It is generally accepted that a negative self esteem and self concept gets in the way of a person dealing with setbacks and failure, but the research shows that also high self esteem does not buy very much and can be very problematic. Despite the research the belief in ' self esteem ' is so engrained. Teachers and parents are told to praise and compliment kids and help their ' self –esteem ' by reflecting on all their positive attributes. So why is ' self esteem ' problematic and what can be done instead to foster success?
The problem with fostering self esteem with praise is not because kids are over –praised or don't deserve praise – it is praise itself. Praise is a way of getting kids to experience success as a reward and esteeming of the self. Instead kids should experience success and failure as information they need to make changes or become even more successful. The problem with self esteem is the focus on the ' self'.
The SDT Self Determination theory talks about 2 types of self esteem. Contingent self esteem is experienced by people who are preoccupied with questions of worth and self esteem and are strongly motivated by the desire to appear worthy to self and others. Their worth is seen as dependent on ' achievement ' and appearing in certain ways. Whether such individuals come away with positive or negative conclusions, the very fact that one's self esteem is in question suggests a psychological vulnerability. Non- contingent self esteem characterizes people for whom self-esteem is not a concern or issue. Success and failure is experienced as information and does not implicate self –worth ,even when they lead to a reevaluation of their actions and efforts. These people experience themselves on a fundamental level as worthy of esteem and love.
The psychologist Eric Fromm talks about 2 types of people - the ' To have ' people whose self worth and esteem depends on their 'having' .It leads to people being overly attached to possessions, achievements , and relationships. ' To be ' people focus on how they experience the world rather than on having.
'To have ' people view the ' self ' as an 'object' which needs to be appraised , judged and evaluated, the more positive , the better. In contrast SDT and religion see the Self as a process where a person makes meaning of experiences and integrates and assimilates them into his personality.
The research shared by Kelly Mcgonigal
describes what helps people to deal with setbacks and change and what gets in the way.
The first experiment she shares deals with people who are dieting and are invited to participate in an experiment testing the effects of food on mood. Each person chooses their favorite donut, eats the whole donut and is given a big glass of water which leaves a full and uncomfortable feeling. This triggered feeling of guilt amongst the dieters. The question was would the feelings of guilt help dieters resist subsequent temptations.? In order to test this , the dieters were given a ' taste experiment ' - to eat as much as they needed to, from a wide choice of candy (so everyone had something they liked) in order to evaluate the taste of the candy. One of the test groups was exposed to the following message. In a very by the way fashion , they were given a 3 point message - they were made aware of their guilt feelings of indulging in the donuts , they were told that it is human to error , it does not so that there is something wrong with you , everybody indulgences here and there and thirdly – so don't be hard on yourself. The group that was exposed to the message calling for self-compassion ate 40% of what the group not to exposed to the self- compassion message ate. People who are hard on themselves and have guilt feelings end up despairing, saying can never change and what the heck and then indulgence even more .
In another study shared by Heidi Grant Halvorson participants who failed an initial test were given a chance to improve their scores. One group were encouraged to boost their self –esteem by affirming and validating positive qualities. Another group was encouraged to exercise self –compassion and not to be hard on themselves. Those who took a self-compassionate view of their earlier failure studied 25% longer and scored higher on a second test, than the participants who focused on bolstering their self-esteem.
Self compassion is effective because it is non-evaluative. It allows people to look at their mistakes and flaws with kindness and understanding. People then focus on the self as a process and not as an object. You don't judge yourself harshly nor feel the need to defensively focus on all your positive qualities in order to protect your self-esteem. Setbacks and mistakes are part of being human and essential to the learning process. When the focus is on the process, rather than achievement, the journey rather than the destination you are more likely to be more accurate in assessing your abilities and coming up with a better plan which will help you reach your destination.
People who view the self as an object react by saying ' How could "I" ( capital I ) do that ? have feelings of guilt and shame which get in the way, while people who said ' How could I do THAT, did not focus on the self but on their actions and were successful in changing.
The problem with sin, falling or failing is not in the sin, falling or failure but what happens afterwards – not getting up. Guilt feelings get in the way of recovery and getting up. The verse proverbs 24:15 says that 7 times a saint falls and then he gets up.
Self compassion leads to higher levels of personal well-being, optimism and happiness less anxiety and depression.
Mindfulness and promoting the needs of autonomy, competence and relatedness help people and kids focus on the self as process.
Mindfulness is an open non-judgmental awareness of what is happening in the present. Self esteeming and the focus on ME are just mental constructions of the mind. In mindfulness and SDT there is no fixed concept of the self to protect or enhance, all facts are friendly and inform one's experiences and behaviors.
According to SDT , people with low self esteem are lacking in supports for and satisfactions of one or more of the basic needs of autonomy, competence and relatedness. They don't feel worthy as they are missing a sense of love, authenticity, or effectiveness. People with high contingent self esteem seek behaviors that support and reassure them that they are worthy in their eyes and others.
The paradox of self esteem of self –esteem ' If you need it , you don't have it and if you have it , you don't need it .
See my blog post on Motivation and Bob the Builder
on the effectiveness of different types of self talk. A statement - I can or will do it as opposed to asking a question will or can I do it ?