The ‘Curse’ of Self-Esteem

June 6, 2013 Updated: April 24, 2016

It seems everyone wants to improve the quality of his or her life. Unfortunately, there are those who invest time, effort, and money on self-improvement and fail. Dieters regain the weight they lost—plus a few new pounds. Worriers try positive thinking—until panic strikes again and again. 

Thousands more join health clubs and then quit. Others buy expensive exercise machines, eventually hiding them away in closets—out of sight, out of mind. Most of these people think they have “low self-esteem.”

Fixing self-esteem is a national obsession and multimillion-dollar industry. Talk shows extol the virtues of self-esteem, and self-esteem books and tapes are published each year. Schools invest many hours indoctrinating children to feel good about themselves. 

The modern system of self-esteem has its dark side. Influenced by rhetoric, some educators reject marks and grades, contending that poor grades make students feel “bad about themselves.” 

Yet eliminating test scores robs students of important points of progress. As every young baseball player knows, keeping track of your batting average is essential. 

When I was a student, my father taught me to look up the answers to questions I had missed. He said I’d remember them long after I forgot what I studied in cram sessions. 

Most of today’s students seem unaware of this strategy. When I asked a young woman who got seven out of 10 on a test, “Did you look up the answers to the other questions?” she answered, “What for? I got my mark.”

Symbolism Versus Substance

Today’s self-esteem movement leans toward symbolism over substance with banners, awards, recognition, gold stars, and happy face stickers. This obsession with self-esteem is difficult to challenge since it all seems so harmless. 

What could be wrong with helping people feel good about themselves? Lots, actually. 

If students take self-esteem too seriously, it leaves them ill prepared for a competitive business environment. Discouraged new employees blame the system, job pressures, or management for their distress. 

After years of handing in test papers and waiting for their marks, students expect similar feedback from their manager. In the workplace, feedback is inconsistent at best—except during uncomfortable performance appraisals. 

When given feedback about job performance, many young employees react as if it were a personal attack. This renders them helpless when attempting to significantly improve their performance. 

Self-esteem advocates would like us to believe that the system of self-esteem is science. It isn’t. 

In Beyond Therapy, Beyond Science, Anne Wilson Schaef states: “We were working out of a model (still prevalent) that basically said if we understood a problem (and sometimes could make the client understand it), the problem was solved. … I saw that under the guise of scientific objectivity, psychology and psychiatry essentially functioned out of an emotional, judgmental base that often blamed and disrespected the client.”

Insight alone cannot enrich your life. It is actions, not intentions, that produce new or different results. As one philosopher put it: “To know and not to do, is not to know at all.” 

Here is the first of a series of action steps to put self-esteem in its proper perspective.

Action Tip

When panic strikes, ask yourself, “What am I telling myself (about myself) right now?”

Here are some examples of “killer” phrases and their alternatives:

• My back is killing me! Substitute: My back feels sore. 
• He/she is a pain in the (body-part of your choice.) Substitute: I’m reacting to … 
• I’m all stressed out! Substitute: My demanding programming is … 
• I am angry. Substitute: I am getting myself upset. 
• I can’t think straight. Substitute: My reactions are clouding my thinking. 
• I have to succeed. Substitute: I want to succeed, but I don’t have to. 
• I can’t do this! Substitute: I’m having trouble doing this.

By strongly disputing negative or exaggerated self-talk, you significantly reduce negative stress while accepting full responsibility for choosing your emotional reactions. 

Please don’t let the simplicity of this idea fool you. That which appears simple may not be easy. What may be easy to do is also easy not to do. 

Follow this approach for one week and see what happens for you.

Dave Mather is a Performance Improvement Specialist at Dale Carnegie Business Group in Toronto. His columns can be read at

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