America’s Self-esteem Problem

June 7th, 2010

By Dr. Jim Taylor

Yes, we have a self-esteem problem in our country, but we don’t recognize it because, well, we have a self-esteem problem. We need look no further than the bewildering popularity of the reality-TV show Jersey Shore and the instant celebrity garnered from its inhabitants despite their complete absence of qualifications. Though, admittedly, the bar for “success” in America these days is set scarily low; in the case of Jersey Shore (and most of the famous-for-being-famous world), dark tans (haven’t they heard of melanoma?), large breasts, muscles, and ‘tude seem sufficient.

It is safe to say that these New Jersey denizens hold very high opinions of themselves as expressed in just about everything they say and do. But here’s the problem: that so-called self-esteem that makes them seem so self-assured has all the makings of a Potemkin village. In other words, that high regard in which they hold themselves doesn’t seem to have any basis in reality. Not only do they not seem particularly nice or likable or intelligent or mature, but as far as I can tell, they have never actually accomplished anything in their lives. Yet, in the best tradition of Stuart Smalley (“By gosh, I like myself”), they seem to think that they are truly special people because either they have been told they were special all their lives (by their parents?) or they have mastered the art of magical thinking and convinced themselves that they are special, all evidence to the contrary. Here is where Jersey Shore is a microcosm of how many of America’s children have been raised (and their self-esteem lowered) the last several decades.

Self-esteem is commonly thought of as how we feel about ourselves, our appraisal of our own self-worth. But real self-esteem is a complex attribute that has become one of the most misunderstood and misused psychological characteristics of the last 40 years. Sometime back in the ’70s when the “self-esteem movement” started, a bunch of parenting experts said that raising well-adjusted children is all about self-esteem. And I couldn’t agree more.

This is also when America’s self-esteem problem began because parents and other influences on self-esteem (e.g., teachers and coaches) got the wrong messages about self-esteem from those experts. Instead of creating children with true self-esteem, our country has created a generation of children who, for all the appearances of high self-esteem, actually have little regard for themselves (because they have little on which to base their self-esteem).

Where did our society err in our failed attempts to build true self-esteem in our children? These same experts told parents that they could build their children’s self-esteem by telling them how smart and talented and beautiful and incredible they were (“You’re the best, Johnny!”). In other words, parents were led to believe that they could convince their children how wonderful they were. Unfortunately, life has a way of providing a reality check and children learned the hard way that they weren’t as fabulous as their parents told them they were. Parents were also told to praise and reinforce and reward their children no matter what they did. The result: lower self-esteem and children who were self-centered and spoiled.

Schools and communities accepted this misguided attempt at building self-esteem by “protecting” children from failure and feeling bad about themselves. For example, school grading systems were changed. I remember between sixth and seventh grade, my middle school replaced F for failure with NI (Needs Improvement); god forbid I’d feel bad about myself for failing at something!

Youth sports made the same mistake. They eliminated scoring, winners, and losers in the belief that losing would hurt children’s self-esteem. My ten-year-old niece came home one day from a soccer tournament with a ribbon that said “#1-Winner” on it. When I asked her what she did to deserve such a wonderful prize, she said that everyone got one! Children are being led to believe that they are winners and can feel good about themselves just by showing up. Definitely not the way the real world works

American popular culture exacerbates our self-esteem problem by sending messages to children that they can find success, wealth, and celebrity without any capabilities, effort, or time (“By gosh, I deserve it right now just for being me”).

So, here we are back at Jersey Shore. These newly minted celebutantes are victims of a self-esteem movement that, instead of developing self-esteem, creates young people who are narcissistic, immature, unmotivated, entitled, and arrogant. The sad reality (and this is reality TV, isn’t it?) is that soon a new crop of New Jerseyites, OCers, and Survivors will come along and their 15 minutes of fame will pass. And they will be left with their inevitable descent from B-list to C-list celebrities to off-the-alphabet has-beens. Kind of sad, don’t you think? Well, at least, they’ll still have their “high self-esteem.”

And where does that leave America? Well, if Snooki, The Situation, and JWoww are any indication of the state of America’s future, it isn’t looking too bright. While this Jersey-Shore generation is moving through life feeling so darned good about itself (while accomplishing little), this generation in other countries is actually doing what it takes to build real self-esteem (and accomplishing a lot).

