Over the past few decades there has been a vast wave of pseudo self-esteem washing over our culture. Pseudo self-esteem has displaced true self-esteem and created a nation of the entitled and narcissistic, especially in the less than 45 age group.
True self-esteem is based upon an a self-appraisal of one’s own competence and worthiness. Pseudo self-esteem is based up feeling positive about oneself just because one exists or shows up. Please don’t misunderstand me. I believe that every individual deserves the benefit of the doubt. Every human has some basic worthiness as a matter of simply being a human. That is an intrinsic worth that is part of everyone. What this article is about is what goes beyond that. It is the result of personal action and intention. That true self-esteem can be high or low as a result. It is not a free-pass given by society.
Pseudo self-esteem arises when we heap underserved praise on others or on ourselves. I’m sorry but you don’t deserve a gold star just because you showed up. You don’t deserve credit just because you exist. Simply repeating affirmations that you are good doesn’t mean you behave in a way that could be called good. There has to be some basic values to which you strive to feel true self-worth. You must strive for accomplishment to feel true self-competence.
True self esteem comes as a result of actions and intentions. It is not something bestowed upon you by well meaning others. The culture of the self-esteem movement tells us that self-esteem leads to accomplishment. They have it exactly backwards. It is accomplishment that leads to true self esteem. You develop the sense of self-worth and competence because you strive for and sometimes achieve results.
Telling your child he is smart is not going to make him successful. In fact studies show it will make him avoid challenges that might shatter that illusion. Telling your child you are proud of his effort will encourage him to continue to strive. I feel I am good because I strive to be good and not because my mommy or my teacher told me I was good. You can tell a group of children “everyone wins”, but that simply strips all meaning from the word. At some level everyone knows whether they deserve the praise others have heaped upon them or that they heap upon themselves. When it is undeserved it doesn’t lead to true-self esteem. It leads to narcissism and entitlement.
I believe we should praise effort in others and ourselves. I can feel some sense of accomplishment if I tried hard and failed, but I will feel a greater sense if I tried and succeeded. I can feel some sense of worthiness if I try to be good (whatever your definition of “good”) and failed, but I will feel a greater sense of worthiness if I succeed in acting in accordance with some basic values.
If you want to feel good about yourself then try acting in a way that will lead to that feeling automatically. Staring at a mirror like Stuart Smalley and repeating affirmations to yourself is not going to do it. If you want to develop self-esteem in your children teach them to behave in a way which will lead to its natural development. Those American children who have been told daily how smart and good they are suck at math compared to the rest of the developed world. And yet they have lots of false self-esteem; they rate number #1 in confidence about their math abilities.
I think the following sums it up very well:
“Most feel that a sense of competence is strengthened through realistic and accurate self-appraisal, meaningful accomplishments, overcoming adversities, bouncing back from failures, and adopting such practices such as assuming self-responsibility and maintaining integrity which engender ones sense of competence and self-worth.”
— Robert Reasoner
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