Beware of Pseudo Self-Esteem

by Stephen Mills on January 29, 2012

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

Amen.

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{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

Nea | Self Improvement Saga January 30, 2012 at 2:43 pm

Hi Stephen. I must say that I understand where you’re coming from here, but I have to disagree with a lot of it.

What I’ve found through working with clients as a life coach is that most people share your belief. They don’t feel entitled to feel 100% in love with themselves despite failures, misfortunes, mistakes and the like. Most people walk around believing that they aren’t good enough until they’ve done something to “prove it” in some way that matters to the world. In turn, they beat up on themselves inside. Their self esteem is low and they find it harder and harder to attain success and happiness.

I’ve found that moving them past these limiting beliefs is the start of getting unstuck. I never ask myself “is this person smart or good”, I ask “HOW is this person smart/good”. I help them to see what is wonderful about them and to feel good about that. It is only when they can embrace the inherent value that they have as a human being, that they feel truly capable and worthy of moving forward. And the moving forward begins.

Pseduo self esteem, in my opinion, is any definition of (or pride in) yourself that is defined by something outside of yourself.

The value of a person, the reason to appreciate who you are, is not in what you’ve done but in who you are. That is self esteem.
Nea | Self Improvement Saga´s last blog post ..Inspirational Thoughts: The Perfect Jumping Off Place

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Stephen Mills January 30, 2012 at 7:17 pm

Hello Nea,

I just don’t think you can separate “who you are” from “what you do”. If you do nothing you are nothing. So start right now this instant. You have that basic intrinsic self worth from being a human by default.

Now if you sit there and do nothing then you don’t deserve to feel good about yourself. You don’t have any reason to feel self-esteem. However if you strive to be good, to be true to your values, you will naturally develop greater feelings of self worth. If you work at something, if you strive towards goals, etc., then you will naturally develop great feelings of self-competence.

The self-esteem comes from from action. You can’t say “I’m a bump on a log now love me, think well of me, give me a gold star.” You have to earn that.

Now I don’t give a crap in hell what someone else thinks. I’m not trying to please others. But I will not achieve true self esteem by undeserved praise from my self or others. I have to earn it from myself by doing those kinds of things.

I think you are mistaking what I’m saying as “some way that matters to the world”. Not so. Self-esteem is based upon self. But it is not based on non-action. Otherwise it is false and the person will at some level know it.

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John September 4, 2012 at 12:15 am

Dear nice Stephen Mills, There are many types of action. Maybe you won’t see some of the actions of other people. If a person does an action in private, are you going to hold the person in low self-esteem? “Sitting and doing nothing” is a very general description. People can accomplish a lot while they are sitting, even if they don’t talk about what they are doing. Thank you.

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Fevie January 30, 2012 at 8:52 pm

I am not familiar with this but thanks for the best read here!I have learned a lot…
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Lionel January 30, 2012 at 8:57 pm

Hi Stephen,

Count me in Nea’s camp. While there is much value in what you say as to how to go about being successful, and it most certainly is an easier path to feel good about your accomplishments or effort, the focus on that as a “source” of self-esteem is problematic and ultimately for many a letdown.

Take some counter-examples. If you have had a lifetime of achievement, is a retiree who hasn’t yet found his/her place undeserving of self-esteem? How about someone temporarily unable to fulfill what they used to do? How about someone getting accolades and feeling empty inside anyway? For that matter, how about someone achieving exactly what they set out (internally driven), far above what they dreamed of and not feeling self-esteem?

And yes, it’s not an automatic path to achievement, without work. But, it’s not clear to me that starting from the bump-on-a-log as the zero basis for self-esteem is a winning strategy to move forward. It may well be that you (and me for that matter) can motivate ourselves by getting upset with being a bump-on-a-log, but what I ultimately draw on to achieve does not await the achievement.

Many, many people, in different life-circumstances, perhaps all of us at one time or another, will have to do the very difficult work of separating “who we are” from “what we do”.

respectfully,
Lionel

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Stephen Mills January 30, 2012 at 11:22 pm

Lionel,

I think you like Nea are misunderstanding what I’m saying. You seem to be thinking that I believe some kind of “success” as defined by society is required for self-esteem. I’m saying no such thing.

I don’t understand your retiree question at all. What exactly is there about a retiree anywhere in anything I’ve written that would exclude them from high self-esteem?

“How about someone temporarily unable to fulfill what they used to do?” What about them? I’m at a total loss as to what you believe I have written means someone who is in this situation would lose self-esteem. Quite the opposite. If I were to find myself in this position I don’t believe it would have any effect whatsoever on my self esteem. Now if someone finds themselves in this situation and sit like a bump on a log pitying themselves and doing nothing saying “pity me”, “poor me”, or looking in the mirror going “I love myself”, “I’m Wonderful” and doing nothing else then they probably will lose self-esteem. However you wouldn’t find me doing any such thing. I would do something else. I would have some goal of some kind. I would do something, and by working toward whatever it is I chose to do I would maintain my self-esteem. I simply don’t get what you think I’m suggesting here.

