H. Paul Putman III, MD
Character Sketches: Is Self-Esteem Valuable?
We can create good self-esteem through identifying personal values we choose from society, then ensuring that our behavior supports these. We have previously explored a cognitive behavioral program that confirms our values, and builds self-esteem by measuring and recognizing our behavioral adherence to them., We have also learned that it is more our adherence to chosen values, than the values themselves, that leads to good self-esteem. We must now consider whether good self-esteem actually carries any value of its own for an individual or society.
It is true that the self-esteem movement of the 1970s erroneously sought to indiscriminately raise self-esteem by avoiding even constructive criticism of children and offering them groundless praise for minimal behavioral effort.,Research early in this century attempted to demonstrate that not only had this effort failed to improve educational, personal and social outcomes, but that it could lead to narcissism and antisocial behavior. During the last two decades, however, extensive additional research has refuted this pessimistic assessment.
Even the most cynical scholars have found that good (often referred to as high) self-esteem is strongly related to personal happiness. It is also associated with strong initiative and encourages experimentation, which is a crucial skill for effective problem solving. Those with better self-esteem are more likely to speak up in groups and criticize a group’s approach, making them less susceptible to the dangers of group think., They are at the same time, though, more likely to judge and treat members of their own groups more favorably (a potentially double edged sword, depending on the circumstances of the group and its place in society).
Convincing data has demonstrated, however, that narcissism and antisocial behavior are associated with low, rather than strong self-esteem., Both of these conditions have developmental and structural differences that distinguish them from high self-esteem. For example, rather than feeling worthy to others, narcissists may see themselves as superior, denying their poor self-image to themselves.,
Adolescents with strong self-esteem arrive in adulthood with better mental and physical health, economic prospects, and lower levels of criminal behavior than adolescents with low-self-esteem. Good self-esteem in women also reduces their chances of developing bulimia. A preponderance of studies has also linked high self-esteem to a lower risk of other mental health problems, particularly depression and anxiety.,
While those with low self-esteem appear to accumulate dysfunctional outcomes in life, those with high self-esteem generally enjoy better school and work performance, better physical health and less antisocial behavior. They may also enjoy more satisfying relationships, which may be reciprocally reinforced: those with better self-esteem have better social relationships and vice versa.
The answer is beginning to show with clarity: good self-esteem is valuable to ourselves and our society. Praise should not be given freely without being earned, though some groups, such as young adolescents, might benefit from closer mentoring on developing these skills. Good self-esteem must be developed by an individual through self-observation of behavior. The values clarification and behavioral approach we have described[1,2] is a reasonable method and useful tool for what does appear to be a valuable goal.
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