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Did you know that the self-esteem movement has been a failure? It appears that the main reason for this is that simply feeling good about yourself is not enough. But this comes as no surprise because, after all, if feeling good about yourself was the key to success, then we might as well answer all of life’s problems by getting high.
Of course it feels good being validated or praised, but it becomes a problem when you’re constantly told you’re an awesome special snowflake no matter what, especially when you know you haven’t earned it. You can be blinded and addicted to an idealized version of yourself.
When you get blinded and addicted to an idealized version of yourself, you’re more likely to end up justifying a lot of things you shouldn’t because it becomes your main source of validation. The more a person goes without an honest sense of congruence, the more deceitful they become with themselves. In fact, people with high self-esteems are the ones most prone to violent and aggressive behavior. Like with alcohol or drugs, you will no longer think about the repercussions or see the truth to what you’re doing, as long as you get what you’re addicted to. You become the typical “douche,” clueless to what truly defines things from beneath the surface because you’re conditioned to focus on appearances.
What makes addiction difficult is that it reaches a point where the addict is unable to function without the “drug” he or she is addicted to, like an alcoholic needing alcohol to work or a chain smoker being unable to work without smoking. It gets more difficult the longer it goes, and the problem becomes more painful to address the further one runs away from it, not to mention the difficult withdrawal phase when the problem is finally confronted.
While self-esteem has been a big part of personal development, it has often been mistaken for a quick fix. It became a “feel good movement” such that the real foundations of self-esteem are missing. It became more of a magic pill, a symptom focused approach rather than addressing and fixing the root cause. This misunderstanding has led to the enabling of narcissism, conditioning a lot to feel they are the ‘chosen ones’ who ‘piss excellence’ even if they’re not.
“You are special”; “You’re the greatest”; “We piss excellence” can easily be said on the surface, but these are supposedly the effects of something real that is happening from within. There has to be a genuine foundation or good cause.
Self-esteem has been oversold and we have overdosed on it. Self-belief is great, but when it’s excessive or forced and with no good basis, it’s not. Due to this chase, we have more people with fragile self-esteems. People are more entitled, anxious, insecure, and depressed than ever. Man-children are on the rise. We have more people who say they are “steady,” but in reality they are not.
The self-esteem movement began after famous psychotherapist Nathaniel Branden published his book Psychology of Self-Esteem in 1969. It became a model and a big part of the educational culture for many American schools as a way to instill self-confidence among students (i.e. handing out awards and trophies like skittles). Countries who follow the practice of American schools did the same. It started with good intentions, but after 40 years it turns out that having high self-esteem doesn’t necessarily improve academic performance or social skills; and it turns out that there is little evidence that self-esteem leads to interpersonal success, happiness, and healthier lifestyles.
Branden seemed to have focused too much on reason and competence. In 2005, renowned psychologist Albert Ellis confirmed this in his book, The Myth of Self-Esteem, and blamed the cause of many fragile self-esteems on Nathaniel’s focus on reason and competence.
You can always rationalize things or be good at doing things, the difference is understanding the real meaning behind them. Once we acquired the knowledge from Branden that “feelings of self-esteem were the key to success in life,” many of us hopped on the bandwagon. But knowledge is different than understanding. Eventually, Nathaniel Branden moved away from reason and competence as he pushed for a more comprehensive understanding of self-esteem. He published several books, including The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem which encompasses mindfulness, personal integrity, living purposefully, self-assertiveness, self-responsibility, and self-acceptance. Believing in oneself doesn’t mean disregarding bad behaviors and not being accountable for them. To believe in yourself doesn’t mean you stop putting yourself in other people’s shoes.
“Knowing is comprehension; understanding is deeper because it comes from empathy or identification.”
― Matt Zoller Seitz, Different Rules Apply
Self-esteem is comprised of the implicit and the explicit. Implicit self-esteem refers to your natural, unconscious disposition. It is a reflection of who you really are underneath. While explicit self-esteem is more about what you show on the outside and how you evaluate yourself (or what you tell yourself). The relationship between these two defines what comprises a healthy, secure self-esteem.
When we say a person is too proud or has a very high self-esteem, what we really mean is that he or she is high on explicit self-esteem but low on implicit self-esteem. The person is all talk and no walk or nothing real from within and disconnected from the facts, even disconnected from reality. This is called the discrepant high self-esteem. The name says it all and what it really means is that the self-esteem in question is fragile.
Research findings show that participants who have discrepant high self-esteem possessed the highest levels of narcissism, while participants who showed high explicit self-esteem and high implicit self-esteem are the ones who displayed the “most stable self-esteem.” Thus, they are the ones who have the secure high self-esteem. The takeaway is to work on both but the emphasis should be on the core which is working on your real self, the real you behind closed doors.
In other words, don’t work on your appearances alone, work as well on what’s really going on “inside.” Having a healthy self-esteem requires congruence between the implicit and the explicit or the congruence with what’s really happening in your life, what you tell yourself, and how you display it. Someone with a fragile self-esteem is like a fake burger that doesn’t have 100% genuine beef but just fillers or like a crappy scene in a bad movie sprinkled with feel good music.
To have a healthy and secure high self-esteem means seriously working on your life. There’s no other way. Just like a lot of things in life, developing a healthy and strong self-esteem takes time and effort. It involves developing resiliency by going through life, which at times is hard. It requires having necessary, uncomfortable conversations and brutal self-honesty. It requires empathizing with others. It requires taking risks, expanding your identity by going beyond the bubble you find yourself in, understanding complexities, challenging your beliefs, facing difficulty, pain, adversity, and disappointments when they come.
We got self-esteem wrong primarily because of our focus on quick fixes, our tendency to simplify things and neglect root causes, and failing to see the bigger picture or understanding what intrinsic value really is. We’ve become too focused on finding comfort and what’s easily convenient. Perhaps we can blame the marketing media as well. And, yes, the pharma companies, the insurance companies, and the millionaires and billionaires—who profit from people’s sicknesses, insecurities, and fears—need to start paying their fair share of taxes.
There are many good things to enjoy—more than ever in fact—and technology has definitely made things easier for us. We seem more connected than before and we have come a long way. But in spite of it all, somehow, we still end up feeling like empty shells.