Guest Viewpoint: Overinflation

Too Much Self-esteem Can Lead To Rude Awakenings

After 26 years in the classroom, I am convinced that one of the most misconstrued and abused movements in education spanning the last three decades has been the so-called “self-esteem” movement.

The assumption fueling this cause was the belief that high self-esteem would be the great innoculator protecting us from many of the social maladies plaguing our society. Sadly, research has demonstrated that untold numbers of inmates currently incarcerated in our nation’s prisons score very high on “self-esteem” tests. In a recent interview, Eric Menendez stated that he felt very good about himself. I’m sure his parents would be so proud of him had he not bludgeoned them to death.

Though I think it’s safe to assume that every impassioned educator would agree that self-esteem is indispensable to one’s psychological development, the question of what self-esteem actually is and how one develops it is still a mystery that has, in my humble opinion, sadly translated to an epidemic of under-achievement and in many cases the delusion of “false confidence.”

One only has to glimpse a few episodes of “American Idol” to see what happens when young people who are clearly lacking in singing ability are forced to confront the reality of what they do not possess. To maintain some modicum of self-respect in the face of their thwarted dreams, they usually choose one of two options – they dismiss the judges as incompetent imbeciles, or they leave the stage in tears, crushed by the knowledge that they are not the singer that they thought they were.

I remember sitting with my sister (who has a beautiful singing voice) several years ago in a high school auditorium and we were both gripping our armrests, white-knuckled, as a young woman gave her senior voice recital. There is no easy way to say this other than to state that it was excruciatingly painful to endure these dissonant notes juxtaposed to the knowledge that it was her lifelong dream to one day sing at the Metropolitan Opera.

The questions that were forced to my consciousness that night (which I believe have applications to all of us who love our students and who want more than anything to see them fulfill their destinies) were, how did she get there? Did teachers really help her in encouraging her along a path where clearly her talents did not lie?

(I learned a long time ago that, given my short stature, I was not going to play for the Knicks and this allowed me to get on with what my life was going to be about.)

Perhaps most important, where is the line for educators distinguishing healthy encouragement of a student’s dreams and falsely guiding them toward delusional beliefs that will ultimately be destructive – all in the interest of ensuring that we do not damage their delicate psyches and self-esteem?

I couldn’t help but think: Where will this young woman’s “self-esteem” be when she encounters the Simon Colwells of the world and brutal reality hits the fan? Will she be grateful to her former teachers who nurtured her beliefs about her abilities? (I remember seeing a third-grader walking down the hallway of his school and a teacher saying to him as he passed by “Excellent walking, Billy!” My immediate thought was “What’s next, trophies for breathing?”)

Though I have read countless books and attended a seemingly endless number of workshops on this elusive topic (much of which I believe were exercises in psychobable), some of the most poignant work I have read that gives definitive focus and insight into what self-esteem is and how one might actually go about developing it is the work of psychologist Nathaniel Brandon.

He suggests that self-esteem has two essential components:

1.  Self-efficacy – the confidence in the ability to cope with life’s challenges. Self-efficacy leads to a sense of control over one’s life.

2.  Self-respect – experiencing oneself as deserving of happiness, achievement, and love. Self-respect makes possible a sense of community with others.
Brandon is the first to admit that the strengthening of self- esteem is not a quick or easy process, and that its attainment is the consequence of following fundamental internal practices that require ongoing commitment to self-examination. He calls these practices the Six Pillars of Self-Esteem:

  • Living consciously: Paying attention to information and feedback about needs
    and goals. Facing facts that may be uncomfortable or threatening.
    Refusing to wander through life in a self-induced fog.
  • Self-acceptance: Being willing to experience whatever we truly think, feel, or do, even if we don’t always like it. Facing our mistakes and learning from them.
  • Self-responsibility: Establishing a sense of control over our lives by realizing that we are responsible for our choices and actions at every level – the achievement of our goals, our happiness, our values.
  • Self-assertiveness: The willingness to express appropriately our thoughts, values, and feelings – to stand up for ourselves. To speak and act from our deepest convictions.
  • Living purposefully: Setting realistic goals (given an honest awareness of our strengths and weaknesses) and working to achieve them, rather than living at the mercy of chance and outside forces. Developing self-discipline.
  • Integrity: The integration of our behavior with our ideals, convictions, standards & beliefs – acting in congruence with what we truly believe is right.

I believe that these principles warrant thoughtful reflection by all of us in education who believe that it is our mission to help our students live their lives at the fullest and deepest expression of their humanity.

I have learned in my career that our students are often much more resilient than we give them credit for, and that more than anything, they appreciate our honesty. Young people are great “crap” detectors, and if we are truly interested in helping them grow, that is the last thing we should be shoveling.