciation."

      Belief systems about self-esteem and what it may contribute to mental wellness or illness have gone through many changes since the 1960s. In those days, mental health care professionals noticed that people who had less positive self-regard or self-respect tended to be depressed and less "successful." Self-esteem programs were created for just about everyone, including school children. Often, the programs gave out large amounts of praise to children without regard to their actual accomplishments.

      In 1986, the California State Legislature created the ''California Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility.'' Many subsequent programs did not produce the intended results. Discrepancies between high self-esteem scores and poor social or educational outcomes led many researchers to reconsider "self-esteem." A study published in early 2002, by Nicholas Emler, Ph.D., a social psychologist at the London School of Economics, found that people with high self-esteem were more likely to be racist, violent and criminal.

      Roy Baumeister of Case Western Reserve University took Emler's findings a bit further. Based on his research, he concluded that people with so-called "favorable" views of themselves were more likely to administer loud blasts of ear-piercing noise to a fellow human being than folks with less self-esteem (as measured by a widely-accepted self-esteem rating test). Several similar studies with similar results left a legacy of self-esteem confusion. How do we conceptualize and teach about positive self-regard without the phrase "self-esteem"? What is it that we are trying to understand and convey that can assist with mental wellness? What words do we use -- "self-respect," "self-regard," "self-love," or "self-appreciation"?

      My opinion is that a respect for one's self and for other people comes from a knowledge or attitude that we possess loveable qualities within ourselves and that every person has their own particular talents, abilities, uniqueness, and value in the scheme of life. It is not so much about "do we like ourselves?" It is more about "do we believe we are likeable and loveable"? If we were taught by hostile or overly-critical people in our lives that we are not loveable or likeable, we may not be able to fully appreciate our own talents, abilities, and positive and negative points.

      The phrase I choose to use with my clients is "self-appreciation." The word "appreciate" means to recognize the quality, value, and significance or magnitude of a person or thing and it implies a generally high regard for other people and ourselves mixed with an ability for evaluation, comparison and a balanced assessment of ourselves.

      Self-appreciation encompasses more than self-esteem. If you find yourself being overly-critical of yourself, you may be able to trace that assessment style to how other people often judged you in the past. If you were "spoiled," you could be under-critical of yourself -- that is, you could have great self-esteem but not much self-awareness or a balanced appreciation of yourself and others.

      I hope this is helpful. For more information about self-appreciation and its role in mental wellness, please visit www.MentalWellness.ws. -- Best wishes, Dr. Ron.

        Author Bio:

        Ron Sterling, M.D. is a 64 year-old General and Geriatric Psychiatrist with a private practice in Seattle. He invites you to e-mail him at with any questions about mental wellness or emotional, relationship, or aging concerns. He is the only person who reads e-mail sent to Dr. Ron. Please be assured that your questions and identities are completely confidential and protected. For more information about Dr. Ron and for resources related to senior mental health, please go to SeniorMentalHealth.org. The content offered through Mind Matters is for information only and is not intended for medical, psychiatric, or psychological diagnosis or treatment. Never disregard professional advice or delay seeking it because of something you have read in this column. Read our Disclaimer. If you wish to understand more about Dr. Sterling's potential biases in health care advocacy, please check his Conflicts of Interest Disclosure Statement

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