The Problem of Self-Esteem and Narcissism
There was a time when it was believed by many psychologists and educators that high self-esteem could cure many problems. For example, it was thought that children would perform better at school if their self-esteem could be raised. While self-esteem is nothing to be dismissed there is now more knowledge about the down side to the concept. For example, it is now understood that praising a child for no reason runs the risk of feeding into a narcissistic way of thinking.
Narcissism refers to the idea that someone believes they are superior to others in the absence of any proof. What is the point of praising a child if they have done nothing to earn that praise? Another way of thinking of this is to say that there is no point to tell a child you are proud of him if he did nothing to earn it. Another example of this was of a young female patient told me how one of the men she was dating told her she was very beautiful. What she thought to herself was "big deal, that's not a result of anything I did!" In effect, there is nothing about self-esteem that will guarantee that children will perform better at school.
One of the outcomes of the belief in the importance of school performance and high esteem is that pressure was put on teachers to give high grades despite student performance on quizzes, tests and essays. In fact, many colleges came to be severely criticized for the practice of "grade inflation," giving high grades in the absence of high performance.
Outside of the area of children and students people have chased high self-esteem in a variety of ways that are purely narcissistic. Many people have had plastic surgery done so that they could, in their minds, look more beautiful. Let's be clear that this type of surgery has nothing to do with correcting some real defect but rather to alter physical features in order to serve narcissistic purposes. In fact, for some people, this type of surgery becomes addictive so that there is no end to the procedure being done. These people, like narcissus, peer admiringly into the mirror only to find what they think is another defect to be corrected.
Sports competition is another area where athletes look for accolades without having really accomplished any feats. Doping, or the use of performance enhancing drugs, has become a major issue in professional sports. Great athletic performances resulting in new world records having been achieved have been found to be the result of doping rather than honest competition among equally trained athletes. Here again is the narcissistic pursuit of fame in the absence of real accomplishment.
The real question is, what kind of children do we want to raise? Those who are superficial and who want to win at any cost or those children whose self-esteem is based on their accomplishments and who do not need to feel superior by comparing themselves to others?
Your comments are encouraged.
Allan N. Schwartz, PhD