Quoterday – The Curious Correlation of Self-Esteem

Self-esteem seems only to be a symptom, a correlate, of how well a person is doing in the world.

Martin Seligman, Learned Optimism

Growing up, school programs and television adverts bombarded me with messages to my self-esteem.

“You have to love yourself.”

“Believe in yourself and you can do anything.”

“I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and gosh darn it, people like me.”

In an earlier post, I commented on the value of building an emotional foundation of self-love.

If we aim to satisfy others’ needs to prove our own self-worth, we may begin to believe the inverse – If we consider our own needs before others, then we are selfish and unworthy.  In other words, it is risky to seek self-worth entirely from without.

But perhaps it is equally risky to seek self-worth entirely from within.

In the late-20th century, social psychologists amassed a mountain of research that heavily correlated self-esteem with negative outcomes like poor grades, social isolation, criminality, and health problems.  The solution seemed simple.

“If we can boost children’s’ self-esteem, then we can motivate them to achieve their potential and avoid tragic life outcomes.”

But problems persisted.  Correlation does not prove causation.  Perhaps low-self esteem did not drive poor life choices.  Perhaps students’ self-esteem dipped due to their underachievement.  Or perhaps the relationship was bidirectional.

Moreover, future studies found correlation between self-reported self-esteem and narcissism.  In this case, it is possible that promoting individuals’ self-esteem absent corresponding achievement (e.g. empty praise) contributed to feelings of entitlement.

This is not an all-or-nothing issue.  Hustling to prove your worth to others and cultivating an unsubstantiated high self-opinion can prove equally problematic.

In a critique of a previous post, Sugar made an excellent point.

 I feel like it’s easier and more comfortable to love and make others happy versus doing it to yourself, and still be genuine about it at the same time.

The mistaken correlation between self-esteem and wellbeing presents a chicken-egg problem.

Where should I start?  Should I affirm my own self-worth to motivate myself to help others?  Or should I help others to motivate my self-worth?

Sugar’s critique suggests that the latter plan would prove more effective.  I agree.  Whenever I work in the service of others, whether it is delivering fruit to teachers, helping a friend with an essay, or teaching students, I tend to feel more present and less self-conscious.

Sugar went on to write:

Through acts of service and giving to others, we learn how to give it back to ourselves, and figure out how we want to receive that from others.

I think this is true to a point.  What we want to receive from others directly relates to what treatment we believe we deserve from others.  And our self-worth dictates what we expect from others.

Helping others does not automatically serve to bolster self-esteem.  It can, but only if the thoughts feeding the helping behavior come from a place of “enough.”

“I want to help others.  When I do,  I feel good.”

“I have to help others.  If I don’t, I am bad.”

The first statement is very conducive to improvements in self-esteem.  Moreover, because these positive feelings stem from tangible behaviors, it is justified self-esteem.

On the other hand, the second thought lends itself to people-pleasing and hustling for worth.  People espousing the second thought may find the word “no” very difficult. They may overburden themselves with commitments without any self-worth to show for it.

In other words, do we help others because it is congruent with our positive self-opinion or do we help others to desperately defy our negative self-opinion?

Our answer can drastically shape our self-concept and quality of life.

P.S. Sugar texted me a response after reading this post in advance.  I love her additional example.

When I think of these things in extremes, I think of commedians and actors who give their service to others yet suffer from anxiety and depression at the same time.

The woman on top enjoys helping people because it feels good.  The woman on the bottom feels obligated to help people and consequently breaks down.

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