(This article was also published at Dr. Jim Taylor’s Blog.)

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18 Responses to “America’s Self-esteem Problem”

  1. Tom Carter |

    You nailed it, Jim. As with any other aspect of life among human beings, there are always going to be those who are smarter, stronger, more successful, more creative, more ambitious, etc. The “self-esteem movement” may have been well-intentioned, but it has tended to reduce society to the lowest common denominator. Hence all the airheads running around overflowing with an unjustified sense of self-worth and accomplishment. In the real world, of course, the cream still moves to the top, and those with real talent and determination still succeed and get things done. Of course, all those raised to believe that they were wonderful when they aren’t resent those who really succeed because, after all, isn’t everyone equally accomplished and shouldn’t everyone be equally successful?

    However, I don’t know that this generation in other countries is doing all that much better. That’s partly our fault because most of our culture, and especially the worst parts, are exported to every other country. The best example is the hip-hop culture, which you see reflected in common use of the crudest possible language (in English), ridiculous baggy pants, tasteless bling, baseball caps askew, and stupid tattoos.

  2. Dan Miller |


    I’ve just read the article once and will try to comment further tomorrow. For the moment, permit me to say simply, BRAVO!

  3. Anonymous |

    I’m traveling thru Thurs, so I haven’t had time to keep up with my posts and comments.

    @Dan: Many, many thanks!

    @Tom: America will get its revenge on other countries with its greatest (or worst) export, our popular culture. We will ensure that the world is fat, entitled, and lazy, much as a fair swath of America is.

  4. Dan Miller |

    A comment was made a year or so ago on a Gringo blog here noting the Panamanian perception of U.S. culture: I see, I like, I want, therefore I need and therefore I deserve. That, I think, fits in with the faux “self esteem” about which you wrote.

  5. larry ennis |

    Dr. Jim
    Very well said. We as a society seem to have lost sight of what we should be passing on to future generations in values and self-esteem. Why has it happened? I have felt for years that the teaching of pride minus determination and hard work creates a false sense of success. We have constantly lowered the bar in order to insure that more people look and feel successful. Of course it’s all a big lie. With so many “posers” in our society, who is left to teach real values to the next generation.

  6. Brianna Aubin |

    Jim – all true, have little to add.

  7. larry ennis |

    “Every increase in freedom to create or consume media, from paperback books to YouTube, alarms people accustomed to the restrictions of the old system, convincing them that the new media will make young people stupid,” he writes. “This fear dates back to at least the invention of movable type.”
    From today’s New York Times about whether or not the internet is producing a world of stupid people.

  8. CatoRenasci |

    What you say is true as far as it goes, but misnames the problem, which is that for the past 40+ years, the psychology profession, and popular culture as a result, has been focused on self-ESTEEM rather than self-RESPECT.

    The distinction of course, is that RESPECT is earned, whether the respect of others or one’s self-respect. Self-respect comes from genuine accomplishment of one sort or another, and does not have to mean one think’s one is wonderful, merely that one has been challenged in various ways and has worked through the challenges with perseverance and honesty. It almost doesn’t matter what the challenge is, so long as it does not involve crime or dishonesty, but that it is a challenge given one’s capacities and that it has been successfully met.

    It is quite possible to have self-ESTEEM which has no basis in objective reality: the drug-addicted thief who abuses children can think himself a capital fellow. What he cannot do, is to have any self-respect.

    I feel rather like Don Quixote: I have been making this point for at least 40 years since I first started hearing the self-ESTEEM psychobabble.

  9. Tom Carter |

    Cato, your point is clear enough, but it’s no more necessary to earn self-respect than self-esteem. I don’t doubt that both Ted Kaczynski and Ted Bundy had high self-esteem and high self-respect. However, it’s unlikely that many other people hold them in high esteem or respect them. The difference, then, is that the esteem and respect of others must be earned, while the esteem and respect you accord yourself is entirely subjective.

    When society teaches children that everyone is equally talented, equally capable, and equally successful, they growing up thinking that’s the way it is and should be. They enter adulthood with a level of self-esteem that’s unrealistic and, also, the kind of self-respect that isn’t based on reality.

  10. Anonymous |

    @All: I love it! Liberals and libertarians agreeing!!

