The Illusion of Self-Esteem: A Reflection on the Movement that Shaped a Generation
As a child of the 80s and early 90s, I was part of a generation that experienced the full force of the self-esteem movement. Launched with the best of intentions, the movement aimed to create confidence and self-worth in young people.
If you were a child growing up during this time you may recall the barrage of self-esteem boosting exercises, from daily affirmations to constant praise alongside an endless supply of certificates and trophies. We were told to believe in ourselves, to be proud of our achievements, and to always view ourselves in a positive light. Much of this still lingers today, but has it helped our mental health? I think, unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll know the answer to that. The self-esteem movement failed to live up to its promise, leaving lingering negative effects and potentially contributing to a worsening mental health crisis.
The movement found its foothold in the 1960s, but it wasn't until the 80s and 90s that it truly took hold in the mainstream. Proponents like California Assemblyman John Vasconcellos argued that boosting self-esteem would lead to a host of positive outcomes, from improved academic performance to reduced crime rates. So the movement quickly gained momentum, with schools, parenting programs, and even government policies adopting the self-esteem doctrine.
In retrospect, it is clear that the self-esteem movement was built on shaky ground. There was little empirical evidence to support the idea that artificially inflating self-esteem would produce the desired outcomes. Moreover, as time has passed, the movement has not withstood the test of time in terms of scientific validation. More importantly even: it’s been found that high self-esteem can increase the likelihood people will act in a way that is harmful to society. Here’s some examples:
Narcissism: High self-esteem can contribute to narcissism, which is characterised by an inflated sense of self-importance, entitlement, and a lack of empathy for others. Narcissistic individuals may exhibit aggressive or manipulative behaviours, often at the expense of their relationships and social interactions. A study by Twenge and Campbell (2003) found that narcissism levels increased among college students between 1982 and 2002, partly attributing this rise to the self-esteem movement.
Overconfidence: High self-esteem can lead to overconfidence, which may result in individuals overestimating their abilities and taking unnecessary risks. For example, a study by Ehrlinger et al. (2008) found that people with high self-esteem were more likely to overestimate their abilities on cognitive tasks, leading to poorer performance.
Aggression: High self-esteem, particularly when it is unstable or threatened, can contribute to aggressive behaviour. A study by Baumeister et al. (1996) found that individuals with high self-esteem were more likely to engage in aggressive behaviours when their self-worth was threatened, whereas those with low self-esteem did not exhibit the same level of aggression.
Lack of motivation for self-improvement: High self-esteem may also hinder personal growth and self-improvement, as individuals may become complacent and unwilling to acknowledge their shortcomings. A study by Swann et al. (2007) found that people with high self-esteem were less likely to seek out negative feedback or engage in activities that might challenge their self-perceptions.
So despite the good intentions it maybe even be causing real harm!
Also, the constant pressure to view ourselves positively may have inadvertently promote continual avoidance of the important, but difficult, things in life. We can feel encouraged to disregard and avoid our perceived flaws and shortcomings. While making it more difficult for us to then engage with meaningful endeavours and navigate the challenges of life in a healthy, self-compassionate way.
I don’t think I can make the definitive, absolute truth claim here. BUT the self-esteem movement's focus on unwavering positivity may have contributed to a generation plagued by increased rates of anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues. In our quest for constant self-validation, we may have lost the ability to cope with adversity and develop resilience.
As I have said, while it may have been well-intentioned, the lack of empirical evidence and the potential contribution to a worsening mental health crisis cannot be ignored. The self-esteem movement, despite its pervasive influence, failed to deliver on its promise. It is essential that we learn from this historical account and prioritise evidence-based approaches to mental health and well-being. In doing so, we can build a more resilient and emotionally healthy society for generations to come!