When I was six years old, my brother’s rec soccer team needed an extra player, so they pulled me from the sidelines. I was cringingly terrible. I tripped over the ball, passed to the wrong players, and even scored an accidental goal for the opposing team. Yet, after the game, I received a trophy. It’s still sitting in my closet, proudly gleaming with the word “participation.” Absolutely nothing about my performance warranted praise. I did not deserve that trophy in the slightest.
Welcome to the self-esteem movement.
It began in 1969 with Nathaniel Branden’s The Psychology of Self Esteem. In his article, Branden champions self-esteem as the single most important component of a person. It sparked a movement in which parents began to teach children that loving themselves should rank above all else. Soccer coaches stopped counting goals. Competition was viewed as damaging. Elementary report card grading went from Fs to NIs, or “needs improvement.”
Should we really be teaching children that there is nothing better than falling madly in love with yourself? Self-respect is indeed vital. Your opinion of yourself has an incredibly powerful impact on your happiness, success, and abilities as an individual. But this everyone-gets-a-trophy, we’re-all-winners mentality does not foster well-adjusted, self-assured individuals prepared to tackle life’s challenges. This mentality breeds the insidious idea that just trying is enough, that just by showing up you are entitled to praise. But that is not how the world operates. You aren’t always going to win, and that’s okay.
It’s nothing groundbreaking to say that there is value in failure. It builds character, thickens our skin, tells us when to strive higher. But in our valiant efforts to promote positive self-image we have instilled the belief in children that they can’t fail. What we really are saying when we hand a kid a ribbon for getting every question wrong in a spelling bee is that failing is not allowed. We teach fear. And this is ultimately a disservice to these kids who will one day grow up and live in a world that does not hand out ribbons for losing.
American schoolchildren rank 25th in math and 21st in science out of the top thirty most developed nations, but they rank number one in confidence that they outperformed everyone else (education.com). Translation: we suck at math, but we’re the best at believing we don’t. Perhaps American students would rank higher in academics if our culture didn’t reward failures in the same way it rewards successes. Because believing you are the best does not actually make you the best; in fact, complacence hinders motivation for improvement.
The whole concept behind the self-esteem movement was that indoctrinating kids with love for themselves would raise them to be well-adjusted, wholesome individuals less likely to become criminals. But over 200 studies have been conducted all with similar results: higher self-esteem doesn’t improve performance in school or in career achievement, doesn’t decrease underage alcohol use, and in no way reduces violence. So what exactly is the self-esteem movement doing?
I’m glad you asked. The results are a little frightening. We get Donald Trumps. We get Kanye Wests. People who think it’s the world’s job to love them. People who believe if someone criticizes them, the problem is not with themselves but with the accuser. And while this may sometimes ring true, other times it takes humility to recognize that the problem lies within ourselves.
We are human beings, which means we are all tragically flawed. Even knowing this, it is nobody’s responsibility to love your shortcomings. We teach that your flaws are not flaws at all, and so there is no need to improve upon them. You don’t need to fix yourself; it is everyone else’s duty to love your inadequacies. This is simply not true.
Self-love has gone a little bit too far. There’s a fine line between being comfortable with the person you are, and being head-over-heels in love with your own sparkly perfection. Proponents of the self-esteem movement should take a step back and reassess the effectiveness of their ribbons and trophies and undeserved praise. In trying to nourish a culture of healthy confidence, we’ve created a monster that thinks it’s an angel, and maybe it’s time to put it down.