Self-esteem is the subjective measure of a person's value—the worth that one believes one has as an individual. Psychologists since William James have attempted to define this self-appraisal in such as way as to measure it objectively, but with only mixed results. Low self-esteem has been implicated in bullying, although research suggests that people are more likely to use violence when they possess an unrealistically high self-esteem. The expectation that self-esteem was important in success, both academically in school and in life, led to efforts to increase self-esteem in students. However, such increases, without concomitant improvements in skills or increases in knowledge, are as false as those of bullies, with equally unfortunate results.
True self-esteem reflects the real value of a person, which does not depend on any specific ability compared to others, but rather resides in their integrity as a person who fulfills their potential with regard to their unique talents and abilities, who relates harmoniously with others, and who is responsible in relationship to their environment.
The concept of self-esteem has its origins in the eighteenth century, first expressed in the writings of David Hume, the Scottish Enlightenment thinker. He noted in his Treatise of Human Nature (1740) that "a well-founded but concealed self-esteem is approved (is a virtue)" while excessive pride or conceit is a vice: "Self-esteem founded on an accurate assessment of one’s strengths and politely concealed from others, though, is both agreeable and advantageous to its possessor without being distressing to others."
In psychology, self-esteem or self-worth refers to a person's subjective appraisal of himself or herself as intrinsically positive or negative (Sedikides & Gregg 2003).
Self-esteem involves both self-relevant beliefs and associated emotions. It also finds expression in behavior. In addition, self-esteem can be construed as an enduring personality characteristic (trait) or as a temporary psychological condition. Finally, self-esteem can be specific to a particular dimension ("I believe I am a good writer, and feel proud of that in particular") or global in extent ("I believe I am a good person, and feel proud of myself in general").
The identification of self-esteem as a distinct psychological construct is found in the work of William James, published in 1890. One of the oldest concepts in psychology, self-esteem is the third most frequently occurring theme in psychological literature (Rodewalt & Tragakis 2003). Given such a long and varied history, it is not surprising to find that many theoretical perspectives have their own definition of self-esteem. Three major definitions exist, each of which has generated its own research, findings, and practical applications.
Ratio of success to failure
The original definition by William James sees self-esteem as a ratio of successes compared to failures in areas of life that are important to a given individual, or that individual’s "success (to) pretensions" ratio (James 1890). Albert Bandura in his theory of social learning developed the concept of "self-efficacy" which is similar to this concept of self-esteem.
Self-efficacy is an impression that one is capable of performing in a certain manner or attaining certain goals (Ormrod, J. E. 2006). It is a belief that one has the capabilities to execute the courses of actions required to manage prospective situations. Unlike efficacy, which is the power to produce an effect (in essence, competence), self-efficacy is the belief (whether or not accurate) that one has the power to produce that effect.
It is important here to understand the distinction between self-esteem and self-efficacy. Self-esteem relates to a person’s sense of self-worth, whereas self-efficacy relates to a person’s perception of their ability to reach a goal. For example, say a person is a poor rock climber. They would likely regard themselves a poor efficacy in regard to rock climbing, but this would not necessarily affect their self-esteem since for most people their self-esteem is not greatly invested in this activity.
Problems come from making self-esteem contingent upon success: This implies inherent instability because failure can occur at any moment (Crocker and Park 2004}. Thus, James also described self-esteem as an "average self feeling … independent of objective reasons," a characteristic also known as self-worth, worthiness, or personal worth.
In the mid 1960s Maurice Rosenberg and social-learning theorists defined self-esteem in terms of a stable sense of personal worth or worthiness, measurable by self-report testing such as the Self-Esteem Survey (SES). In describing the theoretical assumptions behind instruments such as the SES, Anastasi and Urbina state that "there is widespread agreement that self-esteem (is) a general evaluative attitude (and) a crucial determinant of … coping ability and a sense of well-being." This became the most frequently used definition for research, but involves problems of boundary-definition, making self-esteem indistinguishable from such things as narcissism or simple bragging (Baumeister, Smart, & Boden 1996).
Nathaniel Branden (1969) defined self-esteem as a relationship between one’s competence and one’s worthiness. This definition sees self-esteem as the result of dealing with challenges of living in a worthy or respectable way and doing so consistently over time. This two-factor approach is a balanced definition that seems to be capable of dealing with limits of defining self-esteem primarily in terms of competence or worth alone (Mruk 2006). In Branden’s (1969) description, self-esteem includes the following primary properties:
- A basic human need: "It makes an essential contribution to the life process," "is indispensable to normal and healthy self-development, and has a value for survival."
