Why You Should Let Go of Your Self-Esteem

By: Michael McQueen

Everybody loves an ego boost. The word of encouragement from the colleague, the compliment from the spouse or the pat on the back from the boss work wonders for our sense of self-esteem.

Self-esteem is a very modern idea and one that is talked about abundantly within schools, workplaces and self-help books. The way we feel about ourselves is instrumental in affecting the way we treat others, the way we behave and the way we work. It has become the everyday individual’s responsibility to protect their self-esteem.

However, the modern world’s obsession with self-esteem hasn’t come without its dangers. Here are 3 negative repercussions of a self-esteem obsession.

1. Apathy

Especially for younger generations, the modern preoccupation with democratising achievement has in many cases removed genuine motivation. After all, if every runner in the race gets a trophy, why bother trying too hard? Jean Twenge argues that we ought to remember that self-esteem is an outcome rather than a cause and giving affirmation without a basis for it actually encourages laziness.[1]

2. Desensitisation

For the generations that have grown up being repeatedly told how exceptional, amazing and gifted they are (regardless of the basis for such affirmation), such praise eventually loses its potency. It becomes almost a case of the teacher or parent ‘who cried wolf’ – when praise is not genuine and earned, it has lost all meaning and therefore carries little weight.[2]

3. Dependence

There’s an old saying that ‘we tend to crave what we feed on’. How true that is. For a generation raised on a steady diet of constant external praise, validation and affirmation, a dependence has developed.

This dependence has led to the kids of the self-esteem era to develop what is often referred to by psychologists as an ‘external locus of control’. Put simply, this means they tend to look externally for validation and a sense of worth.

In contrast, those born before 1979 tended to have an internal locus of control where the most valuable form of affirmation or validation was self-affirmation or self-validation. This meant that older generations tended to be motivated to try hard and apply themselves because doing so felt good. Pride in their work and a sense of accomplishment was validation enough. They didn’t rely on a sense of self-esteem – it wasn’t even invented yet!

The effects of an external locus of control are not difficult to discern. The lack of resilience often attributed to younger generations, the need for immediate gratification and the obsession with likes and interactions on social media can be traced back to just this.

In a similar vein, research by Oxford Economics in 2015 found that Millennials want to be praised 50 per cent more often at work than older generations.[3] While this is often seen by employers as evidence that young people are merely high maintenance, it is actually a result of the fact that they have been raised on a steady diet of external affirmation their entire lives.

Leading social psychologist Roy Baumeister led an extensive research review of the flow-on effects of the self-esteem movement in schools and found clear evidence that it doesn’t lead to better grades, improved work performance, decreased violence, or less cheating. He concluded, ‘After all these years, I’m sorry to say, my recommendation is this: forget about self-esteem and concentrate more on self-confidence and self-discipline.’[4]

While no-one could argue against the value of self-confidence and self-discipline, I’d argue that the healthier counterbalance to the flawed self-esteem philosophy is actually self-efficacy. Loosely defined, self-efficacy is a deeply held belief that ‘I can do this’ that’s closely related to what Martin Seligman called ‘mastery’.[5]

Core to the notion of building self-efficacy or mastery is challenge. It is setting high standards, allowing students to ‘feel the stretch’, giving them support, but, critically, resisting any instinct to rescue them or lower the bar when things get tough. This is simply because the process of overcoming challenges and rising to the occasion is where mastery and self-efficacy are built.

In both the classroom and the workplace, diluting difficulty, inflating perceived success and removing risk are devastating to the development of self-efficacy. It may make parents happy and students feel good in the short-term, but the long-term consequences for development are enormous.

As Erica McWilliam suggests in ‘The Creative Workforce’, ‘Learning is a risky business – it can’t be roses all the way. If the creative worker is to have the requisite capacity to be a tough self- regulator, someone who is willing and able to throw passably good work in the bin in order to shoot for more, then affirmation alone won’t do it. In fact, piling on the affirmation may be counter-productive, contributing to vulnerability, a preference for ‘easy success’, and the need for constant reassurance, rather than building emotional and mental robustness.’[6]

In characteristically candid language, McWilliam goes on to argue that modern teaching can often ‘look more like amateurish therapy than able tuition. When this happens, the educational project is diverted towards ego-protection and away from rigorous thinking and doing.’[7]

The same applies in business. Allowing teaching, leadership and your own personal growth to become anchored in a sense of high self-esteem bears the risk of having that self-esteem damaged by the challenges that will inevitably come.

Replacing self-esteem with self-efficacy, a sense of purpose, determination and confidence, will foster an approach to challenges that increases the chances of success but builds a resilience and resolve that are able to withstand failure.

[1] Twenge, J. 2006, Generation Me, Free press, New York, p. 67.

[2] Seligman, M. 2007, The Optimistic Child, Houghton Mifflin, New York, pp. 286, 287.

[3] Willyerd, K. 2015, ‘Millennials Want To Be Coached At Work’, Harvard Business Review, 27 February.

[4] Twenge, J. 2006, Generation Me, Free press, New York, p. 66.

[5] Ibid.

[6] McWilliam, E. 2008, The Creative Workforce, UNSW Press, Sydney, p. 111.

[7] Ibid., p. 113.

Article supplied with thanks to Michael McQueen.

About the Author: Michael is a trends forecaster, business strategist and award-winning conference speaker.