The Self-Esteem Trap

Human beings have social needs. The quality of our existence, and sometimes even our very survival, depends closely on our ability to construct mutually beneficial relationships with others of our kind. Human beings have a profound need to feel connected, to trust others and be trusted by them, to love and be loved in return.

Cendri Hutcherson, Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Toronto has conducted research that shows that feeling connected to others increases our psychological well-being and physical health, and diminishes the risk of depression. The feeling of connection and belonging to a wider community also increases empathy and fosters behaviours based on trust and cooperation.

Unfortunately, for many reasons (culture, technology and so on), we live in a world (particularly in the developed West) where the individual is more and more isolated and mistrustful. Most people no longer live in ways that enable them to be nurtured by the extended family and in close proximity with long term friends and relatives. In the suburbs of modern cities single occupant dwellings often predominate. The traditional family unit is on the decline and many children are brought up with a single parent and little support from close family.

It is not entirely unexpected that without these close social connections, many in our society have resorted to a philosophy of individualism. One of the likely outcomes of adopting unbridled individualism is that it often leads to narcissism. A robust and realistic self-concept is surely an important underpinning of long-term psychological well-being. Believing that you are especially gifted in some way ignoring evidence to the contrary, however, is a very shaky platform on which to build your self-concept.

It would seem self-evident that when evaluating people against personal characteristics, most people will be round about average. Unfortunately most of us don’t evaluate ourselves that way. We tend to self-evaluate ourselves as better than average. There have been a number of research studies exemplifying this. The phenomenon is described by American researchers Mark Alicke and Olesya Govorun in their paper The Better-Than-Average Effect. One of the early studies cited was a large scale survey of American college students.

  • 70% placed themselves above the median in leadership ability
  • 60% rated themselves as above average in athletic ability
  • 85% rated themselves above the median in their ability to get along with others

Many subsequent studies of different age groups and in different cultures have shown that humans persistently overrate their abilities in this way.

In line with this false self-evaluation there is evidence to suggest that narcissism is an increasing problem in the United States. This is explored in the book The Narcissism Epidemic by psychologist Jean Twenge. In 1951, 12% of young people between the ages of fourteen and sixteen agreed with the statement, “I am an important person.” By 1989 almost 80% of students concurred! And there is every reason to suspect the ratio has increased since then.


Now as we shall shortly see, these results would have been contributed to by the parenting methods developed over the last thirty or forty years.


In his book Altruism, Matthieu Ricard quotes from a research paper (authored by Grant, B. F., Chou, S. P. et al) that reports that in 2006 in the United States one student out of four fulfilled the conditions (as laid down in DSM-IV) for being qualified as narcissistic, and one out of ten suffered from  narcissistic personality disorder.

Ricard writes:

When in 2007 the media published the results of Twenge’s research, (cited above) many students, far from questioning the growth of this narcissism, replied that it was perfectly justified. One of them wrote to a newspaper, “This extremely high opinion of oneself is justified, since this generation will be remembered as the best ever.” Another protested, “But we are special. There is nothing wrong with knowing this. It is not vanity that this generation exhibits – it’s pride.”

Although not as pronounced as in the United States, researchers are finding that levels of narcissism are on the increase around the world.

Now, as I intimated above, this trend towards narcissism has been encouraged by some of our parenting processes. As parents we were told that it was essential to bolster the self-esteem of our children. To a certain degree there is merit in this approach. It is useful to find areas of endeavour in which your children can excel and give them positive feedback for their efforts.

But like many such trends, what started off as a reasonable proposition when practised sensibly, indulgent parents took to unreasonable extremes. Children were praised for the most minor of achievements. In their rush to find praiseworthy behaviour parents eschewed negative feedback. As a result many little girls became intolerable little princesses and many little boys became intolerable little champions. It is no wonder that in the face of evidence to the contrary, many of these children cosseted and pampered by overindulgent and overly protective parents come to believe they are particularly special.

Now the unfortunate thing is, that when these children emerge from the parental cocoon and have to face the real world, they are faced with substantial evidence that in many cases they are in fact not particularly special. They then have difficulty coping with this. Two of the reactions are like to be:

  • Depression, as a result of large and unexpected negative evaluations, or
  • Denial, refusing to believe the negative feedback and often resulting in taking on the mantle of victimhood.

