Henry James and ‘the sin of self-esteem’

Whether you suffer from high or low self-esteem, you might find self-acceptance, self-awareness and self-motivation kinder to yourself, and to others.

‘It may be affirmed without delay that Isabel was probably very liable to the sin of self-esteem; she often surveyed with complacency the field of her own nature; she was in the habit of taking for granted, on scanty evidence, that she was right; she treated herself to occasions of homage. Meanwhile her errors and delusions were frequent, such as a biographer interested in preserving the dignity of his subject must shrink from specifying. Her thoughts were a tangle of vague outlines which had never been corrected by the judgement of people speaking with authority. In matters of opinion she had had her own way, and it had led her into a thousand ridiculous zigzags. At moments she discovered she was grotesquely wrong, and then she treated herself to a week of passionate humility. After this she held her head higher than ever again; for it was of no use, she had an unquenchable desire to think well of herself. She had a theory that it was only under this provision life was worth living; that one should be one of the best, should be conscious of a fine organisation (she couldn’t help knowing her organisation was fine), should move in a realm of light, of natural wisdom, of happy impulse, of inspiration gracefully chronic.’

Henry James. The Portrait of a Lady (volume I).

Henry James and the sin of self-esteem

Photo Credit: La_Caille via Compfight cc

By far the most common meaning of ‘high self-esteem’ is evaluating oneself positively; in other words, making and believing positive self-judgements and self-appraisals. (This is often described as prizing, appreciating or approving of oneself.) Now keeping to this popular meaning of the term, please do the following quiz. Answer each statement true or false:

  • Boosting your self-esteem will improve your performance.
  • People with high self-esteem are more likeable, have better relationships, and make a better impression on others.
  • People with high self-esteem make better leaders.

Before I give you the answers, let’s go back in time to 2003. In that year, the American Psychological Association commissioned a ‘Self-esteem Task Force’ to investigate if the claims above (and many other similar ones) were true. So a team of four psychologists from top universities – Roy Baumeister, Jennifer Campbell, Joachim Krueger and Kathleen Vohs – systematically ploughed through decades of published research on self-esteem. They looked long and hard for firm scientific evidence to either confirm or refute these popular beliefs. Then they published their results in an influential journal called Psychological Science in the Public Interest. And what did they find? All three of the above statements are false! They also found that:

  • High self-esteem correlates with egotism, narcissism and arrogance.
  • High self-esteem correlates with prejudice and discrimination.
  • High self-esteem correlates with self-deception and defensiveness when faced with honest feedback.

And as if this news weren’t bad enough by itself, when people with low self-esteem try to boost it through positive self-affirmations, they generally end up feeling even worse!

So if trying to raise self-esteem is not worth the effort, then what’s the alternative?

Self-acceptance, self-awareness and self-motivation are all far more important than self-esteem.

Russ Harris. The Confidence Gap.

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