5 Reasons “Self-Esteem” is a Myth

5 Reasons Self-Esteem is a Myth, www.drchristinahibbert.comFor years, I have noticed that almost everyone who walks through my private practice door is really dealing with the same core issue: poor “self-esteem”. Whether struggling through depression, anxiety, addiction, relationship issues, parenting challenges, or even life stress, when we get to the core of the issue, it almost always has to do with some false feeling or belief about oneself.

 

This has had me wondering: “Why is it so hard to feel “self-esteem?” After all, it’s a hot topic; a Google search will return 76, 200,000 results! There is plenty of advice out there on how to “understand” self-esteem, “evaluate” self-esteem, and “improve” self-esteem, on teaching self-esteem to kids, teens, women, couples, grandparents! (OK, I didn’t see any on grandparents, but I’m sure it’s out there somewhere). As one major psychology site said, “Perhaps no other self-help topic has spawned so much advice and so many (often conflicting) theories.”[1] And I agree.

 

Self-Esteem is a Myth

So, if we know “self-esteem” is a problem and we know there’s plenty out there to teach us how to overcome the “problem,” then, why does the problem so strongly persist? I see people all the time who have read these books and articles and have really tried; yet they still don’t feel self-esteem. They don’t believe they’re of worth.

 

Could the fact that so many people are struggling to feel “self-esteem” be a clue that something is not right? Because I can tell you, something isn’t right. In fact, I’ve come to see that the entire concept of “self-esteem” is not right. And that is the real problem: The very thing we are trying to pursue is a myth.

 

Allow Me to Explain

You may be thinking, “But wait?! Aren’t we supposed to pursue self-esteem? Aren’t we supposed to teach it to our kids and make sure we help others pursue it too? Isn’t it the way we learn to love ourselves?” Certainly, that’s what we’ve been taught. But what we’ve been taught is wrong. Allow me to explain.

 

First, let’s define “self-esteem”. According to dictionaries and even psychologists, Self-Esteem means:

1)   Belief in oneself; self-respect; undue pride or conceit[2]

2)   One’s overall evaluation or appraisal of his or her own worth

3)   A judgment of oneself as well as an attitude toward the self

4)   Encompasses beliefs, emotions, thoughts, and power of conviction about oneself[3]

5)   “Self-esteem, is the positive or negative evaluations of the self, as in how we feel about it.”[4]

 

Reading these definitions, it’s easy to see that “self-esteem,” while it sounds like a valuable and worthy goal, is based on one’s own thinking, perceptions, and emotions related to one’s own performance and behavior. And that’s where the problem lies.

 

5 Reasons Self-Esteem is a Myth

We can never build a permanent sense of our own worth if we base our worth on things that are bound to change. This is why Self-Esteem is a myth:

 

1)   Self-esteem is based on what we do and how we behave.

If our worth is based on our performance or behavior, then we are bound to feel poorly about ourselves when our performance or behavior drops; and it will drop—it’s human nature. We are more than what we do and how we behave.

 

2)   Self-esteem is based on how we feel about ourselves.

Basing our worth on our emotions can never succeed, because emotions are fickle. Like clouds in the sky, they come and go according to the pressure in the air. Our emotions can also be false. We can feel like a “bad” person when that’s absolutely not the case. We are more than how we feel about ourselves.

 

3)   Self-esteem is based on what we think about ourselves.

While I believe self-evaluation is a positive tool for personal growth, we mustn’t base our worth on our thoughts and evaluations. Most of us have flawed thoughts running through our minds all day long, and many times we don’t even know they’re there! We are definitely more than what we think about ourselves.

 

4)   Self-esteem is based on how we’re doing compared to others.

We don’t just evaluate ourselves on how well we’re doing compared to our own potential (which is healthy); with self-esteem, we compare ourselves to others. It’s fine to compare to others at times if it helps us see something to work on or inspires us to grow, but usually comparing to others just makes us feel worse about ourselves. The truth is, no matter how great we are at any given thing, there will always be somebody smarter, faster, skinnier, braver, kinder, and more “talented”. That’s when the identity crisis hits. “I thought I was good at that, but now I’m not so sure.” We absolutely cannot base our own worth on what others do or don’t do.

