Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Self-Esteem and How to Improve It

Here's an article I saw on Pinterest today: "Nurturing Self-Esteem in Kids."  In it, the mommy blogger gives tips for rearing children with confidence:
  • Connect with kids by listening and letting them plan simple family activities
  • Model healthy self-esteem by being a strong and confident parent
  • Encourage independence by establishing routines and responsibility
  • Respect their choices
  • Learn and teach new skills
  • Express emotion and allow children to feel emotionally safe
  • Appreciate mistakes
This mommy blogger linked to another mommy blog post on the same topic.  Her list included similar tips:
  • Focus on your child's strengths.
  • Focus fifteen minutes a day per child of uninterrupted one-on-one time.
  • Help your child develop problem-solving and decision-making skills.
  • Stay positive with your child.
  • Provide choices.
  • Provide opportunities for your child to help and praise them frequently.
  • Help your child make a book, box, or sack titled "I like me!"

Those lists sound alright, right?  Obviously, these moms want to make sure their children know they are worth something, and that's a very good thing.  But there's one big, big, big tip they both left off, and I didn't know it myself until I read this month's cover story of Scientific American Mind.  It's so great that I'm going to post it in bold:

To feel good about yourself, think less about you and more about others.

That's right -- feelings of self-worth are affected more by how we treat and interact with others than how much we appreciate what we ourselves have to offer the world.  Authors Jennifer Crocker and Jessica J. Carnevale do the research and summarize the surprising (and yet not-so-surprising) findings:
It turns out that having self-esteem, as a fairly stable personality trait, does have a few modest benefits.  High self-esteem also has drawbacks, however, and is mostly irrelevant for success.  Further the pursuit of self-esteem is clearly detrimental to well-being.  When people chase after a stronger sense of self-worth, it becomes their ultimate goal, leading them to sacrifice other aspirations, such as learning or doing what is good for others.
The hunt for self-esteem through a focus on achievement makes us emotionally vulnerable to life's inevitable travails and disappointments.  It also causes us to engage in behaviors that can actually harm our chances of success, our competence and our personal relationships.  A far better way to bolster your sense of self-worth is, ironically, to thing about yourself less.  Compassion toward others and yourself, along with a less self-centered perspective on our situation, can motivate you to achieve your goals while helping you weather bad news, learn from your mistakes and fortify your friendships. (p. 28)

Crocker and Carnevale explain that in the 1980s, a lot of important people, such as academic psychologists and policy makers, were concerned about low self-esteem.  They thought that focusing on improving self-esteem would create more productive citizens and decrease crime and school failure.  With the introduction of school programs to promote self-esteem, "the self-esteem movement began" (p. 28).

And yet, self-esteem seems to be off the charts.  Apparently, high school students, for example, like themselves now more than ever.  They don't necessarily see themselves as more confident than previous generations -- that is, they don't consider themselves better at math, music, sports, or other activities -- but they do think more highly of themselves (p. 29).  Why, then, do we spend so much time on ourselves?

Let me be clear: Self-esteem is good.  These researchers are not suggesting that it isn't.  What they are emphasizing, though, is that compassion for self and others and a focus on the collective good -- of a team, a group, the world -- is much more effective at building a strong sense of worth than a focus on the self and personal success.  It engenders connectedness, motivates us to achieve, and helps us recover from mistakes and bad news.

So mommy bloggers and parents and selves, put this on your self-esteem tip list:  Serve.  Show compassion.  Champion your family's success -- not just your own.  Connect with people who are different.  And by all means, think about others more than yourself.

I'll leave you with the final excerpt from the article:
Helping others may make you feel good about yourself but only if you let go of what this means about you.  If you are wondering, "Do I have worth?" "Do I have value?" the answer is not yes, no, or maybe.  The answer is simpler: change the subject. (p. 33)

Reference: Crocker, Jennifer and Carnevale, Jessica J.  "Letting Go of Self-Esteem."  Scientific American Mind Sept./Oct. 2013: 26–33.  Print.

Thing I'm thankful for: research participants!


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