Why Self-Esteem Is Self-Defeating

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Sep 14, 2017

Is having high self-esteem key to happiness? That's what children are told. But is it true? Or can that advice be doing more harm than good. Author and columnist Matt Walsh explains.

The pursuit of “high self-esteem” ends up leaving everyone empty, confused and, ironically, unhappy and hating themselves.

  • Columnist Matt Walsh argues that self-esteem is “a modern doctrine invented by the prophets of new age psychology...Worst of all, the pursuit of this elusive self-esteem elixir leaves everyone empty, confused, and, ironically, unhappy and hating themselves.”View Source
  • Self-esteem doesn’t come from anything a person does, it’s a fantasy that only exists in the mind.View Source
  • Our own concept of self-esteem is based on constantly changing criteria from ourselves and others, therefore, we can never really obtain high self-esteem.View Source

High self-esteem is good, right? Actually, the research is mixed and inconclusive, some even suggesting high self-esteem can be harmful.

  • Self-esteem is “measured” in unscientific and arbitrary ways, assigning numerical values to a person's subjective feelings.View Source
  • The research on self-esteem is mixed and inconclusive, reflecting the arbitrary nature of the concept. Some studies even suggest that high self-esteem can lead to disregarding risks and other harmful behaviors.View Source
  • Research is especially difficult because subjects tend to provide a favorable view of themselves.View Source

Self-esteem is really narcissism in disguise. The self-esteem movement encourages people to be self-focused and self-indulgent.

  • Feeling good about yourself with no basis is just narcissism. Negative emotions like doubt and fear can lead a person to change and better themselves.View Source
  • The definition of self-esteem used by psychologists is “belief in oneself; self-respect; undue pride or conceit.”View Source
  • WATCH: Scholar Roy Baumeister on self-esteem v. self-control.View Source

When people expect positive outcomes regardless of their performance, it makes them more self-centered and arrogant.

  • Expecting positive outcomes regardless of one’s performance leads to self-centeredness and arrogance.View Source
  • Some studies suggest that high self-esteem can lead to disregarding risks and other harmful behaviors.View Source
  • Related reading: “Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength” – Roy BaumeisterView Source

Apologists for the self-esteem movement say it’s simply about confidence, but its more accurately described as unearned confidence.

  • Self-esteem is perhaps best defined as unearned confidence. The person with “high self-esteem” feels good about himself on the basis of nothing. Feeling good about yourself with no basis is just narcissism.View Source
  • Confidence is built from negative experiences and growth, while self-esteem is based only on one’s subjective view of oneself.View Source
  • The self-esteem movement tries to argue that how you feel about yourself matters more than what you actually do.View Source
  • Earned confidence allows people to deal with societal pressures and build a life for themselves. When young people rely on unfounded self-esteem and don’t build real skills, the realization can be destructive.View Source
  • Related reading: “Self-Esteem: The Puzzle of Low Self-Regard” – Roy BaumeisterView Source

Self-esteem won’t help you at school, in your career, or in your relationships. Self-honesty and earned self-confidence will. 

  • Attempts to build self-esteem start early, and may be well-intentioned, but can have harmful effects later in life. The problems can begin with something as innocent as a participation trophy.View Source
  • People with high self-esteem may believe they are more successful, while in reality, they aren’t. People who are direct and honest with themselves are more likely to set lofty goals and actually succeed.View Source
  • Self-esteem proponents claims that the person is perfect the way they are and shouldn’t try to change, but relationships aren’t built on just accepting or tolerating another person — they require change and growth.View Source
  • There is little to no correlation between academic success and self-esteem.View Source

Self-esteem can’t motivate improvement. You only realize that you need to improve if you first acknowledge your flaws and imperfections. 

  • Columnist Matt Walsh on the importance of self-honesty: “Self-esteem can’t motivate improvement, because you can only confront the need for improvement if you first acknowledge your many flaws and imperfections.”View Source
  • Mistakes are inevitable, but self-compassion, not mindless self-esteem, is the key to learning from mistakes and succeeding in the future.View Source
  • WATCH: Scholar Roy Baumeister on the benefits of self-control.View Source

A recent study found that trying to improve students’ self-esteem instead of focusing on their academic weaknesses produced worse results.

