Do You Have “Too Much” Self-Esteem?

The woman ahead of you on line is talking so loudly into her phone that everyone in the store can hear all about her mani-pedi and her yeast infection.

Those teenagers at the panoramic overlook are blocking everyone’s view and shattering the serenity by shouting into the canyon and snapping selfies.

Just one week after being hired as a clerk, Josh demands a meeting with the CEO, during which he demands to know why he hasn’t yet been made a manager.

Our society idealizes high self-esteem. But at its most stratospheric elevations, high self-esteem sometimes manifests as narcissism, elitism and outright cruelty.

During the 1980s, a new movement began in American schools, based on a California assemblyman’s theory that higher self-esteem would reduce drug abuse, teenage pregnancy, crime and dropout rates among the young. Students were urged to make “me” flags in class, and to chant daily affirmations such as I am beautiful and Everyone loves me.

This agenda, and the multibillion-dollar industry that rose around it, have not worked out precisely as planned. Studies show that since 1986, young people’s self-esteem has increased significantly. But this hasn’t stemmed drug addiction, dropouts or other social woes. In fact, one long-term study found that college students are now twice as narcissistic as college students were in 1982; other studies link high self-esteem with high rates of aggression, territorialism and racism.

Still more studies show that the Millennial Generation is demonstrably less likely than baby boomers and Gen-Xers to care about current events and to work in the healing or helping professions. One report, published in the journal of the American Psychological Association, even suggests that people with high self-esteem are particularly prone to violence.

Having dragged the heavy ball-and-chain of self-loathing for decades, I would have benefited hugely from a slightly brighter self-image. But my perspective from the low end of the self-esteem spectrum has also shown me quite clearly how people with high self-esteem often prey upon those with low self-esteem, manipulating or abusing them for personal advancement and/or sheer joy.

Some people are simply not nice to begin with. Raise the self-esteem of a not-nice person and he or she just becomes a better bully.

Psychologists warn that people who possess what they call “fragile self-esteem” — that is, sky-high self-esteem based on grandiose, unmerited praise — anger easily and are highly susceptible to every perceived slight. They’re also vulnerable to depression upon facing the harsh realities of the real world.

In my book Unworthy: How to Stop Hating Yourself, I urge readers to aim for the center of the self-esteem spectrum: the serene, self-aware midpoint at which we can see our flaws but also our strengths.

Both super-low and super-high self-esteem are forms of self-absorption that blind us to others and, in fact, to everything in the world besides ourselves.


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