Friday, March 4, 2011

The Joy of Self-Esteem: What It's Related to ... and What It's Not

First, for those of you who commented Wednesday, and for those of you who communicated with me over email, thank you for sharing your thoughts. I'm really honored to have these conversations with you.

Now. Self-esteem. The whole thing is kind of complicated. This won't be the only post I do on this topic. And before I get started, just a warning: If you look at my profile up there in the top righthand corner, it says "unapologetically empirical". That means I value good evidence over what-seems-like-it-should-be-true (most of the time, at least). Here's where I got my evidence for today's post: an article that reviews about 15,000 studies' worth of data on self-esteem.

Several decades ago, a few studies came out linking self-esteem to good outcomes for people. And some psychologists said, "America, self-esteem is where it's at."

Is anyone else vaguely creeped out by this?
We make people feel good about themselves and our problems are solved.  What's not to love about this idea?At least one state--California--spent tons o' money on initiatives meant to improve self-esteem. And then things got a little wild.  Folks started banning games of tag in school playgrounds and giving out prizes for nothing at all and tossing confetti at people.

And then researchers took a step back and ... did better research. And then a few others looked at all the studies together. Their findings?

Self-esteem is nice, but it ain't all that.

Sigh. These psychologists said, "Erm, America, we might have jumped the gun."

It turns out self-esteem is not strongly related to many outcomes. Not substance abuse. Not interpersonal success. For the things it is related to, there's no solid evidence that it CAUSES them. It's  related to depression but not considered a primary cause of it. It's also related to academic success ... but a close analysis suggests that success raises self-esteem, not the other way around. Interventions meant to increase student self-esteem haven't actually resulted in kids doing better in school.

High self-esteem does have its benefits. It's related to persistence in challenging tasks as well as happiness and emotional resilience. That's good stuff, and can really come in handy when you're a writer who's trying to make it to publication. People with high self-esteem rate themselves as prettier, smarter, more likeable, and generally shinier than others. It's not necessarily true, but it can keep you going, right? High self-esteem may be the fluffy buffer that protects some people from the slings and arrows of life (research results are actually mixed on this one).

Anyway, many of you said your self-esteem fluctuates depending on what's going on in your life--and depending on what part of your life we're talking about. Some of you are feeling discouraged, and you feel bad about yourselves. Some of you are really riding the rollercoaster right now, feeling different every day. Some of you are in a good place, and you're feeling fantastic about yourselves. Some of you are treading the middle path. Many of you tied that to your evaluations of your skill or success in one area or another. All that makes really good sense. What research seems to suggest is that events in our lives really have an affect on how we feel about ourselves, as much as or more than the reverse.

Self-esteem is a perception. It's not guaranteed, objective, verifiable reality. In fact, it sometimes veers sharply away from reality. You can be really good and still feel bad about yourself. You can suck and feel good. And feeling good feels GOOD. It's great, unless it holds you back from improving, which could be a huge problem for a writer. But if it lets you face the criticism, use it, and still be all right, that's the perfect place to be.

Like I said, there will be more on self-esteem and all its glorious complications. Next week, I'll be doing a post or two on bullying, and self-esteem's going to come up again.

Most of us have been taught about the importance of self-esteem from childhood, so do these results on self-esteem surprise you?


  1. That whole -- Let's give all the kids a trophy for whatever-it-is-they-did bothers the snot out of me. There's nothing to aspire to, why should they try if they know there's a prize no matter what. It's supposed to be good for their self-esteem but to me it doesn't do any good. There's no reason to try.

    And if they don't get a trophy, sure they feel bad, but they have to work harder the next time. And when they DO win the prize, well, then, there's the self-esttem.

    Sorry for the ramble. It's still early for me.

  2. Interesting read!

    I think that above all, people build their own self-esteems. So giving prizes won't help them at all if they don't feel like they deserve it...


  3. naw, it doesn't surprise me much. i always thought that boost on self-esteem education was a crock, even as a kid. i kind of blame a lot of that american idol syndrome (where a person is blatantly not good at something bu they insist they are the best) on that trend. i think the rise in narcissism as a society has been detrimental to the work force, where people don't think they should have to do anything they don't want to and have terrible attitudes about work. i think that it is much more important for people to know they are loved. beyond what they can do- or how wonderful they are- that they are loved. i think that mends a whole lot of difficulties and roadblocks to learning or success. but i think you are right, that bloated self-esteem can really stand in the way of self improvement. jiminey! i really rambled all over the place here... sorry! it's just you got me thinking! ouch!

  4. I think you make several excellent points here Sarah. For example I for one had problems with drugs and alcohol when I was a teen, but not because of self-esteem. I was just pissed off (and a bit of an ass).

  5. You have some great points here, Sarah. And I can already predict what you're going to say about bullying.

    My 8yo had troubles with self esteem. We've had to work on that, but like you said, it doesn't correlate to better grades. That's two separate issues. Fortunately that didn't come as a surprise to me.

  6. I suck and need to feel good. Please tell me how to do that. ;-)

    <3 This.


  7. Oh, and the hotdog is creepy. Does he know he's getting ready to be eaten? So, yeah ... he's SO not awesome. Ha!


  8. You guys are so smart. Seriously, I love your comments.

    Anne, Misha, and aspiring_x--you are completely correct. People put these interventions to improve self-esteem in place, often without knowing the roots of it. The assumption was that if you just tell someone she's great, she'll feel better about herself. But that's not how it works at all. I'll talk about it more in the future for sure. And aspiring_x--yep, I'll be talking about narcissism and self-esteem in the future as well. Your comment is quite astute and on point.

    Matt and Stina--thanks. I find it so fascinating when research indicates stuff that kind of veers away from common belief. Believe me, when bad stuff happens or kids get themselves into trouble, the first place adults usually go is that the root of the problem is the kid had low self-esteem. Which MAY be true (not always--sometimes high self-esteem is more the issue), but it's rarely the actual cause of the problem. And Stina, yes, low self-esteem can still be an issue for kids and is a legitimate thing to try to increase in an effective way in kids who feel bad about themselves.

    JD--He's a brave hotdog. We'll give him that. And ... you will be hearing from me, missy.

  9. Yep, my self-esteem waxes and wanes depending on things that I think are objective data, but really, are often not. I'll have to remember that the next time I'm feeling down.

    And yes, that hotdog picture is so bizarre. Why is he so happy and feeling awesome when he's about to get eaten alive? (*scratches head*)

  10. This is fascinating, and touches deeply, Sarah. For me it's definitely a roller coaster, depending on how productive I am and how hopeful I feel about what I'm working on. Being productive--even writing one or two pages, makes my day! So why do I go for days NOT writing, and let myself get low?

  11. Good points. I remember learning correlation vs. causation in psych and the example of Ice cream consumption being linked to drowning deaths. Why? Because both go up in Summer. Correlation does not equal causation even though it's tempting to buy into that sometimes!