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February 2, 2016       

The Purpose of “Normal” Low Self-Esteem
by Monica A. Frank, PhD

Where did the self-esteem movement go wrong? Why does artificially trying to inflate childrens' self-esteem (giving every child a trophy) cause entitlement and laziness? If children feel better about themselves, shouldn't they be more motivated to succeed, not less?

The problem is that the self-esteem movement took a concept that was meant to help people with abnormally low self-esteem that interfered with life functioning and applied it to normally functioning people. Their idea was that if low self-esteem is associated with depression, then it must be bad and the opposite must be good: we need to get rid of low self-esteem wherever we find it.

This is the problem with extreme thinking—it assumes that the opposite of bad must be good when the opposite of bad is sometimes also bad. In this case, low self-esteem under normal circumstances may have a purpose—when people feel bad about themselves they are more likely to identify the problem and determine how to change it. In other words, low self-esteem can lead to self-assessment and be motivating for self-improvement (Crocker and Park, 2004). However, low self-esteem is different for people who are depressed and feeling hopeless—low self-esteem just contributes to the hopelessness in that situation.

Therefore, people with abnormally low self-esteem that causes problems in their lives do need to improve their self-concept. But for others, improving self-esteem can lead to the problem of inflated self-esteem in which they feel deserving just because they exist and do not need to exert any effort to receive reward. In other words, they do not need to consider their impact on others and their reasons for failure never have anything to do with their own behavior.

Self-esteem needs to have a healthy balance in which a person can look objectively at him or herself. By doing so, a person is more like to successfully navigate life's challenges.

Crocker, J. and Park, L.E. (2004). The Costly Pursuit of Self-Esteem. Psychological Bulletin, 130, 392–414. DOI: 10.1037/0033-2909.130.3.392

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