    @Larry: I am traveling so haven’t been able to read the Times (that liberal rag!!). But there is an article from 2008 by Nicolas Carr in, I think, the Atlantic Monthly, that indicates that there is evidence that the Internet is making us “stupider.” And I wrote a post some time back suggesting that it is making us idiots.

    @Cato: Self-esteem and self-respect should go hand in hand, but self-esteem is usually misunderstood and misused.

  11. larry ennis |

    Can we agree that both self-esteem and respect are to be earned and not granted as is the case in today’s society?

  12. CatoRenasci |

    @Tom Carter: At least as I understand it, self-respect indeed does require one to earn it, where self-esteem does not. That was the very point about self-esteem that made it so attractive back in the late 1960s when it first reared its ugly head, and in the 1970s and thereafter when interest in it spread like kudzu.

    I think it is crucial to distinguish both self-esteem and self-respect from the esteem and respect others may have for one. Certainly, self-respect is not the same as having the respect of others, and certainly, the respect and esteem of others must be (generally) earned. (I take here your distinction between the esteem and respect of others deals with the notion that I might respect Warren Buffet – to pick a name – for his financial acumen, but not esteem him because I find him quite unlikeable).

    And, one may have self-respect based on genuine accomplishment without having the respect of others: perhaps Ted Kaczynski earnedthe respect of others as a scholar (for which he earned self-respect), but lost it for his criminal activities, even though it did not affect his self-respect.

    Self-respect, it seems to me, is not necessarily so thoroughgoing as self-esteem purports to be. It’s built over time, bit by bit, moving from small to ever more difficult challenges, and is also capable of being lost through one’s ceasing to behave in accordance with the values one has built for oneself over time.

  13. d |

    Lucky for me,no one every told me I was worth the time of day,quite the contrary. My self esteem was non-existant,I had to earn my own self esteem and self respect. While this generation, seems to think they are perfect,as you say. The kids all think they are brilliant,and beautiful,and can do no wrong,and if they do wrong,Mama fixes it. Mama will also,I have learned, give you a loud,cursing,if you correct their perfect angels. They thought our generation was ruined,spoiled,and gonna amount to nothing. I can’t even imagine what really old timers, and those already gone,would think of this perfect,beautiful,inside and out,generation,but I do know what I am thinking. Same as you,Dr.Taylor,not much good. My friend,says time out,h@#!,I’d knock them out. Not condoning abuse here,just kidding.

  14. roni |

    I can’t believe this entire blog entry is based on that mockery of a show. This post was a fail before you even began to write, just off that premise alone.

  15. Brianna |

    The post is not based on the show. The show is used by the post as an example of the problem.

  16. Dr. Jim Taylor |

    @Brianna: Thanks for coming to my defense!

  17. Jack |

    Your choice to frame this “problem” in terms of self-esteem is very peculiar. This is clearly just the view of the psychological establishment which has a stake in claiming things as “psychological problems” and the providing expensive “solutions”. I feel that this entire issue is better framed as a question of values and that one of the values that has actually distorted America is precisely the tendency to place so much value on “feeling good about yourself.” People would be better off using that energy spent “feeling good” in doing something useful. Self-esteem, which is a much overvalued idea, is only one of the various potential byproducts of performing actions that are valuable to a community (probably more effective if that community is not a “global community” but that’s another problem). I believe you have created a pseudo-problem that misses the point and encourages people to selfishly worry about themselves instead of solving the problem. We need to “get out of ourselves” instead of doing all that hippie self-searching nonsense that leads exactly to where we are. Abraham Maslow was a bit of a dork and his ideas have only caught on because they’re easier to understand than real ideas and you’re perpetuating what amounts to destructive self-obsession.

  18. Dr. Jim Taylor |

    @Jack: Though I think you are being a bit harsh on my profession (e.g, making inaccurate judgment and stereotypes), I mostly agree with your assessment. Values do underlie so many of the problems America is faced with. And I’ve written about it in another blog post:

    My intention is not to perpetuate “destructive self-obsession,” but rather to challenge that self-obsession.

    As for Maslow being a dork, I can’t make that judgment as I never met him. But his ideas, particularly his hierarchy of needs make considerable sense. I think you are referring to the top of the pyramid, self-actualization, which I also believe makes sense. At the same time, I think you are suggesting that people have missed the right way to become self-actualized, not by looking deep inside, but rather by engaging outward and doing things that are greater than themselves.

    So, in the end, I think we are on the same page.

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