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How to Build Self-Esteem (And Does it Even Matter?)

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How to Build Self-Esteem (And Does it Even Matter?)

Imagine there’s a classic movie. It’s called Self-Esteem: First Blood, and it stars James Dean and Marlon Brando. It’s the mid-20th century, post-World War II. Pan across the charred remains of Europe. Show the brave American heroes returning home, buying cheesy houses and making tons and tons of babies.

In the film, we see this: Post-war prosperity made for heady times, more and more people from all walks of life began to buy into the American Dream—the belief that they could be whatever they wanted to be as long as they worked hard and cultivated the qualities of successful people. There was a widespread sense of social solidarity and “can do” optimism.

It’s probably not a coincidence, then, that right around this same time, psychologists started studying what made some people more successful than others. By the 1960s, they believed they had found the holy grail of psychological constructs. It is the hero of this film. It is: self-esteem.1

Self-esteem was a measurement of how a person felt about themselves. If you think you’re a pretty rad dude or dudette and have confidence you can accomplish your goals—then congratulations, you have high self-esteem. If you think your life is a metaphorical, never-ending car crash and that someone would have to be smoking cat turds to ever love you, well, sorry to say, you probably have low self-esteem.

Back then, everything good the psychologists measured seemed to be related to having high self-esteem—good grades, gainful employment, high incomes, mental health, and so on—while everything bad seemed to be correlated with low self-esteem—crime, teen pregnancy, delinquency, violent behavior, etc. CEOs, professional athletes, celebrities, politicians, and pretty much every other high-achieving group they analyzed all had high-self esteem in common.

The conclusion then seemed obvious: if we could just make everyone have high self-esteem, then we could all be CEOs and professional athletes and we would all live happily ever after. Everyone celebrated and threw fancy cocktail parties for themselves. The curtain fell, and the movie was over.

Or was it?

Well, if you’re a regular reader of this site, then there are probably two things that don’t sit right with about the early conclusions regarding self-esteem:

  1. Just because successful people have high self-esteem doesn’t mean high self-esteem caused them to be successful; after all, the success could have caused them to have high self-esteem.
  2. Any time people believe, “I just found the one thing that explains everything good in the world!” things tend to get really, really fucked.

Well, unfortunately, psychologists, politicians, and educators from the 1960s hadn’t read my shit yet, so they made both mistakes—they assumed self-esteem caused success rather than the other way around, and they also naively thought giving everyone more self-esteem would make life hunky dory. Psychologists were so optimistic, they called high self-esteem a “social vaccine,” an end to poverty, crime, and violence everywhere.

A huge self-esteem movement emerged in the late 60s and early 70s. It meshed well with the free love sensibilities of the hippies: “Just make everyone feel good about themselves, man!” Teachers and administrators and politicians began implementing programs to increase self-esteem in youths across the country. Participation trophies were handed out, grades were inflated, and protecting everyone’s feelings was the new black. Self-esteem, baby!

But jump ahead a couple decades and there’s a sequel, let’s call it Self-Esteem II: The Better Data Methodology Strikes Back!

Zoom in. See a cranky old man in an office full of books. It’s post-drug addiction Nick Nolte (the budget was small this time around, they couldn’t get anyone else). He’s playing the wily self-esteem researcher Roy Baumeister, and he’s doing a bunch of math and stuff and it’s really boring. His hair is disheveled. He gets up, crunches up balls of paper and throws them at the wall shouting, “IT DOESN’T MAKE ANY SENSE!”

Over the next 45 minutes of bad acting and stilted story, we discover that when you use better statistical methods, you discover that there’s actually very little correlation between self-esteem and success, work ethic, non-violence, and all those other good things. In fact, when you run self-esteem data through the ringer, you find something a little strange: some people with high self-esteem weren’t actually all that high-achieving or well-adjusted. In fact, some of them were total assholes.

Nolte jumps up and exclaims “I got it!” Cut to him at psych conferences showing his new findings. People are unenthused. Cut to him throwing a chair through a window and screaming, “Why won’t people listen to me!” Cut to him in a conference room screaming at a group of executives:

“Do you know which population has some of the highest self-esteem on the planet?!? Violent criminals! Violent criminals feel pretty damn good about themselves, too, you fucking pigs!”2

The executives all look around at each other, skeptical. The big, evil corporate boss man folds his fingers into a steeple in front of his brow—he’s a really bad actor—and says, “Just tell me the truth, damnit.”

Nolte explodes: “YOU WANT THE TRUTH? YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH!!! …ABOUT SELF-ESTEEM!”

Fade to black… cut and scene.

When all is said and done, the research on self-esteem really only strongly correlates with one thing: how good people feel, in general.3

This is pretty damning. Think about it: we invented a metric that measures how good people feel about themselves, and after decades of research, the only thing it seems to reliably predict is how people feel in general.

Self-esteem meme

Most people have seen Self-Esteem: First Blood and learned the supposed benefits of self-esteem. Few people have seen it’s lesser-known sequel, Self-Esteem II: Better Data Methodology Strikes Back! and discovered that there’s not much data backing up any of the supposed benefits. (It’s okay, the sequel went straight to DVD.)