 

5)   Self-esteem is based entirely on judgments, whether from others or from ourselves.

And nothing good can come of that. We are certainly more than we or anyone else judges us to be.

 

 

If Not Self-Esteem, Then What?

I hope it’s easy to understand, now, why self-esteem is so hard to obtain, why, like a sand castle, it’s so hard to maintain and so easy to 5 Reasons Self-Esteem is a Myth, www.drchristinahibbert.comdestroy. It looks beautiful and sturdy, but one shift of the wind or tide and down it crashes.

 

Yes, we need to feel good about ourselves. Yes, we need to love ourselves. Yes, we deserve both of these. But the answer is not to be found in what we do, what we say, how we look, how we perform, what others or we believe, or how we feel. For, when we base our worth and love for ourselves on anything external, we will always fail. It may not happen right away, but it will.

 

Yes, “self-esteem” is a myth. What we really need to work for is discovering what is already within, discovering our self-worth.

 

 

Be sure to Check Out Part 2: “If Self-Esteem is a Myth, then what is the Truth?”: Understanding Self-Worth

And:

Self-Esteem & Self-Worth

Discovering Self-Worth: Why is it so hard to Love Ourselves?

Self-Esteem vs. Self-Worth: Q&A w/Dr. Christina Hibbert [plus video]

#1 Amazon Bestseller, This Is How We Grow, by Dr. Christina Hibbert, Available now on Amazon.com! www.ThisIsHowWeGrow.com
Be sure to check out Dr. Hibbert’s Amazon Bestseller, This is How We Grow
available now on Amazon.com!

 

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[2] Webster’s Dictionary

[4] E. R. Smith/D. M. Mackie, Social Psychology (2007), p. 107.

 

 

About Dr. Christina Hibbert

Clinical Psychologist, Mom of 6, Postpartum Couples DVD Producer, Non-Profit Founder, and expert on Parenting, Women’s Emotions, Pregnancy & Postpartum, and Grief & Loss, Dr. Christina Hibbert loves songwriting, learning, and teaching what she learns. She really hopes you’ll join the Personal Growth Group and choose to grow together!

Comments

  1. Your last sentence ‘Yes, “self-esteem” is a myth. What we really need to work for is discovering what is already within, discovering our self-worth.’ Says it all. I feel so far away from having self worth. I’ve been working on it for so long. I don’t know if I will ever get there.

    • I have hope that you can and will discover self-worth, Mary. You’ve probably been working on it in the wrong ways and I hope to show you a new one. Hugs to you and thanks so much for reading and commenting.:)

  2. Ève Beaulieu says:

    Self-esteem is the gap between your perception of yourself at a given time and the goals you set for yourself . The bigger the gap, the lower the self-esteem and vice versa. Explaining why people who achieve what we perceive as being great can still have low self-esteem and again; vice versa. Working towards those goals contribute to your sense of well-being and, you guessed it, vice versa.

    • Thank you, Eve, for sharing your thoughts. I agree with your points–we definitely feel better about ourselves as we work on ourselves and improve, and I am a huge proponent of personal growth (just see my recent article on “Personal Growth & Self-Actualization“). I am also hoping to show people that we are more than what we do, that, while it’s important to continually improve, we are also of immense worth just as we are. I plan to write much more, so please come back! And keep sharing your thoughts–I appreciate it!

  3. Dr. Hilbert,

    You make several valid points. I enjoyed reading the blog. I have found that, like you, many people often report “low self esteem” when they start therapy, though I don’t always find that true – not entirely. They look at self-esteem as static – I don’t also to your point. I do always ask them how they actually esteem themselves. Are they a good friend, good worker, wife, mom, sister, good listener, etc. We have many different roles in our life and should be considered when evaluating our self-esteem. When the question is posed that way, you would be surprised how many people can say positive things about themselves – and report they have never considered looking at their SE this way. Its a good way to make a positive shift in their mindset. What many people do is take an area or two of their life that they do not like or don’t feel good about (mostly intimate relationships) and base their self-esteem on that facet of their life, to the exclusion of other areas. I think by asking that question, among others, they can start to evaluate themselves more objectively – creating greater self-worth from within – to your point. This will help them manage the ups and downs of life and fluctuations in their self perception/self worth with a more honest assessment and hopefully become less self-critical in the process. I think this is an interesting topic! Thanks!

