During the 1980s and 1990s, the self-esteem movement crept its way into every imaginable corner of America. The movement was based on the belief that:
Helping people develop a positive image of themselves and their abilities would solve a long list of personal and public problems in America.
Individuals who improved their self-esteem were expected to experience more happiness, better performance, and limitless success. 1 At a community level, many believed that increasing the nation’s self-esteem would reduce crime, lower pollution, and close the poverty gap.
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Teachers across the country stopped using red pens. Sports leagues no longer identified winners and losers. Employers hired self-esteem experts to boost the morale and performance of employees. And, the government delivered self-esteem workbooks to welfare recipients.
All over the nation, children and adults were praised without reason. They were pumped full of messages like “you are special” and “you can achieve anything.”
While there is value in developing a positive self-image, the self-esteem movement reminds us that we need to be careful.
In this article, I’ll explain why the self-esteem movement didn’t work. Then, I’ll show you how to develop self-esteem without becoming a jerk.
When it began, the self-esteem movement was seductive for two main reasons. First, the movement made many people feel good. That’s because most people like to hear that they are amazing, special, and successful.
And second, the self-esteem movement was the easy way out. For example, it’s easy to tell a failing child they are smart as you push them through the education system. It’s a lot harder to fix a broken education system.
Ultimately, there’s one main reason why the self-esteem movement didn’t work. That is, saying that someone is amazing, special, or successful doesn’t make it true.
Telling a failing child that they are smart doesn’t make them more intelligent. And, if you’ve been unemployed for five years and live in your parent’s basement, standing in front of a mirror and affirming that you’re successful won’t make you successful.
More importantly, lying to yourself or others about their abilities doesn’t improve self-esteem. Studies show that people with low self-esteem feel worse about themselves after reciting positive affirmations. 6
When you have an appropriate level of self-esteem, you eliminate many roadblocks that stand between you and your goals. But, maintaining the right amount of self-esteem is a delicate balancing act. Unfortunately, when you tip the scale in either direction, you can get yourself in trouble.
Here’s what life looks like when your self-esteem is too low, too high, or just right.
When you lack self-esteem, you give your skills, abilities, and opinions little value. As a result, you avoid opportunities, keep yourself from learning, and are afraid to be yourself.
Low self-esteem is the equivalent of cutting yourself off at the knees. Because you never put your hat in the ring, you rarely, if ever, get ahead.
Developing too much self-esteem is the fastest way to become a jerk. That’s because when you have an excessive amount of self-esteem, you put an unrealistic value on yourself, your opinions, and your abilities.
This problem was a common side effect of the self-esteem movement. When you praise people without reason and continually tell them they’re ‘special,’ it’s not long before they believe it. For the same reasons, this issue is also a side-effect of the modern-day affirmation movement.
With an over-inflated self-image, you believe you’re always right. Unfortunately, this belief harms your personal life.
Because you feel justified in doing anything you want, you lose the ability to see your flaws and receive feedback from others. This lack of self-awareness makes it impossible to improve because you can’t identify and learn from your mistakes.
This belief also hurts your relationships. That’s because when you believe you’re always right, you don’t feel the need to apologize or correct hurtful behavior. This lack of accountability leaves people feeling frustrated and disrespected, which ultimately weakens the relationship.
When you have an appropriate level of self-esteem, you believe in yourself enough to take action but remain humble enough to learn from your mistakes. As a result, you use your talents, pursue opportunities, and learn new skills.
Additionally, your relationships flourish because you treat people with dignity and respect.
While many believe you need self-esteem to succeed, the opposite is true. Self-esteem is a byproduct of success. You gain self-esteem when you overcome challenges.
Self-esteem isn’t a gift. What the self-esteem movement failed to understand is that you can’t give someone self-esteem. Like confidence, self-esteem is earned.
Given this information, here are four ideas that can help you succeed and, as a result, build self-esteem.
One way to become successful is by improving your skills.
If you lack self-esteem in a certain area, ask yourself what skills you need to improve. Here’s an example.
Perhaps you feel insecure about being unemployed. You might be in that position because you don’t have any valuable skills. In this case, you could increase your odds of getting a job by learning how to become valuable to an employer. That might involve taking a course, learning a trade, or going back to school.
You can also use this idea to build self-esteem in others. For example, perhaps your child believes they are bad at math because they failed a test. In this case, you can help your child succeed by teaching them the math skills they need.
