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.
It turns out that having self-esteem, as a fairly stable personality trait, does have a few modest benefits. High self-esteem also has drawbacks, however, and is mostly irrelevant for success. Further the pursuit of self-esteem is clearly detrimental to well-being. When people chase after a stronger sense of self-worth, it becomes their ultimate goal, leading them to sacrifice other aspirations, such as learning or doing what is good for others.
The hunt for self-esteem through a focus on achievement makes us emotionally vulnerable to life's inevitable travails and disappointments. It also causes us to engage in behaviors that can actually harm our chances of success, our competence and our personal relationships. A far better way to bolster your sense of self-worth is, ironically, to think about yourself less. Compassion toward others and yourself, along with a less self-centered perspective on your situation, can motivate you to achieve your goals while helping you weather bad news, learn from your mistakes and fortify your friendships.
Scientists define self-esteem as the amount of value people place on themselves—an inherently subjective assessment. Researchers typically measure this value using self-report scales, including statements such as “I take a positive attitude toward myself,” indicating a positive evaluation of oneself, or “All in all, I am inclined to feel that I am a failure,” denoting a more negative self-appraisal. Someone with a highly favorable overall self-evaluation has high self-esteem; a person who judges himself or herself unfavorably has low self-worth.
Back in the 1980s, many academic psychologists, policy makers and others became concerned about low self-esteem among the populace. They argued that solving this problem would create more productive citizens and lead to fewer social ills such as crime and school failure. The self-esteem movement began. Schools and other institutions poured resources into interventions designed to raise self-esteem, particularly in children. These programs typically centered on lots of positive feedback—irrespective of performance—and exercises in which individuals expounded on their positive qualities. In “I Love Me” lessons, for example, students were encouraged to complete the phrase “I am …” with positive words such as “beautiful” or “gifted.” Those performing below grade level were taught to focus on their potential rather than their shortcomings. In 1986, for example, California allocated $245,000 a year to its Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility, under the assumption that the money would be repaid through lower rates of crime, welfare dependency, unwanted pregnancy, drug addiction and school failure.
Yet even as the self-esteem movement gained momentum, scientific research began to undermine some of its major assumptions. For one, the data did not show that many of us suffer from low self-esteem. On the contrary, most of us already feel pretty good about ourselves. In a study published in 1989 psychologist Roy F. Baumeister and his colleagues Dianne M. Tice and Debra G. Hutton, all then at Case Western Reserve University, found that the average American's self-esteem score is well above the conceptual midpoint of self-esteem scales—the point that denotes a moderate or decent view of the self. Like the children in Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon, most of us have decided we are above average.
What is more, our egos seem to be expanding, not contracting. In a study published in 2008 psychologists Jean M. Twenge of San Diego State University and W. Keith Campbell of the University of Georgia concluded that high school students like themselves more now than they did in the 1970s, even though they do not see themselves as more competent than previous generations did. That is, the students do not consider themselves better at math, music, sports or other activities than adolescents did in the past, but they think more highly of themselves anyway.
While documenting a plethora of self-esteem, researchers began to discount its importance. In a comprehensive review of the literature published in 2003 Baumeister, now at Florida State University, and his colleagues stated that people with high self-esteem perform only slightly better academically and at work than do those with low self-esteem. Likewise, self-esteem is only weakly related to children's popularity in school and tenuously tied to the quality of a person's relationships in general. It also has little effect on how likely someone is to be violent or engage in risky behaviors such as smoking and drug use.
High self-esteem does have some benefits. It seems to make people more persistent, Baumeister and his team found. Those with high self-esteem also reported feeling happier and less depressed. Yet whether high self-esteem causes pleasant feelings, or vice versa, remains unclear.
High self-esteem seems to have at least one serious drawback: difficulty in seeing your own shortcomings. A great deal of research conducted for several decades shows that people with high self-esteem tend to have unrealistically positive views of themselves. They think they are more attractive, successful, likable, smart and moral than others do—and are unaware of their deficits or incompetence. When they get negative feedback, they tend to be defensive, blaming the test or the messenger, rather than owning up to a mistake or deficiency. In this way, high self-esteem can impede learning and growth and impair personal relationships. When it comes to your brain surgeon (or spouse, for that matter), most of us would most likely prefer that person to have a realistic view of his or her abilities and a willingness to learn from mistakes—rather than high self-esteem.
“I Didn't Try Hard”
The studies Baumeister analyzed measured the trait of self-esteem with questions that get people to reflect about themselves in general, over time. When people are asked to indicate how they feel “right now” or “today,” self-esteem scores can fluctuate dramatically in response to events. These ups and downs affect motivation, because boosts to self-esteem feel good and drops feel lousy. Like mice looking for crumbs of cheese while steering clear of the mousetrap, people look for opportunities to inflate their self-esteem and avoid situations that could lower it.
