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January 26, 2005


I just came from a social psych lecture on self esteem, and I think I need to jump out of lurkage to pass along some things that came up, since your post is so in line with what my professor was discussing. :P

Low self esteem doesn't seem to be the problem underlying violence, but simply having high self esteem isn't the only problem either. At least in moderation, it *is* beneficial to think of oneself as basically a good person with good qualities (while keeping in mind that the same results don't necessarily show up in cross-cultural research). However, having an inflated sense of self-worth, aside from making you an unpleasant person, can lead to violent behaviour, particularly if something threatens that self-image ("threatened egotism") or if your self-esteem is unstable. (This last seemed a bit contradictory to most of the people in my class, since it seems like the high self esteem might in that case be a mask for low self esteem, but my prof pointed out that the problem is that it would be really hard to measure the degree of the masking, if that's what's going on.)

I think that you're right on with your point b. Low self esteem is very strongly correlated with self-destructive behaviour - which I think is another kind of violence, but it's a very different kind than violence directed at other people.

Has anyone done research on the relation between self-esteem and standardized test scores? This is purely anecdotal, but back in the standardized-test portion of my life, I knew people who did surprisingly well on standardized tests (considering their apparent brains) and people who did surprisingly badly (likewise). A common factor seemed to be that the higher scorers were more self confident, in a "Of course the answer I chose is right. I'm always right," sort of way. I've surmised that people like me who do well on standardized tests get a significant boost from being confident enough to not waste time checking work, blithely guess on the difficult questions rather than agonizing...

Not a broadly useful effect -- in most contexts it would lead to slipshod work -- but I wouldn't be surprised if high self esteem raises standardized test scores.

In my experience of being bullied, "low self-esteem" is never the problem of the bully - rather, it was a permanent, settled conviction that the bully knew best, and when I deviated from proper behavior (as defined by the bully) it was the bully's proper task to ensure that I suffered from it.

Believe it or not, I suffered for several weeks* in my second year at high school because a bunch of idiot teenage boys had decided that it was completely unsuitable for a gurl to ride a bicycle to school and park it in the bike shed. No girl had ever done it before, and as far as they were concerned, no girl should be doing it now.

As far as I can see, the same traits tend to link a bully in childhood with a bully in adulthood: a settled conviction that they are right (and you are in the wrong) and the certainty that they can get away with whatever they do.

*Eventually, my parents noticed that my bike and I were coming home in not-a-good-state, and arrangements were made for me to put the bike somewhere safe inside the school. When I think back, it really could only have been a few weeks: it felt like a bloody eternity.

But I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and goshdarn it, people like me!

Has anyone articulated the difference between 'humility' and 'low self-esteem'? I've always been rather fond of the former, but they strike me as the same thing. The big question, which neither addresses, is what you do about the frail and flawed thing you are. And whether you obsess about that frailty or work to improve it. The self-esteem movement's worst effect may have been the confusion between ignoring problems and resolving them.

Jes: bullies are on a power trip and have been for the last million years. They derive a sense of empowerment and satisfaction from their ability to scare and manipulate other people. Other people could have disagreed with your bike parking without bullying you about it, and bullies would have found something to bully you (or a richer target) about regardless of where you parked your bike.

Does this portend the beginning of the end for reality T.V.?

Has anyone told Donald Trump?


I'll have to agree with sidereal. It's more of a powertrip thing, then anything else. Bullies bully, because they can.

sidereal: I tend to think of humility and low self-esteem as different, though I'm not particularly inclined to defend my view of humility as 'the right one', whatever that means. I think of humility as the opposite of pride (in basically a Christian theological sense), and pride as being mostly about the need forever to compare oneself to others and to need to be doing better than they are. It's the relentless focus on the self that's key. Whereas humility (for me) is chiefly about being able to see the world as it is, without needing to relate it to oneself (except where there's some actual need to.)

Now is an opportunity to use one of my favorite quotes from George Eliot: "Will not a tiny speck very close to our vision blot out the glory of the world, and leave only a margin by which we see the blot? I know no speck so troublesome as self." Having that speck in your eye is pride, to me; lacking it, and having in consequence the ability to see the glory of the world clearly is humility. And low self-esteem is something else altogether (or rather, if I'm right in the original post, several things), though having self-esteem in my sense (a) is, I think, a part of humility.

hilzoy: I tend to agree with your analysis of humility vs low self-esteem, in that they are different.

I think that as a personality trait, humility can stem from either healthy self-esteem (i.e., humility as lack of arrogance, unpretentiousness, etc.) or from low self-esteem (humility taken to mean excessively meek or submissive).

Of the people I've known and thought of as great leaders, all possessed a refined sense of humility. However, it sprang from self-awareness and healthy self esteem/self-confidence rather than feeling they were somehow "less" than anyone else.

My sense is that most rules of etiquette, manners and social interaction are structured around humility in its best meaning.

Forget about self-esteem and concentrate more on self-control and self-discipline.

Spot on!

And the powerful shall rule the earth because they can.

Or am I reading the wrong scriptures.

Bullies are on a power trip and have been for the last million years. They derive a sense of empowerment and satisfaction from their ability to scare and manipulate other people.

I was, for a brief, shameful time in my early teens, one of the world's most improbable bullies. [Even then I had the musculature of a frayed rubber band.] In my instance I think the reason I inflicted pain (inasmuch as I was even cognizant that that was what I was doing) was that it was a way of exerting control in a life that had been seriously undermined and thrown out of whack, and a way of feeling less physically inadequate around my sportier, more popular friends. It had nothing to do with esteem qua esteem, I think.