- An automatic and inevitable consequence of the sum of individuals' choices in using their consciousness.
- Something experienced as a part of, or background to, all of the individual’s thoughts, feelings, and actions.
American psychologist Abraham Maslow included self-esteem in his hierarchy of human needs. He described two kinds of esteem needs—the need for respect from others and the need for self-respect. Maslowian self-esteem entails competence, confidence, mastery, achievement, independence, and freedom. Respect from others entails recognition, acceptance, status, and appreciation. Without the fulfillment of these needs, Maslow suggested, an individual feels discouraged, weak and inferior. For most people, the need for regard from others diminishes with age (because they have already received it) and the need for self-regard becomes more important.
For Carl Rogers, true self-esteem recognizes one's limitations while maintaining an individual self satisfaction that does not require continuous validation. Similarly, Ryan and Deci (2000) differentiated between "contingent" self-esteem and "true" self-esteem where the former is based on achieving externally set standards while the latter is based on behavior regulated by personal choice and control.
For the purposes of empirical research, self-esteem is typically assessed by a self-report questionnaire yielding a quantitative result. The validity and reliability of the questionnaire are established prior to use. The two most widely used measurement instruments are the Self Esteem Scale developed by Morris Rosenberg and the Self Perception Profile by Susan Harter.
The quality of self-esteem can be indirectly assessed in several ways:
- in terms of its constancy over time (stability)
- in terms of its independence upon particular conditions being met (non-contingency)
- in terms of how ingrained it is at a basic psychological level (implicitness or automaticity).
Self-esteem vs narcissism
There is an apparent similarity between self-esteem and narcissism. However, there are a number of important differences between true self-esteem and narcissism. Narcissism is characterized by self-centeredness, constantly sought attention, excessive admiration of self, and socialization only with high status people (Davison, Neale, and Kring 2003).
Kernis and Goldman (2001) described some commonly considered characteristics of self-esteem that do not help in one's adaptation and achievement. Seven of these characteristics are
- excessive pride
- feeling of superiority to most
- willingness to defend against any perceived threats to self-esteem
- self promotion
- behavior that hides any sign of weakness
- tendency to undermine the legitimacy of any perceived threat to self esteem
- extraordinary measures to protect, maintain, and enhance positive feelings.
These attributes can be contrasted with characteristics of self-esteem theories emphasizing the adaptation-aiding goal of self-esteem. Since most theory-based definitions emphasize that self-esteem contributes in some way to the healthy adaption of the individual, these seven characteristics must be considered the basis of a false sense of self-esteem. They are not the characteristics of a self-esteem encouraged in youth by teachers and parents. They are, however, comparable to those of narcissism.
Bushman and Baumeister (1998) have described narcissism in terms similar to the "false" self-esteem. The self-efficacy that should lead to self-esteem works from an emotional base in the narcissist resulting in an inflated, unfounded sense of self worth. (Most healthy self-efficacy has a cognitive base.) The narcissist hides insecurity and defensiveness behind a false front of self-regard. "Narcissists care passionately about being superior to others" and seek constant validation by trying to win the "approval and admiration of others" (Bushman & Baumeister 1998).
Self-esteem and bullying
It was commonly assumed that bullies act violently towards others because they suffer from low self-esteem, although supporters of this position offered no controlled studies to back up this belief. In contrast to the assumptions, research has indicated that bullies act the way that they do because they suffer from unearned high self-esteem.
Violent criminals often describe themselves as superior to others—as special, elite persons who deserve preferential treatment. Many murders and assaults are committed in response to blows to self-esteem such as insults and humiliation. To be sure, some perpetrators live in settings where insults threaten more than their opinions of themselves. Esteem and respect are linked to status in the social hierarchy, and to put someone down can have tangible and even life-threatening consequences. …The same conclusion has emerged from studies of other categories of violent people. Street-gang members have been reported to hold favorable opinions of themselves and turn to violence when these estimations are shaken. Playground bullies regard themselves as superior to other children; low self-esteem is found among the victims of bullies, but not among bullies themselves. Violent groups generally have overt belief systems that emphasise their superiority over others (Baumeister 2001).
However, such research did not take into account the lack of a clear and universally agreed upon definition of self-esteem. In his own work, Baumeister has often used a "common use" definition: Self-esteem is how one regards him or herself (or how one appears to regard him or herself) regardless of how this view was cultivated. Other psychologists believe that a "self esteem" that depends on external validation of the self (or other people's approval), such as what seems relevant in the discussion of violent people, is not, in fact, "true" self-esteem.
