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There are articles, web sites, and books galore on self esteem and the need to have it.  If you don’t, some of those articles say there are dangers that you will become depressed and anxious and in general lead a miserable life.  But what is self esteem?

The popular definition is something like, “I feel good about myself.”  It is having a confidence and satisfaction with your ability. Too often, though, we focus on the feeling good about one’s self without regard to one’s ability. Samantha Clever in an article called, “Too Much of a Good Thing” says, “In 2004, according to Jean Twenge, author of Generation Me, 70 percent of American college freshmen reported their academic ability as “above average.” But, once ego-inflated students get to college, they’re more likely to drop out, says Twenge, when their skewed sense of self and overconfidence affects their ability to make decisions.” She also cites studies about US students rating their math skills as very high while Korean kids rated their skills much lower. In test scores, the Korean students far outpaced the Americans, though the Americans felt the best about themselves.

I think that self confidence is more important than the concept of self esteem.  You earn self confidence by what you do. What you do also gives you indicators of what you can achieve, and also what you need to do to get better.  Praise for mediocre performance does not improve performance and it does not boost confidence. What it may boost is a sense of entitlement. Praise for nothing is just not believable. Similarly, affirmations do not boost performance or mood if the person does not believe the words are true for them. It may actually make them feel worse. There are brain changes as you learn and get better. You are setting up new neural pathways for the new behavior. The more you practice well and improve (and learn from the inevitable mistakes) the stronger that pathway becomes. Empty praise does not do that. Mistakes are good. They teach you.

If you want to feel better about yourself, work on what you want to get better at. Realistic praise can reinforce the improved behaviors and skills. Work in incremental steps that challenge you but are not impossible. Sometimes a little doubt that gets you motivated is a good thing.  It can even help boost your confidence when you do succeed leaving you feeling good in a realistic way.

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