If you mean in your last sentence “what we do” as equivalent to “what we have done in the past” then I agree. However when I say you can’t separate who you are from what you do I don’t mean anything of the sort. I don’t mean what you did or what you do for a career. I mean what you are doing at any point in time. If I’m a retiree then that is what I do. If I play golf as a retiree then that is what I’m doing.

When I say you can’t separate what you are from what you do I mean that if you sit around pitying yourself then what you are is someone who sits around pitying yourself.

You seem to be saying you have some kind of desert independent of what you do. So if you choose to be a murderer who cannibalizes his victims I guess you can separate and love yourself for “who you are” and pretend like what you do doesn’t matter. You can have self esteem without regard to what you do because that is not who you are.

Sorry, not me. The two cannot be separated in the sense I have described.

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Lance January 31, 2012 at 7:08 am

You can legally use any name you wish , in an artsitic manner , as long as there is no intent ot mislead or decieve in a criminal fashion or otherwise prohibited ( such as a convicted criminal writing about his crimes under an assumed name for profit)
any artists from writers to actors use nom de plumes or nom de guerres for their public persona; in fact there exist a long tradition of such use.
Lance´s last blog post ..PPI

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Brian January 31, 2012 at 5:14 pm

Thanks Stephen. I enjoyed your straightforward style in this post. I think there are a couple of additional things people need to keep in mind.

If an achievement is going to build your self-esteem it has to matter to you. This is particularly true for kids. If you achieve just to make someone else happy or proud it isn’t going to help you one bit in terms of your own sense of self-worth.

The other thing we need to remember is that just because every kid isn’t good at math, which I completely agree with you on, doesn’t mean they’re not good at anything. We need to leave our value judgments about what is and isn’t worthwhile out of the equation when we’re working with others. Hard work is all well and good. It is very necessary. But, natural ability has to be taken into account. Working hard is not a guarantee of success. Of course, not working hard is pretty much a guarantee of failure.

I do agree that it is through our legit accomplishments that we build real and lasting self-esteem.

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Stephen Mills January 31, 2012 at 5:28 pm

Hi Brian, I totally agree. Self-esteem doesn’t come as result of any particular skill or achievement (math or anything else someone else thinks you should be good at) it comes from making progress on something YOU care about. That’s one reason I HATE the emphasis on standardized testing in schools now.

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Lovejoy January 31, 2012 at 7:30 pm

I don’t think its predetermined. I think experience in life can build confidence and you can repair this on your own if you work at it. Having supporting friends or spouse can also get you moving in the right direction.
Lovejoy´s last blog post ..Winterising Your Spa Or Hot Tub

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Gabby February 1, 2012 at 2:49 am

Having a Pseudo self-esteem, is like relying to other people. They can only feel that if they are with somebody who can help him and be at his back whenever he need the person.
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Akishya February 1, 2012 at 7:10 am

I know that having a Pseudo self-esteem is very difficult to understand. The problem of this kind of characteristic or attitude is a person needs somebody to boost their ego and confidence in order to move up.
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Enrika February 1, 2012 at 8:44 am

I am not that familiar with this before and through your post, it gives a lot of realizations to me…Thank you!
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Sabinna February 1, 2012 at 7:56 pm

I think people should be aware of this…Thank you for reminding..
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Jade Tan February 4, 2012 at 1:09 am

I have never read about this pseudo self-esteem and I’m glad that I dropped by and read this post. It was very informative. I was able to understand your points and I think you’re right for giving tips about it. I can see that you focused on children. I commend you for that because the formative years of a human being starts in his childhood. You may not know it but children learn and adapt a lot from his environment.

Thanks for sharing!

Jade Tan
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Alex Ferdinand February 4, 2012 at 7:25 am

Although the pseudo self-esteem s a very difficult topic to understand, I think this is a very well written article. It is very informative. We should definitely teach children to behave in a way which will lead to its natural development.

Thanks for sharing.

-Alex
Alex Ferdinand´s last blog post ..homes for sale in puchong

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Charitzie February 6, 2012 at 9:19 pm

I agree that this is what most people should be aware of…
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Prinses N. February 7, 2012 at 4:10 pm

Yeah, there are a lot of people showing off their pseudo self esteem. They misunderstand what true self esteem is. I hope people will be more aware of the differences. How do you measure true self esteem?

Thanks for distinguishing the differences.

-Prinses
Prinses N.´s last blog post ..how to pick up girls

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Xzania February 7, 2012 at 8:23 pm

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Charline February 8, 2012 at 8:22 am

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Janna February 8, 2012 at 10:34 am

Thank you for this…I am sure this can be a help too…
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Wenz28 February 9, 2012 at 10:50 pm

Its really great to be conscious for some other time, Because awareness is the factor trough best success.
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Sandy April 9, 2012 at 4:47 pm

Excellent article on pseudo self-esteem. We all need to be aware of our self esteem as well as the impact that it has on others.
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Sherry April 17, 2012 at 8:33 am

Too many people today are playing the pseudo esteem game by putting on a false facade of who they really are . many of them get caught up in this pretence only to find out that they have mislead lead their partners or relationships result in bitter separations or divorces as the secrets are uncovered.
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