Nathaniel Branden labeled this "pseudo self-esteem," arguing that "true self-esteem" comes from internal sources, such as self responsibility, self sufficiency, and the knowledge of one's own competence and capability to deal with obstacles and adversity, regardless of what other people think. In this view, Baumeister mistook narcissism as "high self-esteem" in criminals. Such narcissism is an inflated opinion of self, built on shaky grounds, and violence results when that opinion comes under threat. Those with "true" self-esteem, who valued themselves and believed wholly in their own competence and worth, would have no need to resort to violence or have any need to prove superiority.
Self-esteem and success
From the late 1960s to the early 1990s it was assumed as a matter of course that a student's self-esteem was a critical factor in their academic achievement in school, in their relationships with their peers, and in their later success in life.
The concept of self-improvement has undergone dramatic change since 1911, when Ambrose Bierce mockingly defined self-esteem as "an erroneous appraisement." Good and bad character are now known as "personality differences." Rights have replaced responsibilities. The research on egocentrism and ethnocentrism that informed discussion of human growth and development in the mid-twentieth century is ignored; indeed, the terms themselves are considered politically incorrect. A revolution has taken place in the vocabulary of self. Words that imply responsibility or accountability—self-criticism, self-denial, self-discipline, self-control, self-effacement, self-mastery, self-reproach, and self-sacrifice—are no longer in fashion. The language most in favor is that which exalts the self — self-expression, self-assertion, self-indulgence, self-realization, self-approval, self-acceptance, self-love, and the ubiquitous self-esteem (Ruggiero 2000).
Based on the assumption that high self-esteem was key to success, many American groups created programs to increase the self-esteem of students. The expectations of these programs were that grades would increase, conflicts would decrease, and happy, successful lives would follow. Until the 1990s, however, little peer-reviewed and controlled research was done on the relationship between self esteem and success. Peer-reviewed research undertaken since then has not validated previous assumptions. Later research indicated that inflating students' self-esteem has no positive effect on grades, and one study even showed that inflating self-esteem by itself can actually decrease grades (Baumeister 2005).
High self-esteem has been shown to correlate highly with self-reported happiness. However, it is not clear which, if either, necessarily leads to the other (Baumeister 2004).
A review of self-esteem literature by Roy Baumeister confirmed that high self-regard per se is not necessarily good nor does it translate into higher estimates by others of a person's intellect, appearance, or virtue. Self-esteem as panacea is but "a very compelling illusion." Some social constructionists have argued that modern day America, with its overwhelming cultural bias towards self-enhancement, has promoted self-esteem as a universal human goal that all must strive towards perfecting. This assumption of universality fails to consider the absence of such an emphasis in other flourishing cultures, where high self-esteem is not as celebrated and central a concept. It also does not take into account the relationship between self-esteem and fulfillment based on self-valued accomplishment.
In a policy paper for the Center for Equal Opportunity, Nina H. Shokraii noted that self-esteem that is not based on actual accomplishments "threatens to deny children the tools they will need in order to experience true success." Ryan and Deci have emphasized that autonomy is more of a determinant of sustainable achievement than self-esteem is. A person will be more persistent with work that is autonomously chosen whether or not they have high levels of self-esteem. It is the accomplishment of a goal that is internally motivating that leads to true self-esteem; and only this type of self-esteem is a worthy goal.
The American psychologist Albert Ellis criticized on numerous occasions the concept of self-esteem as essentially self-defeating and ultimately destructive:
There seem to be only two clearly demonstrated benefits of high self-esteem....First, it increases initiative, probably because it lends confidence. People with high self-esteem are more willing to act on their beliefs, to stand up for what they believe in, to approach others, to risk new undertakings. (This unfortunately includes being extra willing to do stupid or destructive things, even when everyone else advises against them.)...It can also lead people to ignore sensible advice as they stubbornly keep wasting time and money on hopeless causes (Baumeister & Tierney 2012).
Acknowledging that rating and valuing behaviors and characteristics is functional and even necessary, he sees rating and valuing human beings' totality and total selves as irrational and unethical. He suggests a healthier alternative to self-esteem to be unconditional self-acceptance and unconditional other-acceptance (Ellis 2005). Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy is a psychotherapy based on Ellis' approach (Ellis 2004).
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