What even fewer people know is that there’s a third self-esteem movie in the works. It’s tentatively titled, Self-Esteem III: It Turns Out Self-Esteem is a Complex and Multi-faceted Variable and Can Be a Good or Bad Thing Depending on What’s Being Measured.

It will probably be sold to Netflix, only because Netflix will buy anything.

The new film will explain which contexts self-esteem is a useful measurement to apply and which contexts it’s useless or even unhealthy to use. Here’s a quick synopsis breaking down what it will be about:

Healthy vs Toxic Forms of Self-Esteem

Researchers have found that instead of self-esteem existing on a high/low scale, there are actually different types of self-esteem.4 We can break these down into two broad categories, healthy and toxic self-esteem:

  1. Healthy self-esteem is based on how we feel about the things we can control in our lives. For example, you might not directly control how much money you make at the moment, but you can control how hard you work and the skills you focus on to improve your chances at earning more. So, instead of beating yourself up for not earning much money, you take pride in your work ethic and your ability to learn new things and you feel good about it. This makes you feel like a competent person who will eventually earn more money.
  2. Toxic self-esteem is derived from external, uncontrollable things in your life. This makes your self-worth a lot more fragile. The slightest indication that you’re not living up to some external metric can bring the whole facade down. For example, if you base your self-worth on whether or not everyone likes you, well as long as you think everyone likes you, you’ll feel good about yourself. But it also turns you into an overly-sensitive little dickhead, where every little awkward conversation or irritated look makes you question not just your own self worth, but the value of life itself.

Toxic forms of self-esteem arise when we pursue self-esteem for its own sake, as an end in itself, rather than just experiencing it as a byproduct of being a competent, well-adjusted human being. When we do this, we end up spending all of our time and energy trying to feel good about something instead of, you know, actually becoming good at something.

Toxic self-esteem fails because setbacks, thorny challenges, and just the world taking a shit on us every now and then, are all inevitable in life. They are also what push us to grow as humans. But when we believe we deserve to feel good all the time, anything that happens to make us feel bad it isn’t just a problem to be addressed, it becomes a personal attack on us.

Rather than maturing and rising to the challenges of life, we stay stuck in an immature worldview where we’re left wondering why the universe is conspiring against us rather than just solving the normal problems of life.

In my book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, I tell the story of a guy I knew, “Jimmy.” He was a serial, wannabe “entrepreneur,” a grifter who tricked people into giving him money with his schemes. He was always blathering on about all the famous and important people he supposedly knew. He’d get family and friends to invest in some new business idea he had only to disappear with their money and never talk to them again. He maxed out credit cards at fancy restaurants so he could impress a “client” or a date or whoever.

Now, from the outside, you might think that Jimmy was just an insecure poser who, deep down, hated himself and was out to prove everything to everyone—that he was the emperor with no clothes.

But on the contrary, Jimmy actually believed his own bullshit. He really did think he was an amazing visionary who would rule his corner of the world. He didn’t doubt his abilities. When people called him on his behavior he would, without even blinking, write them off as jealous or stupid.

It wasn’t a coverup. Jimmy had high self-esteem. It’s just that Jimmy’s self-esteem was toxic: derived from a delusional sense of entitlement. He believed he deserved to feel good about himself no matter what.

Toxic self-esteem

Like many of us, Jimmy grew up in a culture that taught him that one of the most important things in life is to feel good about yourself. We were told that we were special for no other reason than we were born into this world, and if you feel bad about yourself for any reason, something must be terribly wrong.

But trying to feel good all the time—as I’ve said again and again and again—doesn’t lead to genuine, healthy self-esteem. It leads to something much darker: a world full of Jimmys.

Jimmy’s entire self-worth wasn’t actually based on what everyone thought of him (he was pretty dismissive of everyone, actually), but it was based on another facade of an uncontrollable externality. Jimmy’s self-esteem was derived entirely from how well he thought he measured up to some cultural ideal of a modern badass entrepreneur who cashed checks for a living and lived a lavish lifestyle. You know, like the WeWork guy.

Toxic self-esteem is easy to spot because, from the outside, you can see a huge disconnect between how the person sees himself, and how the world sees him. It’s the guy who thinks he’s a regular Don Juan with the ladies when in reality, he’s the biggest creep you’ve ever met. Or your friend who dominates every conversation because they think they’re the smartest one in the group when they’re actually just the loudest. Or your coworker who’s incompetent in their job but takes credit for other people’s work.

All of these people have high self-esteem. But they have high toxic self-esteem. They feel good about themselves, and yet that feeling is incredibly fragile. It’s a beast that needs to be consistently fed. And when (or if) reality breaks through—when they are forced to see that they don’t really have anything of substance to feel good about—it destroys them.

How to Create Healthy, Durable High Self-Esteem

Self-esteem is really just our own self-indicator for how we think we’re doing in our own little worlds. It’s our subjective measure of what we think we’re worth in relation to everyone else.

