My son has always been against the self-esteem movement, well before he could say self-esteem. When he was a very young child, he often sang “I’m not special, I’m not special, no I’m not, no I’m not,” his childlike parody of “You are special” nursery school music.
The truth is more important than a distorted view of performance
Today, as a teenager, he still doesn’t like the emphasis on nurturing self-esteem from adults or his peers. Case in point is a recent conversation with friends about his ineptitude with a new instrument.
For the sole purpose of having more fun in marching band during his senior year of high school, my son switched instruments to be in a new section with his friends.
The unanticipated problem with this move is the difficulty of learning to play a new instrument. Nevertheless, he is focusing on music mastery with as much fervor as possible, given the constraints of time, talent, and brainpower. This process has not fazed him. (And, he is still having fun, though I imagine he has a better understanding of the risks and challenges associated with moving from the known to the unknown.)
What annoyed him was the conversation with friends about his current status. Plainly, he told them that he was bad at his new instrument. They reacted by gushing words of encouragement that involved positive reinforcement of his self worth.
He confided in me that he didn’t need pity or someone telling him he was great in life. After learning technique, he simply needed to practice more.
But what bothered him the most is how such affirmations are counterproductive and commonplace. He reasons that if he falsely believes he is good when he is not, then he might not practice and get better. Wrongheaded self-confidence could then drag down the performance of his section and the entire marching band.
Naming the harsh truth, he believes, spurs motivation.
Research indicates that propped-up self-esteem is counterproductive
After he told me his story, I opened discussion about popular beliefs concerning positive self-talk and self-esteem. Briefly, parents have been taught that high self-esteem creates more confident children and more confident children excel in school, sports, and life.
I told him about John Rosemond, a family psychologist who came to prominence during the 1990s, and his railing against what he calls the self-esteem movement:
Researchers have discovered that people with high self-esteem tend to overestimate their abilities. If anything, they are over-confident. As a result, they don’t cope well when life deals them a bad hand or their performance doesn’t live up to their self-expectations. For those reasons, they are highly prone to depression. Because they believe anything they do is deserving of reward, they also tend to underperform.
Rosemond argues that society is better served by those with humility, not high self-esteem. Plus, he says there is no evidence to believe that humility (generally considered the opposite of high self-esteem) and confidence are mutually exclusive.
Being loved for your inherent value is a positive thing; but love doesn’t mean masking the truth
Let me affirm that feeling loved and being valued are often important to a healthy self-image and appropriate behaviors. Just the day before this conversation, I spent several hours at a church engaged in ministry to the homeless and addicted. Its mantra is “Whose child are you? God’s child” referencing the inherent value of every person. But the Christian message also proclaims that we have value distinct from our honorable (or dishonorable) acts and we are made whole by the gift of God’s grace not through individual merit, goodness, or performance.
So, even as we feel loved and valued, we can look at our situations honestly and think and act from the vantage point of realism, not fantasy.
An overemphasis on self-esteem can take our focus off of genuine striving and true accomplishment
More recently, the negative effects of falsely inflated self-esteem have entered public dialogue.
Consider the “You Are Not Special” commencement speech by high school English teacher David McCullough, Jr. that went viral a few years ago.
Within the context of parental doting and prevalence of participation awards (which my son considers pointless), McCullough explains the current state and its consequences:
We have of late, we Americans, to our detriment, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement. We have come to see them as the point – and we’re happy to compromise standards, or ignore reality, if we suspect that’s the quickest way, or only way, to have something to put on the mantelpiece, something to pose with, crow about, something with which to leverage ourselves into a better spot on the social totem pole. No longer is it how you play the game, no longer is it even whether you win or lose, or learn or grow, or enjoy yourself doing it…Now it’s “So what does this get me?”
In addition, organizational psychologist Daniel Crosby, Ph.D., wrote a book entitled You’re Not That Great (see TEDx talk) as a counterargument against the self-esteem movement. Like Rosemond (and my son), he believes that feeling special or great is counterproductive to being special and great.
Honestly, when I read Crosby’s book, I totally understood his premise that you (or my son or I) are not that great. But what I struggled to grasp was the point that believing you are naturally great can inhibit achieving greatness.
Having grown up during a time of social change with few nurturing adults and rare moments of encouragement, I believe that some positive reinforcement can be beneficial.
Transformation happens when you forget about self-esteem and concentrate on self-improvement
But I now see the focus on self-esteem can cause harm (and ironically, lessen performance, precisely opposite as intended).
After talking with my son and reflecting on our conversation, I finally got it. Esteeming self-esteem for its own sake can mean that you’ll feel good about yourself even as you fail and flounder. As a result, you don’t see the point in striving, studying, navigating different approaches, etc. And since you don’t try very hard or change direction if needed, you’ll never realize your potential. You’ll fall way short of your goals and your pursuit of feeling good about yourself will wreak havoc in your life and those around you.
And that seems to be the main point of Dr. Crosby’s book: If you think you’re great, you never will be; but if you realize you’re not great, there’s a slim chance you’ll excel.
Transformation happens in the space between the realization that you are awful or average at a certain endeavor and your focused, courageous pursuit of improvement through such techniques as repetition (practice), acquisition of knowledge, consultation with experts, and behavior changes. If you come to terms with the idea that you’re not special, you can happily lose yourself in pursuing greatness and then find yourself as a different, contented, and more accomplished person.