  • A study from the University of Iowa found that trying to improve students’ self-esteem instead of focusing on their academic weaknesses produced worse results.View Source
  • There is little to no correlation between academic success and self-esteem. In fact, having too much self-esteem may negatively impact success. According to Roy Baumeister, “The effects of self-esteem are small, limited, and not all good.”View Source
  • Related reading: “To Succeed, Forget Self-Esteem” – Harvard Business ReviewView Source

I have no self-esteem.

I’m not saying I dislike myself, or that I have a problem with my self-image. And I don’t have low self-esteem. I’m just saying that I have no self-esteem at all.

Why? For the same reason that I have no pet unicorns. Self-esteem is a fantasy. It’s a meaningless fabrication that exists only in your imagination.

The dictionary defines "esteem" this way: “To regard with admiration.” Self-esteem, therefore, means to regard yourself with admiration. But is that how we should see ourselves?

If someone asked you who you admire, would you really want to answer, “Well, I admire myself"? Would that be a good thing?

I would say no... emphatically.

I was hardly a precocious kid, but I think I realized this “self-esteem” thing was a racket as far back as junior high. I remember when the guidance counselor at my school handed out a worksheet and asked us to “rate” our self-esteem on a scale of 1 to 10. Meanwhile, kids in China were learning silly things like “math” and “science.” Now we’re bankrupt and they own the country. But at least we all feel pretty good about ourselves.

In any case, there we were, facing the important task of arbitrarily quantifying our egos. When I asked my teacher why I should have high self-esteem, she said, “Because you’re special.” When I asked why I was special, she said, “Because you’re you!”

I found this an odd statement at the time, coming as it was from the woman who’d just given me a D on my last math quiz. Most of my classmates, though, quickly jotted down nines and tens. Incidentally, some of them would grow up to be unemployed alcoholics, but I’m guessing if they could take that test again, they’d score themselves exactly the same.

See, that's the whole point of self-esteem: to be proud of yourself even when there's no reason to be proud of yourself.

Of course, apologists will claim that self-esteem is simply about confidence, and that you need confidence to succeed in life. Okay. But if self-esteem is simply about confidence, then why don’t we just call it “confidence”?

Because confidence must be earned.

A student is confident about doing well on a test if he studies for it. An athlete is confident on the field if he practices. A singer is confident in her abilities if she, in fact, has abilities.

Self-esteem, on the other hand, can be defined as “unearned confidence.” The person with “high self-esteem” (also known as a “narcissist”) feels good about himself on the basis of nothing. We may ask him: "Why do you esteem yourself?" And his learned response will be: "Because I'm me."

Like a modern day Narcissus, he can’t see the world outside the window because he’s too busy whispering sweet nothings to his reflection in the glass.

In a saner, less confused time, people saw it the opposite way. It didn’t matter how you felt about yourself; it mattered what you did.

Funny – that’s what my parents taught me. I remember one time explaining very carefully to my dad that he couldn’t expect me to do my math assignment because math made me feel bad about myself. In return, he suggested that maybe I should study more and then math wouldn’t make me feel so bad. “But in the meantime,” he said, “it doesn’t matter how you feel. Do your homework.”

It doesn't matter how I feel? What a scandalous notion. I probably should have called social services.

If this self-esteem thing was just another benign form of entertainment, we could just laugh it off. But it’s become a serious problem because this “I’m special,” “love yourself,” “you get points for breathing” dogma taints everything it touches. It equips you for nothing. It won’t help you at school; it will stifle your career ambitions; and it will certainly wreak havoc on your relationships.

Sure, insecurity and self-doubt can also be defeating, but at least there’s a chance that they might drive you to be better. Self-esteem actually prevents improvement, because you can only improve if you first acknowledge what you’re not good at. But that process might take a toll on your self-esteem, so many people avoid it.

I’m not saying that you should hate yourself, and I’m not saying that you should have low self-esteem. I’m saying have no self-esteem ­– as in, stop thinking about it. Period.

Do good things with your life and you’ll have all the esteem you’ll ever need.

I’m Matt Walsh for Prager University.

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