Self-esteem is widely regarded as one of the most important values in today’s society. Parents, teachers, and of course we therapists focus our efforts on boosting self-esteem, assuming that high self-esteem will result in many positive outcomes and benefits. We believe it will increase productivity and performance, benefit interpersonal relationships, and lead to healthier lifestyles. One reason we believe this to be true is because we observe that people with low self-esteem or sense of self-worth often underperform or suffer from depression and anxiety as well as battle social isolation.
In the past decade however studies have evaluated the effect of high self-esteem on a variety of areas and found the outcome to be unconvincing. High self-esteem does not necessarily lead to positive outcomes, and for many people it in fact creates major problems such as arrogance, self-righteousness, selfishness, or a false sense of superiority. There seems to be a fine line between thinking very highly of yourself and lacking empathy or self-reflection.
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A different problem affects those who are self-reflective, but whose self-esteem is based on performance and therefore inherently fragile. As Psychotherapist Dr. Russ Harris (author of “The Happiness Trap”) explains, people whose self-esteem is based on excelling at work suffer especially in this regard: When they perform well, they feel good about themselves, but when their performance drops, so does their self-esteem. As a result, Dr. Harris says, people with high self-esteem spend their lives trying to maintain it, often neglecting their other needs and those of the people they love in the process. Many of us spend considerable mental energy evaluating whether or not we are “good” people, pointing out all the good things we’ve accomplished each week, and why we therefore can feel good about ourselves. The problem is that since these good feelings are performance-based, any moment of “slacking” provides fodder for negative self-judgment that is ever-lurking just beneath the surface.
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So if self-esteem is actually less helpful to us than we thought, and low-self-esteem is equally undesirable, what would positive self-regard look like that is healthy, stable, and allows for sensitivity towards others?
Dr. Harris introduces an alternative way of treating yourself and dealing with your inner judgments. He proposes we ask questions that assess the helpfulness of a critical thought: Does this thought help me take effective action to improve my life? Does it help me to be the person I want to be, and to build the relationships I desire? In other words, the point is not whether our self-judgments are factual or not, but whether they move us towards the practical and positive outcomes we desire.