Feeling Bugged? Write Doctor Debug for "Psychological advice with punch!" (tm)
Dear Dr. Debug:
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.
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 people with less self-esteem (as measured by a widely-accepted self-esteem rating test). Several similar studies with similar results created 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"?
When it comes to issues of "failure" and "success," the variables that influence those behavioral outcomes are much more correlated to our programming with respect to what we have been taught to expect and how we are conditioned than they do with "self-esteem." When it comes to "being victimized" and being caught up in a "victim role," the variables that influence that behavior and that default role choice have much more to do with experiences that program that identity than they do with "self-esteem." It would be nice if there were a more inclusive mindset that could fix a wide array of dysfunctional programming related to failure and victim identity formation, but there isn't. Increasing a person's "self-esteem" just does not fix a multitude of more specifically programmed behaviors and role choices.
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. We may have had experiences that make us over-sensitive or under-sensitive to criticism or failures.
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 level of respect 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. Debug.
Ron Sterling, M.D. (Dr. Debug) is an award-winning psychiatrist in Seattle, Washington. He has been writing for newspapers and magazines since 1998 on subjects ranging from good manners to senior mental health. He hosts and maintains the well-known Internet mental health center, DearShrink.com. The Doctor Debug column is dedicated to assisting with the "debugging of malfunctioning elements in our own personal programming."
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