    • Thank you for your comments, Dr. Davin. You make some good suggestions. I hope to post more on this topic to share some of the methods I use to help people get out of the “self-esteem” model and into true self-worth. It’s something I’ve studied a great deal and given a lot of thought to. I should also clarify that few of my clients actually identify they have “low self-esteem.” Instead, what I mean is that, once we dig to the core of whatever “issue” they’re seeking treatment for, there’s almost always a deeper sense of not feeling “worthy,” “valuable,” or “lovable.” This is a huge topic with much to say, and I hope you will return to join the conversation as it unfolds!

  4. Julie Brinton says:

    Shame is the name of the game in my case, and maybe that’s what it is for most people with “low self-esteem”. I don’t know. Is dealing with shame completely different or is that pretty much what leads to “low SE”. I would say that 90% of the thoughts that go through my head are all about shaming me. When I think about it I have a mental image of me pushed up against a wall and I am standing in the 10% of my thoughts that know I am a worthy daughter of God and that I am lovable. It is a fight every single day to believe that 10%, and sometimes I fight so hard that I overcompensate for all the negative by overindulging in things like shopping. Feels good for about 10 seconds and then the shame kicks back in even stronger. Such a vicious cycle and so hard to get out of, but I’m glad that I can at least see it for what it is. This really is the core of the issue for me. All the other stuff like postpartum, and family struggles were just surface issues. I’m thankful for a great therapist and supportive husband to help me get through this, and I can’t wait to read what you have to say about self worth! Thanks Christi!

    • Thanks so much for your thoughts, Julie. To me, shame is something we learn from other people and tough life experiences, and it is definitely linked with poor self-esteem. When we’ve been shamed it’s only natural we will struggle to feel our true worth. However, shame is all in the mind. It’s the thoughts that keep shame alive; that’s all shame really is–thoughts. It’s replaying the tape of the things you were once told about yourself, and when you believe that tape, that’s when low self-esteem sets in. Even if you eventually disprove that tape, it can be hard to change the feelings caused by all those thoughts. (My Thought Management series can help–part 2 coming in a week!) But as I said in the article, “self-esteem” is also based on thoughts and feelings and other transient things. When you can learn to really place your value and worth on the things that are TRUE–that aren’t transient and don’t change, that’s when you learn self-worth. It IS possible. You’re working hard and proving that it is possible to change and grow. Keep up the really terrific work. 🙂

  5. I think this article provides a completely different perspective than most are used to. I used to judge myself based upon an ill-conceived “popular” notion of success and self-worth. I now understood that the definition of success is different for all people and is based upon our own personal value system. Wonderful article Christi! Thanks for putting what really matters in place.

    • Thanks for reading, Cheryl, and for your comment. You’re right–“success” is so heavily tied to “self-esteem,” and it’s great to hear you’re able to define success based on your own personal values rather than anyone else’s outward standards. It definitely shows in who you are! 🙂

  6. Such a perfect blog post for me this week as all of a sudden I started having thoughts of “What am I doing?!” as I open up my new studio. I have been in a funk of the “not good enoughs” for the past few weeks – based on my own expectations of myself and getting frustrated with myself. I am actually going to re-read, and re-read again, to see if I can get it to sink in a bit. 😉

    • Thank you, April. So glad it came at the right time for you. It’s especially easy to get caught up in “self-esteem” (or the lack thereof) when we are branching out and trying something new. I know I catch myself thinking those “not good enoughs” in new situations more than I care to admit. I hope it does “sink in” and I hope you will return and learn more as I share my theory for what self-worth really is and how we can learn to feel it.

  7. debera bragg says:

    After reading about self-esteem for years and realizing that it is a moving target….I have come to understand “God-esteem”. Having value because I am created by God and life has value. Our parents have their own pain and cannot love us totally the way we need to be loved…but God can and does. I have had to reorient my belief system to understand that my gifts and talents are all temporary and will pass with time. I cannot get a sense of worth from my achievements or lack thereof. Also when working with clients, I like to help them see their strengths/weaknesses in a realistic way. Focusing on character strengths such as loyalty, integrity, honesty, as attributes that seem to catch them by surprise as they are looking more at externals.

