The promotion of self-esteem in schools, self-help books, and media articles has gotten a bad rap in recent years, with many critics claiming high self-esteem has little to do with personal achievement or emotional resilience.
Certainly the critics do have a point in terms of self-esteem and academic achievement. For example there is no evidence that teenagers with high self-esteem perform better at school than those with lower levels of self-esteem. In fact, the opposite is often true – teenagers with low self-esteem often try very hard to please parents and teachers and end up getting better grades than more complacent students with high self-esteem.
There is also little evidence that high levels of self-esteem are essential for professional success. High self-esteem is somewhat advantageous in some professions such as sales, where it’s helpful to project a confident and enthusiastic persona, but it is not particularly important in technical jobs where diligence and practical expertise play a much bigger role.
However, there is one area where self-esteem is very important – personal happiness.
People who are prone to anxiety and depression are significantly more likely to have low self-esteem and some psychologists believe high self-esteem is the most important factor in keeping depression at bay. Individuals with low self-esteem are more likely to compare themselves to others and are more likely to base their self-worth on personal achievement. Comparing yourself to others is problematic, since there is no objective way to make a fair comparison, and basing your self-worth on personal success is dependent on being successful – an unstable basis for self-esteem since success is often fleeting and can’t be relied upon.
Self-esteem is also of increasing concern in today’s interconnected society. Young people are now constantly exposed to media images of wealthy, successful and physically attractive people, at the same time that the wealth gap between the rich and the poor is getting bigger. Hence, if someone is prone to comparing themselves to others it’s increasingly likely they will develop low self-esteem, and this in turn leaves them more vulnerable to developing a mood disorder. So from a mental health perspective, self-esteem is a very important issue.
However, instead of focusing on trying to boost everyone’s self-esteem, including those who may already have a high opinion of themselves, why not focus on improving the self-image of those who are more prone to developing anxiety and depression? For example, universities and training institutes could get incoming students to take personality tests to help identify those students who are more likely to develop mood disorders. They could then provide these students with workshops or self-help resources to help them develop a more realistic self-image. Similarly, counselors and social workers could put a greater emphasis on self-esteem issues when dealing with clients who are diagnosed with mood disorders.
The social and financial cost of anxiety and depression is now greater than for stroke and cardiovascular disease, so taking a more proactive and focused approach to dealing with self-esteem issues could be of considerable benefit to society.