One way to get those increases is to succeed or excel; likewise, we can try to avoid the drops by circumventing failure. Because we cannot succeed at everything, people tend to invest their self-esteem in one or a few traits or endeavors, say, academics, sports or beauty. These contingencies of self-esteem represent the areas in which people's self-worth is on the line; they are worthy if they succeed and worthless if they fail. In 2003 one of us (Crocker), then at the University of Michigan, and our colleagues Riia Luhtanen and Alexandra Bouvrette, along with Lynne Cooper of the University of Missouri, developed a questionnaire assessing such contingencies as academic success, appearance, others' approval and moral virtue. People who base their self-esteem on academics, for example, say that their self-esteem goes up when they get good grades but that they feel worthless, anxious and ashamed when their grades are poor.
People who become so personally invested in certain domains are highly motivated to succeed in those realms, which often leads them to work hard. For example, Crocker and Luhtanen found that students whose self-esteem is contingent on academics report studying more than do students who depend less on such reports. On the other hand, putting your self-worth at the mercy of achievement in this way creates emotional vulnerability to setbacks. Even the most successful people sometimes fail or fall short, even at what they do best. Trading off occasional feelings of worthlessness for motivation and the highs of achievement might seem reasonable. Yet the exchange is not even: dips in self-esteem following setbacks appear to be much larger than the increases stemming from success.
In a study published in 2002 Crocker and our colleagues asked 37 college seniors applying to graduate school to fill out a questionnaire to assess how much they based their self-worth on their academic track record, personal appearance, and love of family and friends, among other areas. These students then completed measures of their self-esteem twice a week during the two-month season of graduate school admissions. We found that students whose self-esteem was tightly bound to their academic success experienced small boosts on days when they received an acceptance notice but large drops on days they were rejected. For them, the pain of failure far outweighed the joy of success. The students whose self-esteem did not depend on academic performance experienced markedly less extreme fluctuations in their self-worth; they were better able to weather the storm of positive and negative feedback. Studies show that a similar vulnerability afflicts those whose self-esteem is contingent on appearance or career achievement.
In addition, an uptick in self-esteem is short-lived. Our research shows that changes in self-esteem typically do not last more than a few days. Even after major accomplishments, self-esteem quickly returns to its average level. As a result, they are a relatively transient source of happiness. The instability that results from ups and downs of self-esteem, on the other hand, has significant costs to our mental health. In particular, it can lead to symptoms of depression. For example, the fluctuations in self-worth experienced by the graduate school applicants we studied were associated with increases in depressed mood, feelings of hopelessness and helplessness, disruptions in appetite and sleep, and loss of motivation.
Perhaps the most pernicious cost of basing self-esteem on achievement is that it can sometimes lead people to focus on avoiding failure rather than reaching for success—a mind-set that can increase the chances of falling short. For example, to protect their self-esteem, people may create excuses for poor performance such as “I didn't try hard” or “I was tired, sick or upset,” believing that such explanations suggest they could have done well under other circumstances. Yet to work, the excuse must be believable, so a person may stay up late before a test so that the “tired” excuse will be valid in the event they do badly or put off studying until the last moment so they can claim they were underprepared. Social psychologists Edward E. Jones of Princeton University and Steven Berglas of Harvard Medical School coined the phrase “self-handicapping” to describe such behavior.
Pursuing self-esteem also undermines intrinsic motivation, the type driven by interest in the task itself. Psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan of the University of Rochester and their colleagues have argued that contingent self-esteem is a form of ego involvement, in which people focus on how successes and failures reflect on the self. Their research, conducted over several decades, shows that individuals who are ego-involved do things such as studying and exercising because they feel that they have to, rather than because they want to. This sense of obligation and pressure takes away the satisfaction that can come from working hard at something difficult.
Personal relationships also suffer from the quest for self-esteem. People focused on boosting their own self-esteem tend to put their own needs before those of others. Because they are preoccupied with questions about their own value, their friends, family and acquaintances serve mainly as potential sources of validation or invalidation, making their interactions with others ultimately all about themselves.
Not all contingencies of self-esteem are equally damaging. Staking self-esteem on personal values such as religious faith or virtue seems to have fewer negative consequences than letting it ride on traits or skills such as appearance or prowess at math that others can measure or judge. The reasons for this discrepancy are not fully understood, but it may result from the fact that those who are driven to prove that they are virtuous or faithful to a religion may be more likely to engage in helpful, collaborative or philanthropic activities that others appreciate. Nevertheless, all such contingencies leave us somewhat vulnerable to the consequences of letting our self-esteem depend so heavily on the particulars that define us.
