A psychologist explains why self-esteem is a 'sham'

In her new book, “Insight,” psychologist Tasha Eurich argues that most of us don’t see ourselves accurately, and explains why that’s a big problem.

Perhaps the biggest bombshell she drops along the way is this: Self-esteem doesn’t necessarily make you more successful. In fact, thinking highly of yourself — despite having obvious character flaws — can hurt your chances of personal and professional success.

This is hardly a new idea. Eurich cites a growing body of research on the potential perils of self-esteem, including a paper published by Roy Baumeister and his colleagues more than two decades ago.

Unfortunately, it’s taking a while for these scientific findings to seep into public consciousness.

“Most of us who have been born between 1950 and now have grown up in a world where self-esteem is a prized and valued quality,” Eurich said when she visited the Business Insider office in May.

But research suggests a different story.

A 2003 review of more than 15,000 studies, published by Baumeister and his colleagues, found that students with higher self-esteem don’t perform better in school, and professionals with higher self-esteem don’t have stronger relationships with their coworkers. Even military cadets with higher self-esteem don’t turn out to be more effective leaders.

In fact, the 2003 review found that self-esteem was linked to some destructive behaviours, including violence and aggression, cheating, and drug use.

In the book, Eurich shares a hypothesis about why we’re still obsessed with “the sham that is self-esteem”: “It’s far easier to feel wonderful and special than to become wonderful and special.”

Eurich told us that there’s a different — and more productive — way to look at self-esteem. Instead of seeing it as a cause of success, we can see it as a “result of excellent performance.”

Eurich told us: “Instead of puffing yourself up and saying you’re great and you’re perfect and that should help you be successful, what’s even better is to work hard to be successful, to see those improvements and those successes, and to use that as a way to drive you positively in the future.”

Or, as Baumeister and his co-authors put it in the 2003 review, “Using self-esteem as a reward rather than an entitlement seems most appropriate to us.”

In other words, the alternative to building yourself up isn’t tearing yourself down. Eurich told us:

“Another way I like to think about this self-esteem idea is instead thinking about self-acceptance. What self-acceptance means is I see myself clearly: I see the good, I see the bad, and I might even see the ugly.

“But in spite of that knowledge, I appreciate who I am, I know that I’m in charge and in control of what I want to work on. And I like the person that I am.”

It might seem like semantics, but that re-framing is crucial. As Eurich told us, it’s a “very small change that can have a big impact.”

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