Over the years, we’ve had a love-hate relationship with self-esteem, writes Homaira Kabir. There was a time when we believed self-esteem to be the royal road to flourishing. We had Stuart Smalley on Saturday Night Live provide us with Daily Affirmations to make us feel special. We tried to reinforce it in our children by letting them know how exceptional they were when they failed.
However, later studies showed that such increases in self-esteem did little for our happiness or performance, but ample for our egos. Professor Roy Baumeister’s work with self-esteem showed that we’d been raising a generation of narcissists who went on to wreck havoc in their lives and in their workplaces.
It now appears that we’d been building the wrong kind of self-esteem – the kind that is contingent on external factors such as social approval, success or attractiveness. And as Professor Kristen Neff has shown, this comes at a price. Feeling better about ourselves as a result of social comparison ensures that our self-esteem takes a nose dive every time someone more popular, successful or attractive crosses our path. And in the global and competitive world we live in, it also sets us up for negative competition, unethical behaviors and a dearth of empathy.