What is self-esteem…really? One does not have to go far to hear that so-and-so would be “better” if only they had more self-esteem. It could also be termed self-regard, confidence or even narcissism. Perhaps a good definition is the realistic but positive appraisal of one’s abilities and deficits. This is rarely what people mean when they use the term. It appears less a realistic self-appraisal than a global sense of satisfaction with oneself. If we only know ourselves through the eyes of others, how is realistic self-appraisal possible? Most self-appraisals are not realistic for that reason alone. If it is skewed toward under-appreciating skills readily perceived by others, then we tend to label these people as modest or depressed. People who espouse self-perceptions that are more grandiose than what others perceive are labeled as arrogant or narcissistic. To be so self-satisfied may not be possible, or even desirable.
Self-esteem is often taken to be a global phenomenon. Once a person catches the self-esteem bug, contentment will blanket all areas of their life. This is rarely the case. More often than not, those who feel very competent in one area view themselves as incompetent in others. An extreme example is the business magnate who is master of all they survey in the daytime, and feels the incompetent fool at night. Most confident people readily admit to areas of their life where they feel a bit shaky. It is nearly a cliche to portray those who boast as actually masking their insecurities. With so many compartments that comprise the modern life, the energy needed to be satisfied in them all would be staggering. Most people form a hierarchy of the important tasks in their life, though they may not be consciously aware of doing so. Those tasks that center about work and family take center stage for most, such that a sense of doing one’s best in either will tend to enhance self-esteem. A constant theme in outpatient practice are those who believe they could have risen higher in work and education. Many people place greater emphasis on family activities that give returns they didn’t receive in other areas. They achieve greater self-esteem by discounting one area and accenting another. Patient’s suffering with grandiose delusions are extraordinarily satisfied with their life, but the rest of us have to make bargains to feel good about ourselves.
It is counter-intuitive, but most people who are at the top of their fields are insecure. Looked at another way, one has to stay hungry to remain at the top. Unless a person keeps an eye on the competition and their skill set, they will tend to decline in any field. Experiencing too much self-esteem may breed a smug indolence that is typical of narcissists. When a winner becomes complacent with their accolades, it tends to diminish their subsequent standing. When a sports psychologist assists an athlete, the treatment rarely takes the form of reviewing their victories. It is stressful to constantly perform at a high level, and one of the stresses is the refusal to be satisfied with one’s performance. If one is thinking of a concert pianist, consider the parent who wanted their child to be a lawyer or doctor. The parent worked long and hard on their academic development. One child is an astronautic and the other is a state senator, yet they regard themselves as a failed parent. Being insecure about their child’s future and their ability as a parent increased the overall effort made with the children. Do not be deceived into thinking that self-esteem drives success. Doubts about oneself may be crippling or highly motivating; depending on how the doubts are interpreted.
So contrary to Mae West, too much of a good thing is not always wonderful. Self-esteem should not come at the expense of motivation and accomplishment. It should not come at the expense of realistic self-perception. We all have to live with the fact we will never be Albert Schweitzer. Sniffle.