In sociology and psychology, self-esteem reflects a person’s overall subjective emotional evaluation of his or her own worth. It is a judgment of oneself as well as an attitude toward the self. Self-esteem encompasses beliefs about oneself, (for example, “I am competent”, “I am worthy”), as well as emotional states, such as triumph, despair, pride, and shame. Smith and Mackie (2007) defined it by saying “The self-concept is what we think about the self; self-esteem, is the positive or negative evaluations of the self, as in how we feel about it.” Self-esteem is attractive as a social psychological construct because researchers have conceptualized it as an influential predictor of certain outcomes, such as academic achievement, happiness, satisfaction in marriage and relationships, and criminal behaviour. Self-esteem can apply specifically to a particular dimension (for example, “I believe I am a good writer and feel happy about that”) or a global extent (for example, “I believe I am a bad person, and feel bad about myself in general”). Psychologists usually regard self-esteem as an enduring personality characteristic (“trait” self-esteem), though normal, short-term variations (“state” self-esteem) also exist. Synonyms or near-synonyms of self-esteem include: self-worth, self-regard, self-respect, and self-integrity.
11 Facts About Teens and Self Esteem
- Low self-esteem is a thinking disorder in which an individual views him/herself as inadequate, unlovable, and/or incompetent. Once formed, this negative view permeates every thought, producing faulty assumptions and ongoing self-defeating behavior.
- Among high school students, 44% of girls and 15% of guys are attempting to lose weight.
- Over 70% of girls age 15 to 17 avoid normal daily activities, such as attending school, when they feel bad about their looks. Brighten someone’s day by posting encouraging messages on your school’s bathroom mirrors.
- More than 40% of boys in middle school and high school regularly exercise with the goal of increasing muscle mass.
- 75% of girls with low self-esteem reported engaging in negative activities like cutting, bullying, smoking, drinking, or disordered eating. This compares to 25% of girls with high self-esteem.
- About 20% of teens will experience depression before they reach adulthood.
- Teen girls that have a negative view of themselves are 4 times more likely to take part in activities with boys that they’ve ended up regretting later.
- The top wish among all teen girls is for their parents to communicate better with them. This includes frequent and more open conversations.
- 38% of boys in middle school and high school reported using protein supplements and nearly 6% admitted to experimenting with steroids.
- 7 in 10 girls believe that they are not good enough or don’t measure up in some way, including their looks, performance in school and relationships with friends and family members.
- A girl’s self-esteem is more strongly related to how she views her own body shape and body weight, than how much she actually weighs.
How high self-esteem can get us down
High self-esteem is a real feel-good. We admire others who possess it and strive for it ourselves. Innumerable self-help books and workshops have been devoted to helping people improve their self-esteem. But there is a dark side to it that people often fail to see. And this dark side can actually leave them feeling worse about themselves; and failing to make sought-after changes in their lives.
Kristin Neff, a renowned researcher on compassion, expressed the downsides of pursuing high self-esteem in her piece Self-Compassion: Moving beyond the pitfalls of a separate self-concept (2008). I’ll summarize some of what she wrote while also sharing my own thoughts on this topic.When people succeed, their self-esteem is often elevated, and they feel good. At those times, all is well. However, when they later fail in some way to meet their goals, they often show themselves no mercy. Their self-esteem dips and they feel pressure to increase it. To do this, they might downplay problems with their behavior, as when a dieter discounts those extra little snacks. Or, they might hyper focus on improving, leaving them victim to intense, destructive self-criticism–like the dieter who eats one candy bar, barrages herself with messages of being a failure, and then gives up her diet.
In addition, Neff points out that it is difficult to raise self-esteem. As I addressed in my blog entry, Chasing Change; Why we sometimes run in circles, people tend to find ways to support their self-definitions-even if those self-views are negative. Thus, efforts to raise self-esteem are often doomed with eventual, if not immediate, failure.
While there are people whose high self-esteem is based on their general positive feelings about themselves, others receive their feel-good more directly from their achievements in particular areas (such as sports or academics). It is this latter group who are paradoxically at high risk for thinking poorly of themselves. As Neff explains, an “A” student might be upset by getting a “B”; and might even need an “A+” to feel any sense of accomplishment. Not only do these individuals need to perform at ever-higher levels just to feel good, they often feel shame when they fall short of those high expectations. The result is that they are likely to be either highly critical of themselves–or of others (in attempt to bolster their own self-esteem).
So, while self-esteem itself is a good thing, we need to be careful about how we pursue it.