Your self-esteem doesn’t matter as much as you think it does.
In fact, your concern about how you feel about yourself may actually be holding you back, according to science.
In our selfie-obsessed world, it is dogma that we should feel good about ourselves. And there’s a vast amount of psychological literature to back this up. Self-esteem, or one’s evaluation of their own worth, has been touted to reduce crime, obesity, school underachievement, teen pregnancy, drug abuse and domestic violence.
But is this really true?
Is self-esteem necessary to achieve the best outcomes in life?
Is self-esteem enough to get you through the hardest experiences you’ll face?
A closer look at the research calls these doctrinaire assumptions into question.
Self-Control Trumps Self-Esteem
According to Roy Baumeister, the prominent social psychologist, “boosting people’s sense of self-worth has become a national preoccupation. Yet surprisingly, research shows that such efforts are of little value in fostering academic progress or preventing undesirable behavior.”
A fallacy with psychological research on self-esteem is that the only way to measure it is through self-reports. When taking these tests, people are prone to consciously—or unconsciously—attempt to either make themselves look or feel better.
Unsurprisingly, a large body of research asserts that physically attractive people have higher self-esteem than non-attractive ones. However, some researchers questioned this relationship and tested physical attractiveness based on other people’s opinions. First, a large group of people were given surveys to test their self-esteem. Then, pictures were taken of them and judged by others on their physical attractiveness.
On nearly all accounts, one’s self-esteem had little to no bearing on how attractive other people thought they were. Interestingly (and hilariously), in that same study, self-reported physical attractiveness was found to have a strong correlation with self-esteem. Obviously, those with high self-esteem are gorgeous in their own eyes but not necessarily so to others.
Another study among college students revealed found that people with high self-esteem also have strong interpersonal skills—when the subjects rated themselves. However, when their roommates rated their same skills, scores dropped dramatically showing no relationship (except with initiating relationships) between interpersonal skills and self-esteem.
These findings are extremely compelling. So is self-esteem a radically inaccurate assessment? And does it even matter if it’s inaccurate? After all, our own opinion of ourselves is all that matters, right?
Self-esteem can be good in certain cases (e.g., giving people the confidence to try new things) and bad in others (e.g., bullies have plenty of confidence, but their self-esteem is hardly worth celebrating). But, when it comes right down to it, according to Baumeister, self-esteem doesn’t account for much and is therefore mostly irrelevant. Instead of trying to improve your own view of yourself, you should concentrate your efforts on building self-control, argues Baumeister—which is good for the person who has it, those around them, and society at large.
Scientific evidence for self-control is pervasive. For example, compared to others, children with high self-control:
- Do better in school
- Are more popular with their peers
- Grow up to earn higher salaries
- Are less likely to be arrested
Adults with high self-control:
- Have better relationships and fewer psychological problems
- Are less likely to raise their children as a single parent
- Live longer than other people
- Bosses with high self-control are rated as more fair
- Prisoners with high self-control have fewer disciplinary incidents and are less likely to be arrested again after release
From a psychological perspective, self-esteem is questionable at best and highly misguided at worst. However, enhancing your self-control can make you not only feel better about yourself, but can actually make you a better person.
God’s Perspective Is More Accurate And Optimistic Than Our Own
Although the science is compelling enough. A spiritual perspective also calls into question the notion that self-esteem really matters all that much.
From a spiritual perspective, I believe God’s (or whatever you call your higher power) perception of me matters far more than my own. In fact, I recognize that more often than not, my view of myself is skewed and unhealthy. But every time I sincerely reach out to my higher power, I get clarity on who I am and what I’m capable of. From a spiritual perspective, I know I come from the same source and substance as God, and thus have infinite potential—and that God views me from that purely objective standpoint.
As C.S. Lewis has said, “It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship.”
Sadly, our self-esteem is often impacted by how others treat us. Yet, as we live from a more spiritual angle, our self-image is not phased by the opinions of others—knowing their view of us is more limited than even our own. Even we can be our own worst enemy. And then, in moments of clarity, we realize we had it wrong about ourselves all along.
Self-image may be helpful but ultimately it doesn’t matter all that much. From a psychological perspective, you’re far better off building your self-control and willpower. As you become better as a person, rather than as an image, you’ll succeed on higher levels. From a spiritual perspective, God’s view of you is far more accurate and empowering than your own.