It is not only problematic that parents should pursue such a strategy of over-evaluating their children’s strengths but it is doubly so when schools have also become complicit in this subterfuge. In the United States (and certainly in Australia as well) school results are inflated to avoid being overly critical of students. Twenge quotes the statistics of the US National Assessment of Educational Progress. In 2004 48% of high school students received an A average, whereas in 1968 only 18% achieved such an outcome. Gradings have therefore been devalued to inflate the ego demands of students and their parents. Many schools have eliminated the lowest grade (F) maintaining the façade that no pupil should be deemed to have failed.

School prizes, whether for academic prowess, sporting accomplishment or social contribution, are now awarded to almost anyone regardless of achievement. Consequently their currency is severely diminished.

It is worthwhile revisiting the good Dr Phil’s recipe for psychological maturity. He argues that in order to attain sense of psychological well-being it is necessary, to know yourself, accept yourself and hopefully, then to forget yourself. How can we expect our children to truly know themselves when we engage in this charade of artificially exaggerating their achievements? The narcissism that this approach brings about would never allow them to “forget themselves” but encourages them to shamelessly promote themselves.

The vacuousness emanating from the fall into narcissism is pathetic. Ricard quotes a study carried out in 2006 which found:

…becoming famous is the main ambition for young people in the United States (51% of twenty-five year olds). A teenager was asked, “What do you want to be when you are older?” replied, “Famous.” “For what?” “It doesn’t matter. I just want to be famous.”

Whilst we might laugh at the foolish narcissism thus demonstrated, we should also be aware that it can also be malignant.

Eric Harris and Dylan Kiebold are infamous for being the perpetrators of the Columbine High School shootings which resulted in the deaths of twelve students and a teacher. Leading up to the horrific event the two teenagers had been subjected to relatively mild insults by their classmates. Consequently the two, in defence of their oversized egos, plotted their disproportionate revenge. As befits the narcissistic tendencies of the boys, they made a video prior to their deadly attack on their classmates. In the video they speculated which of the famous film directors, Steven Spielberg or Quentin Tarantino, would make a movie about their murderous exploits! Reportedly they laughed and one said to the other, “Isn’t it fun to get the respect we’re going to deserve?”

(It is possible to surmise that some of the young radicalised Muslims who have attempted or carried out atrocities in our society might have similar dysfunctional self-concepts. Let me hasten to say, this might be part of an explanation but it can never be an excuse!)

Let me conclude with some advice from the psychologist Roy Baumeister who is probably the pre-eminent researcher in the area of self-esteem. In an article in the Los Angeles Times which he titled, The lowdown on high self-esteem. Thinking you’re hot stuff isn’t the promised cure-all, he wrote:

It is very questionable whether [the few benefits] justify the effort and expense that schools, parents and therapists have put into raising self-esteem. After all these years, I’m sorry to say, my recommendation is this: forget about self-esteem and concentrate more on self-control and self-discipline.

This is probably an unfashionable diagnosis of our approach to parenting, but one that evidence, I suggest, supports.

2 Replies to “The Self-Esteem Trap”

  1. Thoughtful commentary as usual. I find it hard to distinguish the influence of parenting from the influence of the example parents and the rest of society provides. There is an emerging / evident focus on the individual – whether a child or an adult – that exemplifies the narcissism you refer to. The need my time should be to be able to serve others better not for self satisfaction. You missed a great opportunity to extol the value of humility – a trait that is critical to individual and societal wellbeing irrespective of how talented we are.

  2. I have observed that when you believed you were good at something you do much better at it and I still stand by this. I have seen many kids become disengaged with learning something simply because they believed they could not do it. They develop a mental block. When they are confident that they will get it eventually they keep trying and eventually do understand and re-enforce their own self confidence. There is a difference between supporting a child to have belief in themselves and shielding them from failure though. Praising a child for having a go and giving it their best is still valid I think, but convincing them that they didn’t fail or that it was someone else’s fault is a different story. Not easy being a parent or a teacher.

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