  8. I couldn’t agree more with you on the importance of “self worth” and look forward to reading your next article! As a mother of five, this issue hits home to me both personally and as a mom trying to build the ever illusive “myth” of self esteem in my home!

    Thank you for sharing this and I will definitely be sharing, this information needs to be seen by the masses! <3 Keep doing what you're doing!

  9. I absolutely loved this article, Christi! It always seems as if you are writing for and about ME! LOL! This may be because I’m not the only one dealing with a particular issue; otherwise you wouldn’t need to write about it, right?

    I agree with you 100% The problem is that most of us believe, as you’ve stated, that we’re supposed to have high self-esteem (JUST the other day I was thinking that I don’t know ANYONE with high self-esteem…everyone has insecurities). We’re then left to strive for something that is a “myth” only to “fail” and take yet another hit to our self-esteem. Like ducks, we have a calm facade on the surface yet we’re really paddling like crazy underwater…hoping no one notices.

    Thank you for putting things into perspective. I’d love for you to elaborate on the subject in a later post!

    • Thank you, Joani, for adding your voice! You are so right on–we all walk around feeling like we’re the only one when really we’re all struggling with the same kinds of insecurities. I love the duck analogy. We’re all paddling furiously but to what end? My hope is to continue this important discussion, to share with one another the TRUTH about who we are and what makes us valuable, so we can stop paddling like crazy and instead get to floating along, comfortable in who we are and relishing life. Thanks again for stopping by and sharing your energy and insights! 😉

  10. Dear Dr. Hibbert,

    While I appreciate your post about self-esteem being a myth I have to disagree with nearly every point you’re trying to make. I feel this is really a discussion better had directly with you but for now I believe self-esteem is real and your final statement regarding self-worth is basically the same concept. In fact, one definition for Self-Worth is “self-esteem; self-respect”.

    In response to your points:
    1. Self-esteem is not based on what we do or how we behave. It is based more so on how we feel about ourselves for doing or behaving. For example, I feel really good about myself for competing in a triathlon no matter what the outcome. I’m proud of myself for trying, for making the effort, for reaching beyond what I thought I could do. And that builds my self-esteem. On the other hand, if I don’t try, if I don’t make an attempt, perhaps that would hurt my self-esteem. Fortunately, I have a network of support for either outcome and that is key and I’ll address later.

    2. The problem with basing one’s self-esteem on one’s feelings is because people tend to berate themselves for having negative emotions. If one can accept the fact that an emotion, whether positive or negative, is not good or bad or make a person good or bad then it becomes a non-issue. Positive and negative emotions are basic human behavior and judging yourself based on an emotion is probably irrational.

    3. Everything we do is based on our thoughts including self-esteem. I think the problem here is people judge themselves based on what they’re thinking. So, if they have a negative thought they think they’re a bad person and that, in turn, makes them feel worse about themselves. Meanwhile, they don’t have a support network to help them deal with their negativity or their network feeds the negativity and the downward spiral continues. The same scenario can occur with positivity. Have you ever walked away from a conversation feeling completely uplifted? I think many people find this from religion which can be a strong means of connection which supports self-esteem.

    4. If someone is defining their self-esteem by comparing to others, you’re correct, it serves no purpose. Once again, this is where a person is trying to define themselves based on, I’ll call it, the rules of someone else. My suggestion is that every person should judge themselves based on their own rules and criteria and not someone else’s.

    5. I’m sorry but again, you’re suggesting that people not follow basic human nature. It is human nature to judge because that is how we think, make decision, categorize, solve problems, relate, understand and so on. If we judge without facts then we risk making poor decisions and subsequently poor choices in behavior. However, one need not berate themselves for forming an opinion based on the facts at hand if that opinion is, for example, that you don’t like something. That doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. So, why assign your value or self-worth or self-esteem to the mere fact that you like or dislike, agree or disagree with a certain topic?

