Let’s talk about your self-esteem: is it too high, too low, too inflated, too variable?

If you grew up in the 50’s, the concept of self-esteem barely existed. It was not part of the vernacular. Mothers did not discuss ways to raise their children’s self esteem. Back then, if you had a high opinion of yourself, you were accused of being a “snob,” a “bragger,” or of having a “superiority complex.”  Lest we forget, pride is still one of the seven deadly sins.  

What exactly is self-esteem, and how much should you have?  Is it like … salt?   If you have too little, there’s no flavor, your blah and bland.  If you have too much, you’re salty, acerbic, and leave people with a bad taste in their mouths. Is it ever possible to have just the right amount of self-esteem?

Certainly, we need to value ourselves, to challenge ourselves to reach our potential.  In order to do that, we must hold ourselves in "high esteem."  But, when does self-esteem become false pride or self-deception, or worse, a cover for anti-social behavior?

Perhaps, it’s best to start with a basic definition of self-esteem. Back in the 60’s, self-esteem guru  Dr. Manny Rosenberg, defined self-esteem as a positive or negative orientation toward yourself, an overall evaluation of your self-worth and value.

Basically, self-esteem reflects your overall sense of self (self concept), the sum total of your thoughts and feelings about yourself, what people have said to you about you, how much you believe what they’ve said, and when you take inventory of your self and your talents, how well you think you measure up.  Although your self esteem can fluctuate based on life’s challenges, it is sustained by a sense of your own competency.

Certainly, there’s ample evidence that high self-esteem is good for your mental health.  In the June ’07 issue of the Harvard Mental Health Letter, New Zealand researchers found that young adolescents with low self-esteem are more likely to grow up sicker, poorer and break the law by their mid-twenties. Adolescent boys with low self-esteem are more likely to become drug dependent as they age. Other studies have shown that girls who have high self-esteem are less likely to become bulimic.  It is generally acknowledged that if you have high self-esteem, you’re happier, more likely to take calculated risks, are more resilient, recover from disasters quicker, and fare better in stressful situations.

So you might conclude that high self-esteem is all good. Certainly the pop psychology field has profitted from raising peoples’ esteem, inflating not only egos but publishers’ pockets. The concept of self-esteem has gone from virtual non-existence to a national obsession to a billion dollar industry!  Now in the 21st century, self-esteem is essentially a birthright!   As the concept of self esteem has matured, so has its definition, with new caveats.

Psychologist William James has tied your high opinion of yourself to your accomplishments. He defines self-esteem as the ratio between genuine accomplishment and exaggerated self-promotion.  It is good to hold yourself in high esteem, as long as you have the competency to back it up, and do not delude yourself into exaggerating that you are better than you actually are. Basically, don’t believe your own shameless self promotion!

There are folks who have high opinions of themselves who don’t deserve to. Take child abusers and criminals: Harvard’s Mental Health Newsletter reports that, in general, they do not suffer from low self esteem.  Psychopaths, tyrants, and bullies have an inflated opinion of themselves, and believe that others admire them. In fact, many criminals score average in self-esteem and very high in narcissism, which means a grandiose sense of self.  These folks demand excessive admiration, and when they don’t get it, they retaliate.  I view narcissism as self esteem on steroids.

  To make a point:  Tony Soprano, raging narcissist, psychopath.
  Daughter Meadow: solid self-esteem.
  Son  A.J., alternates: previous seasons he had grandiose self esteem, and the last season he had none!
But, you don’t have to be a bully or psychopath to have an inflated sense of self. For instance, most people think themselves to be better drivers than they actually are. Most people rate themselves as being honest while admitting they lie from time to time.  And on matters of sexual satisfaction, men generally think of themselves as being better lovers than their partners actually rate them.  Now, whether that is from an inflated sense of self, or a testosterone-fired delusion is not for today’s session.

So, when people say to you: ”Wow you are really gaining insight into your behavior!"   Make sure you tell them it's because you've been consulting with your YAYAtherapist.

For more on how to stay SANE in a CRAZY, insane world, click on next week for another dose of YAYAtherapy!

Therapeutically yours,
Michele Iaia (YAYA)