Many people pick a challenge that is too big when they begin. As a result, they feel overwhelmed and then discouraged when they fail. This mistake tends to lower self-esteem.
The best way to fix this problem is by picking an appropriate challenge. Aim to find a challenge that is hard enough to feel meaningful but doesn’t lead to failure.
For example, if you’re learning to play a new instrument, there’s little value in starting with advanced songs. A better approach is starting with beginner songs and increasing the level of difficulty as your skills improve.
Reducing the difficulty of what you are doing can also be helpful if you’ve reached your potential. For example, maybe your self-esteem has taken a hit because you’re a 50-year-old athlete who can no longer keep up with the 20-year-olds.
In this case, you can improve your self-esteem by setting more realistic goals. That might look like trying to win your age-group division instead of winning the race.
People who lack an appropriate level of self-esteem spend too much time focusing on the wrong things.
Those with too little self-esteem give too much attention to feeling inadequate. They beat themselves up for not being good enough, being a loser, or falling behind.
In contrast, people with too much self-esteem focus on their egos. Because they are terrified of being wrong or looking like a failure, they do everything in their power to maintain a perfect image.
Here’s the problem with this behavior. When you focus on the wrong things, you have no attention left for the right things. Because your mind is flooded with negative thoughts, you lose the ability to focus on what matters.
One way to fix this problem is by practicing self-compassion. In short, self-compassion is the act of being kind to yourself.
Self-compassion works because it quiets the overly critical voice in your head. What was a stream of negative thoughts becomes a voice of understanding, forgiveness, and acceptance. Ultimately, reducing your focus on negative thoughts makes it possible to focus on what matters.
To develop more self-compassion, treat yourself like you’d treat a friend.
For example, if your friend was unemployed, would you call them a loser and tell them to give up? I’m guessing not. It’s more likely that you be kind and encourage them to continue interviewing. What’s ironic is that many people don’t extend this same courtesy to themselves.
So, if you’re too hard on yourself, stop. Understand that it’s normal to make mistakes or lack skills, and cut yourself some slack. Then, refocus on what matters and get to work.
Honest feedback leads to success because it helps you find your target. For instance, a compliment from your boss acts as a signal to keep doing what you’re doing. And constructive criticism from your boss acts as a signal to stop doing what you’re doing.
When you praise people for everything, you take away their guidance system. If everything is good, they no longer know what to avoid. This approach can lead to trouble. For example, imagine trying to maintain a happy marriage without being able to express what you did and didn’t like.
Feedback can also act as a strong motivator. Because praise feels good, many people work to earn it. But, when you praise people for everything the praise itself loses its merit. When this happens, people stop working to earn praise because they can easily get it for free.
You can fix these problems by doing two things.
First, let go of the belief that constructive criticism lowers self-esteem. As you’ve seen, honest feedback can build self-esteem because it helps you succeed.
And second, work on your delivery. Constructive criticism can quickly become criticism. You’ll get a lot farther if you learn how to deliver your message in a kind and respectful way. You can do this by:
A common problem people face when developing an appropriate level of self-esteem is overcoming the fear of failure.
When you lack self-esteem, failure feels inevitable because you have no belief in yourself or your abilities. With too much self-esteem, admitting failure feels terrifying because it exposes your flaws.
One of the best ways to overcome fears is by using exposure therapy. Exposure therapy works by showing your brain that what you think is scary isn’t actually that scary.
To practice exposure therapy, begin by taking a small risk. Then, compare what you expected to happen to what actually happened.
For example, maybe you never talk to people because you fear rejection and humiliation. If that’s the case, you might begin by casually asking someone for the time and observing what happens. Chances are, they’ll happily give you the time. This small success shows your brain that not all social interactions lead to failure, rejection, and humiliation.
Once you feel comfortable asking for the time, continue upping the ante. You might ask for directions, then restaurant advice, and eventually strike up a conversation with a stranger.
While it’s not a good idea to habitually praise people without reason, that doesn’t mean you should never do it. If your child is being bullied at school or your spouse had a rough day at work, giving them some unearned praise is a great idea.
The only caveat here is to make sure you don’t praise someone for harmful behavior. That’s because doing so will encourage them to continue the behavior and make their situation worse.
Here are the key takeaways from this article.
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