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See Inside Scientific American Mind Volume 24, Issue 4

Self-Esteem Can Be an Ego Trap

If your self-worth depends on success, you may be in for a fall. To feel good about yourself, think less about you and more about others

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Florence Cassassuce, a project coordinator for a Mexican nonprofit group, should have been having the best year of her life. It was 2007, and her work on water purification in Mexico had been credited with curbing the well contamination that leads to waterborne illness. She received widespread recognition for her endeavors, having been named a CNN Hero finalist and World Bank award winner. Although Cassassuce could hardly have achieved more, she did not feel the kind of inner satisfaction that most of us think accompanies such great strides. “I did not want to continue living life like this,” Cassassuce recalls, “searching for external sources of gratification to very temporarily boost my self-esteem.”

Self-esteem, or a person's overall sense of self-worth, is generally considered to be critical to healthy functioning. Its darker side, however, has been largely overlooked. As Cassassuce's experience suggests, the quest for greater self-esteem can leave people feeling empty and dissatisfied. Recent research bolsters the case. Even when we achieve goals we anticipate will make us feel good about ourselves, high self-esteem may still elude us because self-esteem that is contingent on success is fragile.

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