Interestingly, I've been all but pacifist in my private life since then, despite some rather severe provocations, so I guess I learned my lesson (whatever that might mean). Wish I could make it up to those I bullied but it's well past too late for that and besides, such amends would be for my sake and not theirs. Doubt they've thought about me much in the last decade; the best revenge is living well, and I'm glad to be the object of their vengeance.

After all these years, I'm sorry to say, my recommendation is this: Forget about self-esteem and concentrate more on self-control and self-discipline.

It's what I've been teaching in my classes and it seems to work. Either that or, well, people self-destruct from their lack of discipline and drop the course (and give me some truly scathing evaluations which I treasure each and every day); one perk of teaching college is that I have that luxury.

I've surmised that people like me who do well on standardized tests get a significant boost from being confident enough to not waste time checking work, blithely guess on the difficult questions rather than agonizing...

I think I read somewhere that on multiple choice tests, which most standardized tests are, the odds say you are best off sticking with the first answer you chose rather than switching if you can't decide between two answers. That could have an effect.

hilzoy, I think I disagree with one of your premises in (a). (I may not; it's possible I'm misreading.)

Having the self-confidence to actually think, objectively, about how good a person you are, and to seriously entertain the possibility that you should conclude that you are not a very good one, as opposed to fleeing from anything that might force you to evaluate yourself.

At least in my case, and in the cases of a number of people I know with self-esteem "issues", the problem is not the ability to "seriously entertain the possibility that [one] should conclude that [one] are not a very good [person]"; in fact, it's precisely the opposite: that we have already come to the conclusion that we are not very good people, and have trouble seriously entertaining the possibility that we should conclude that we are good people.

In the same vein:

People who can't face the knowledge of their own flaws and failures don't take risks [...]

I'm not sure where this perspective comes from; someone who doesn't have a firm (or at least non-tenuous-at-best) grasp on his* own flaws and failures won't take what he perceives to be risks, but will take what the rest of us would consider risks, because this person can't (or won't) consider the possibility of failure. If there's no possibility of failure, there's no risk; if there's no perceived possibility of failure, there's no perceived risk. (I'm simplifying greatly, of course, by failing to distinguish between internal and external possibility of failure, but I'm not entirely sure the distinction matters; someone with enough self-esteem to fail to recognize his own flaws and failures will likely think that he can overcome external possibilities of failure.)

By contrast, someone with low self-esteem as described earlier - one without the concept of himself as a good person - won't take risks, because there's little or no perceived possibility of success. In this case, external possibilities of success don't particularly matter either, because the person in question is likely to think that his own shortcomings will cause failure even in the face of overwhelming odds of success.

hilzoy, nobody else seems to be taking issue with these passages, and there are certainly people reading Obsidian Wings who are more intelligent than I, so I have to ask: what am I missing?

* I'm using "him", "he", etc. as the generic personal pronoun; I don't intend sexism.

As a parent, here's the way I see it. Children need to have an intrinsic feeling of self-worth, an assurance that no matter if they fail, they are still worthy of love. Ideally they develop this by receiving unconditional parental love at an early age.

They also need to be given chances to fail and to succeed on their own efforts. Parents need to provide positive feedback on the efforts made in a way that will promote renewed efforts. The classic example is that if a kid gets a good test score, the response is "Congrats on studying hard to get that score", rather than "oh, you're so smart!"

Back to the unconditional love bit, one must not make the child's accomplishments or failures linked in any way to your affection for him. I think a parent can have high expectations for her child, and reward good performance/behavior, while still maintaining a constant unconditional love. One thing that is hard to learn as a parent, but very important, is that the childis a separate individual, not an extension. The child owns their accomplishments and owns their failures. A parent provides love, support, guidance.

Sorry that's a bit rambly. I'm distracted at the moment by a sick wee one.

Anonymous Bosch (great name, by the way): I was probably unclear. I was thinking of some people I have known when I wrote this: some people in college, for instance, who never let themselves really try to do good work for fear that they would try and fail and have to conclude that an entire childhood of being told how smart they were would be wrong. (These people don't include the quite different group who didn't try because they just weren't interested.) I think it was wrong of me to say that they don't take risks, per se: some of them were completely self-destructive, apparently because it was better to shoot themselves in the foot than to run the risk of actually trying and failing. (They could at least maintain the idea that if they had tried, they would have succeeded.) It's specifically the risk of learning about their own limitations or failings, and often about some one in particular (in the college case, learning that your talents are more or less ordinary) that they don't take, not risks per se.

To have the confidence to really try, knowing that you might fail, and might then have to recognize something about yourself, is I think a real sort of courage, and requires something that I think can be called self-esteem: the confidence that your worth does not depend on (e.g.) how smart or talented or whatever you are, and would survive the realization that you are not as smart or talented or whatever as you thought, or that you didn't live up to your own or someone else's expectations.

Votermom: You are right on here, but I think you need to point out that when a child lacks this parental love and acceptance, it is very difficult to make up for it later. And perhaps herein lies the rub. Can teachers and other authority figures in the lives of children and young people make up for what they have missed during their early years? A difficult task at best!

Having been a young person of low self-esteem, and definitely having lacked the unconditional love that might have helped lessen it, I found that the only way I could find self-esteem was to seek it myself. I had to tackle things that I found frightening (risks), but wanted to do, and knew that I would feel better about myself if I did them. Use Hilzoy's self-assessment, but had to learn not to use it too harshly. (Those of us with low self-esteem tend to inflate faults and failings and minimize positive traits and events.) But I also have to tell you that it has taken me about 30+ years of hard work to reach a place in which I feel that I am now a self-confident person....I do hope that others can do it more quickly. Now, here I am in my 60's and I find that I have no time for all that angst. I have simply come to the place where I can accept myself and try to do my best. And it is not half bad, if I must say so myself. ;-)

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