Can a person have too much self-esteem, overdosing on it, like having too much vitamin A?
Allan Josephson, MD, chairman of the Family Committee of the American Association of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, thinks that self-esteem can be over done. “The commonsense understanding of self-esteem has been obscured by its over-application,” he writes. “Self-esteem certainly is important. But we’ve developed this misguided notion that parents should continually reward and praise their children. That doesn’t work either.”
He continues by writing that healthy “self-esteem comes from having parents who are physically and emotionally available and who set appropriate limits on their [children’s] behavior, and then help them develop autonomy. It should be a by-product of a healthy relationship with a child, not the goal.”
Those who are critical of parents who want to instill self-esteem in their children do so because they equate self-esteem with vanity. Vanity—self-absorption, egocentricism—is a problem. Vanity is self-esteem on steroids, a bulking up that is a distortion.
A good example of this is Donald Trump who after Obama released a copy of his birth certificate said, “Today I am very proud of myself” for forcing the president to produce proof of his birth. “I got him to do something nobody else could get him to do, and I’ve been given great credit for that,” Trump said on CNN. “I don’t make up anything. Let me tell you something. I have done a great service for the American people.”
A new study by psychologist Nathan DeWall finds an increased incidence of narcissism in popular music. The trend in song lyrics has been towards more use of “I” and “me” and a decrease in “we” and “us.”
Everyone, it seems, wants to be the center of attention. Some question the validity of the study, pointing to increased self-disclosure. Teenagers may be more honest and less repressed, not necessarily more self-centered than previous generations. But this study is consistent with other findings that show an increased degree of self-absorption over the several decades.
Along with increased narcissism are also increased levels of loneliness and depression. This makes sense: mature relationships require mutuality, where neither partner is more important than the other. There can be no reciprocal relationship when one partner is self-centered. Egoism pushes others away, thereby leading to loneliness. And being disconnected from others in a meaningful way is a road to depression.
What makes the lyric analysis study truly disturbing is that in addition to excessive self-references there is also an increase use of hostile words. Being egocentric and hostile is a volatile mix. A 2003 study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology showed that violent song lyrics led to increased aggressive thoughts and feelings.
Exposing self-centered adolescents to violent song lyrics can’t be good. The narcissistic person already feel entitled to do whatever they want since they are the center of the world and are more important than anyone else.
Self-esteem can go awry. The key is to temper self-esteem with empathy. This helps make a person who feels competent and self-assured, a person willing to take responsibility, who at the same time cares about others. People with low self-esteem view themselves as victims who are incapable of exercising moral responsibility.
I disagree with those who say that too much self-esteem is a problem. There can never be too much of it, just as you can’t be too healthy. But there are problems with people who think they are healthy and don’t take care of themselves. So there are those who think they are more competent than they really are, better skilled than they really are or are more likeable than they really are.
Those with low self-esteem cause many more problems. Bullies and victims both suffer from thinking too little of themselves, the first by displacing their feelings of worthlessness with violence and the second by not standing up to the violence. Mass movements and popular tyrannies work because so many think so little of themselves.
Vanity is thinking that you are more than another; self-esteem is thinking that you are as worthy as anyone else. Self-esteem allows you to dance with another; vanity makes you want to dance by yourself.
Community—the place where we find our deepest satisfactions—can’t exist with vanity or low self-esteem. But self-esteem is only one essential part of creating worthy personal and political relations. The other part is empathy. Identifying with others less fortunate is the other piece. The fault with child rearing in the last generation wasn’t in raising children who think too much of themselves but in raising children who think too little of others less fortunate.