The Greater Good
Although the pursuit of self-esteem has many negative consequences, it also serves an important purpose: motivating us to action. Without the urge to prove our worth, might we turn into slackers? Fortunately, we can adopt another approach. Instead of focusing on our own status, we can focus on others or the collective good. For example, an individual might work just as hard at the office, but with the primary goal of contributing to the team's mission or supporting his or her family rather than earning individual recognition. Goals directed at being constructive, supportive and responsive to others lead to feelings of connectedness, closeness to others, social support and trust, as well as reduced feelings of conflict, loneliness, fear and confusion.
Compassionate goals appear to engender a sense of worth and connectedness without the devastating drops that come after feedback suggestive of failure. In a study published in 2011 Crocker and Amy Canevello, now a psychologist at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, examined the consequences of compassionate goals in college freshmen and their same-sex roommates. Every roommate rated the extent to which they had compassionate goals such as “be supportive of my roommate” and “be aware of the impact my behavior might have on my roommate's feelings”; they also answered a self-esteem questionnaire at the beginning and end of the semester and each week in between. In addition, participants rated their regard for their roommate, how responsive they viewed themselves as being to their roommate's needs and how responsive they perceived their roommate to be to their own needs.
Students with compassionate goals were more receptive to their roommates' needs, according to both the student and the roommate. Their roommates noticed and responded in kind, creating a virtuous cycle that solidified the relationship. Furthermore, the more responsive students were, the more their self-esteem increased during the three-month semester. Their roommates' self-esteem also rose, suggesting that having compassion for others may be an effective strategy for boosting self-esteem over the long run. In contrast, the roommates who were primarily concerned with what their roommates thought about them were less responsive to their roommates, a pattern of behavior that undermined their self-esteem and that of their roommate.
You can be compassionate toward yourself and others. If you find yourself upset by a mistake or downfall, self-compassion can make for a softer landing for your fall. People with self-compassion treat themselves kindly, as they would a close friend. They are patient with themselves, nonjudgmental and understanding of their own imperfections, according to work by psychologist Kristin Neff of the University of Texas at Austin. They also avoid harsh self-critiques or negative generalizations about self-worth following one negative experience. Self-compassion helps you accept life's inevitable setbacks as simply part of what it means to be human. It allows you to see failure as a learning opportunity rather than a threat, something that can motivate you to work toward your goals.
Compassion for the self seems to be linked to compassion for others. In experiments presented at the 2012 Society for Personality and Social Psychology conference, psychologists Juliana Breines and Serena Chen of the University of California, Berkeley, boosted compassion for others by asking research participants to write a note designed to make a friend feel better after causing a minor car accident. Those participants then rated themselves as higher in self-compassion than participants who recalled a fun time or read about others' suffering.
A further way to reduce an obsession with the self, and the problems that fixation generates, is to use a technique called self-distancing. Using this strategy, you see yourself from the perspective of a third-party observer, the proverbial “fly on the wall,” rather than from inside your own head. In a 2012 study psychologist Ethan Kross of the University of Michigan and his colleagues asked participants, on each of seven nights, to consider and answer questions about emotional events that had occurred during the previous day. In addition to noting the frequency, intensity and duration of the episodes, the subjects rated to what extent they had adopted a self-immersed versus distanced perspective when reflecting on each one. Those who adopted the distanced viewpoint recovered more rapidly from their negative feelings but also experienced briefer positive emotions than those who adopted the more self-centered outlook. The results suggest that creating mental distance from an emotional situation buffers us from the slings and arrows of fortune.
Another means of alleviating the sting of self-evaluation is self-affirmation, in which people restore their feelings of worth following negative feedback by reflecting on a value in a different realm that is important to them. For example, if someone gets cut from a basketball team, she might protect her self-esteem by, say, writing a paragraph about why science is personally meaningful to her or by simply donning a white lab coat. Such behaviors can temper the unpleasant emotions that accompany a critical evaluation. And our recent work suggests that this kind of affirmation works best if the value transcends you. For example, thinking about how science can create a better world for all of us has a larger payoff than focusing on how science can win you wealth or status.
All these alternatives to pursuing self-esteem reduce the tendency to judge the self. By focusing on others, having self-compassion or adopting a distanced view of yourself, you can work toward your goals without constant self-evaluation and self-criticism. If we were to design a new self-esteem movement, it would teach people to reduce focus on the worth of the self altogether because any action designed to enhance self-esteem is destined to have, at best, temporary benefits and most likely will fail because such actions are motivated by a toxic preoccupation with self-judgment.
Such a preoccupation explains why Cassassuce's many accomplishments left her feeling empty rather than full, wanting rather than satisfied. Cassassuce's work helped those in desperate need but did not lead to contentment when viewed through the lens of personal achievement. We suspect that Cassassuce did feel a genuine desire to help others. But she also had a goal that backfired: to prove that she was worthy through her noble deeds. Helping others may make you feel good about yourself but only if you let go of what this means about you. If you are wondering, “Do I have worth?” “Do I have value?” the answer is not yes, no or maybe. The answer is simpler: change the subject.