    What I will completely agree with is the issue of low self-esteem is rampant in our society and it’s something I’ve been interested in trying to help solve for nearly 15 years. Without writing a blog post of my own (sadly, I’m probably already there), allow me to refer to Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

    I believe Maslow was correct and the BIG problem in our society is the fact that too many of us lack real connection and since our Need for Connection has not been fulfilled, we cannot move on to building our self-esteem. Once again, all the people trying to help people build and find self-esteem are going about it the wrong way. Nobody, or very few, are working on the underlying lack of true connection with someone or some group.

    Once a person has a real connection, then they’ll have the support structure to experiment and try new endeavors. No matter if they succeed or fail, the connection is a safety net especially to continue trying.

    Let’s take this one step further… check the research. It shows that when people feel connected, high risk behavior (as defined by the CDC) is significantly reduced. This means suicide, depression, drugs, alcohol, sex, STDs, anorexia, bulimia, obesity, etc. improve. I wonder how this could affect bullying, mass shootings, ADD and ADHD.

    With strong connection you really can build self-esteem and that’s what I’m trying to help families do with my website, http://www.familyejournal.com. Perhaps there is an opportunity to work together since we are both passionate about this topic.

    Finally, I’d like to thank you for addressing this topic and allowing me to contribute to the discussion. You’ve obviously “touched a nerve” with me and I’m grateful that you’ve inspired me to actually share a few of my thoughts in writing. I look forward to any comments you or your readers have on the subject.

    Best regards,
    Kevin

    • Thank you, Kevin, for contributing such valuable comments to the discussion on self-esteem. I appreciate you making me think even harder about what I’ve written and what I plan to add.

      I have to say I actually agree with most of your points. You’re right—the dictionary definition of “self-worth” is “self-esteem; self-respect,” a point I plan to make in my follow up on “Self-Worth”. What I’m proposing, however, is a new definition for self-worth, for I disagree that self-worth and self-esteem are one and the same. Self-esteem, to me, is more fleeting and changing, while self-worth is deep and unchanging. My biggest struggle, however, has been how to teach others self-worth, and that’s what led me to the ideas I have presented and plan to present on my blog.

      1. You’re absolutely right that self-esteem is based on how we feel about ourselves. I agree that it’s ideal to teach others how to feel good about efforts vs. results. However, many people, as I’m sure you know, don’t base their “self-esteem” on efforts. They base it on results, just like the world around them. Also, what about those who cannot “do” at all? My point is that, while effort is important, we’re more than our efforts.

      2. I agree we need to learn that negative and positive emotions are just emotions and that it’s ok to have them. But people do base their “self-esteem” on how they feel anyway. I don’t even believe that those who feel “good” about themselves because of positive emotion are getting it right; for one, because emotions change, and for two, because we are more than what we feel, negative or positive.

      3. I agree wholeheartedly with all of your points here. We are, essentially, made up of our thoughts, and that can be problematic. I fully support learning Thought Management, and I agree that a support network is essential and religion and spiritual support are valuable and promote a strong sense of self-worth. Still, we are more than our thoughts.

      4. I agree again. We should judge ourselves based on our own rules, but you know most people don’t do that, unfortunately. My problem is that so many of our self-judgments are off. We need to learn that we are more than what we see in ourselves. We have infinite potential.

      5. I agree. We judge. And judging can be valuable if it helps us grow and learn. It doesn’t make sense that we assign our value based on our judgments. Again, however, my point is that we are more than what we or others judge ourselves to be.

      Overall, I believe we need a new way of approaching loving ourselves and feeling good about who we are. I hope to share that in my next several posts on this topic. It’s something I have studied in great deal for some time now too, and I have a whole theory and method of “Self-Worth” and how to teach it to others so it really sticks.

      I agree, it’s about connection—to other people, to our true selves, and to God. That’s what self-worth is to me. I’ll share more in my post, which I hope to have out tomorrow (but maybe not til Monday). I really do appreciate your insights. You’ve added great depth to the conversation and I appreciate that. Blog posts are hard for me because they need to be short enough not to scare people away. I’ve been looking forward to my next “installment” all week so I can clear a few of these things up!

      I look forward to checking out your website and working with you in the future too. And I hope you’ll return for the follow-up posts so we can continue our discussion.