Notice that this is a completely internal metric of self-evaluation. It’s just our made up valuation for ourselves. There’s no objective valuation for us—you can’t objectively measure the value of anybody. It’s all made up. We all choose metrics by which to determine how we feel about ourselves and some of those metrics are good and useful (like, say, how honest or compassionate we are) and some of those metrics kinda suck (i.e., how nice our shoes are).

That’s not to say that you shouldn’t feel good about your shoes. It just means that you have to prioritize the good, healthy sources of self-esteem (honesty, compassion) over the toxic sources of self-esteem (bitching shoes). It means that when you feel good about your shoes, you know the game your mind is playing, and don’t take it too seriously.

healthy self-esteem

So, the question is: How do you adopt healthy self-esteem-how do you adopt healthy metrics by which to measure yourself? The short answer is by living out those metrics. You have to change your behavior.

Obviously, that’s easier said than done, so here are some pointers:

1. Accept Your Low or Toxic Self-Esteem for the Moment (If You Have It)

We tend to get caught up on all the feelings surrounding our low self-esteem, like despair, sadness, helplessness, and so on. But feelings, by definition, are temporary. And by accepting that we just feel shitty about ourselves for whatever reason, it has this paradoxical effect of taking the focus away from that fleeting feeling rather than amplifying it. This gives us the head space to work on a solution.

If you suck at meeting people and making new friends, accept it as your reality for the moment. Don’t try to cover it up. Don’t try to overcompensate and be Mr. or Mrs. Cool to everyone you meet. Don’t “fake it until you make it.” That’s toxic. Just accept the fact that you’re not the most social person and need to work on getting better.

This puts the focus on the skills it takes to meet people and make new friends, not on how shitty you feel about it.

2. Practice Self-Compassion

People with low self-esteem tend to be pretty hard on themselves. They take everything that happens—good or bad—very personally.

“Man, that was really fucking dumb of me to say that. I’m such an awkward goon.”

“I really blew it this time. Why am I such a fuck-up?”

“Another tub of ice cream down the gullet. I have the self-control of a toddler!”

Question: when your best friend fucks up, do you treat them like a bag of dog turds like this?

Of course not. You console them and point out all the reasons why it’s okay to fuck up sometimes, that everyone does it, that they’re not a horrible human for making a mistake, they’re just…human.

So why not try this with yourself?

The next time you catch yourself in a downward spiral of self-destruction, stop for a second. Take a step back from yourself and try to see your situation from the viewpoint of your best friend standing next to you. Ask yourself if it’s really all that bad and realize there are things you just can’t control.

And if your next reaction is to beat yourself up for beating yourself up so much, well, spend a little extra time on this and read Self-Compassion by Kristen Neff.

3. Be Comfortable with What You Lack

The mark of true self-esteem is not feeling like you lack nothing—it’s being comfortable with what you lack.

Someone with healthy high self-esteem doesn’t actually believe they are awesome at everything or even “the best” at any one thing. That’s likely toxic self-esteem. People with healthy self-esteem are actually just comfortable with the fact that they’re not awesome at everything.

Someone with low self-esteem will have an awkward interaction and internalize it as just another example of how they can’t make any friends. A person with toxic high self-esteem will blame the other person, deciding that they’re the awkward weirdo. Meanwhile, a person with healthy self-esteem will chalk it up to experience, realizing that their interactions with others won’t always be easy, that they can’t control how others feel about them, and that they’re not going to be friends with everyone they meet.

One person focuses on what they lack, another focuses on what everyone else lacks, the other just accepts it and moves on.

And that’s really all self-esteem is—accepting yourself for who you are with all your flaws and quirks and fuck-ups.

And that’s how the third movie would end, wrapping up the trilogy. It’s not about feeling good about yourself, like James Dean or Marlon Brando. And it’s not about throwing a drug-fueled fit like mid-90s Nick Nolte.

It’s about the marriage of the two. Understanding when feeling good about yourself is healthy and when feeling good about yourself is harmful or destructive. And with that message, the final credits roll. The cast of our heroes join hands and begin to sing a song of joy and love. And the Oompa Loompas from Willy Wonka make a guest appearance… just ‘cause.

Fin.

Footnotes

  1. Nathaniel Branden, the originator of the concept of self-esteem, originally saw it as something deeper than merely self-regard. He envisioned it as one’s relationship with oneself—how you treat yourself, how you respect yourself, etc. Unfortunately, those things are hard to measure. Psychologists started simply measuring how people felt about themselves and ran with it. This rankled Branden his whole life. Decades later, his classic, The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem, continues to be a great all-around book to learn to treat yourself well.
  2. Note that I’m pretty sure Roy Baumeister did none of these things. They have been inserted for dramatic effect. Like most sequels, Self-Esteem II was poorly written.
  3. Baumeister, R. F., Campbell, J. D., Krueger, J. I., & Vohs, K. D. (2003). Does High Self-Esteem Cause Better Performance, Interpersonal Success, Happiness, or Healthier Lifestyles? Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 4(1), 1–44.
  4. Ito, M., Kawasaki, N., & Kodama, M. (2011). Three types of self-esteem: its characteristic differences of contingency and contentment of sources of self-esteem. Shinrigaku Kenkyu: The Japanese Journal of Psychology, 81(6), 560–568.
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