      Best, Christina Hibbert

  11. Interesting insights! I think I would say self-love or self-respect, but when you write the next post perhaps I will find that the way you define self-worth will encompass what I mean by those terms.

    • Thank you, Leslie, for your thoughts. I agree, and I hope the next post will shed a little more light on what I mean too. So much to share on this important topic–I hope you’ll come back and keep joining the discussion. 🙂

  12. Great article! I am a teacher and see self-esteem misguided ALL THE TIME! Everyone knows respect is important but they don’t know how to build respect. For the last few years I’ve used a program called Who Is NOBODY? and it supports each student in discovering their strengths and using them to help others. This way they are building their self-worth by basing it on their interests and how they use them… I’ve found this really levels the playing field and helps kids build identity around their interests and actions. http://www.whoisnobody.com It’s set up by DVD so it’s super easy too! Thanks for bringing up this topic – it’s so important in setting people up for success!
    🙂 Kelly

    • Thanks so much for your comment, Kelly. And thank you for the link–I look forward to checking out the program. I agree it’s incredibly important for students to identify their strengths and see that we ALL have them. It sounds like you are doing incredible work as a teacher! Thanks again and best to you! 🙂

  13. I want to thank you for writing this article. Yesterday I shared a blog post that a young man wrote about self esteem and how its a myth. My friend who is studying psychology told me that it was completely wrong and that I should be careful of “unsafe” opinions on this subject. She went to to tell me that I need to research more on this, because she knows way more than I do. She’s always trying to “set me straight.” Anyways, the point that the author of the blog post was getting to, was about not chasing self esteem, because in his opinion it looks like narcissism. Of course it made a few people upset, what I think he failed to do was clarify the difference between self-esteem and self-worth, but he’s no psychology scholar. I’ve never bought in the the self-esteem stuff, but that’s because I knew the difference. Too many people use self-worth and self-esteem synonymously. Its nice to see that he, in fact, was on the right track about self-esteem and your article clarifies even more!

    • Well, thank you very much, Rachel! You’re so right–so many people misunderstand “self-esteem.” And I agree with what you said of that man’s article–too many of us chase self-esteem, trying to succeed more, do more, be more–instead of simply relaxing in to and building from who they really are. Also, research shows a link between seeking “high self-esteem” and narcissism, for sure. Kids who are encouraged to have “high self-esteem” often end up thinking they are better than others, and that’s not what self-esteem is about, at all. Anyway, I could go on, but I appreciate your comment and you reading this article, and I am very grateful it’s been of some help to you. All my best!

  14. Hello Dr Hibbert.

    Thank you for the article. I agree with much of what you say but am confused as to your very last sentence. What is self-worth then? Is that not the same as self-esteem. Please clarify.

    Thank you,
    Alex

  15. Not only is “self-esteem” a myth/imaginary, but so is “self-image”. I lost these concepts in a single instant when I was being beaten down by them so hard I no longer wanted to live, and then I questioned myself “what is this “the self”?” I wondered. As I looked inward all I could see is that this “self” is a compilation opinions/preferences and such things are not facts but are imaginary concepts. This realization was profound and ridiculous at the same time because it would mean I have literally imagined myself and that this source of torment did not even exist. The moment this truth came to light in me the entire concept was instantly dead and gone. I felt like the weight of the world was lifted off of me, giving me this indescribable sense of peace and well being. Not only that, but my thinking/understanding of the world and people improved beyond anything I knew was possible. It was like I was seeing the world for the first time. The “self” no longer staining everything I would see, allowed me to see in others the same hidden insecurities I had suffered with just moments before and I no longer hated them but instead now I felt sad for them because I knew the pain that are currently trapped by and blinded with because they have not seen the lie of “self”. The self-image/esteem requires a HUGE amount of mental energy to maintain, and like deleting useless programs to make a PC run faster, so did my mind and a new ability (for me) to think in many perspectives.

    Thank you for your post here. I am glad to see I am not alone in knowing these truths! 🙂

    • Amen, Tyson! What wonderful insight you have on this topic. It sounds like you’ve had a profound experience of letting the “self” go, and I thank you for sharing this with us here, where it can hopefully inspire others to do the same.

      And you are very welcome for the post. I also am glad to see I’m not alone in knowing these truths. 🙂

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