Self-Esteem: How Much Do You Really Need?

By Douglas Schooler, PhD

young girl smiling,feeling good about herself

Think of a wolf chasing a rabbit. As he’s running at full tilt after the rabbit is he thinking about how beautiful his stride is, how glossy his coat is looking? Is the rabbit thinking how clever he is as he escapes by running into a hole? The human animal is the only one on the planet capable of thoughts about himself. But just because we can do it doesn’t mean we have to.

The title of this article may suggest that high self-esteem is desirable. But it’s the reverse, however; self-esteem as a concept is a major obstacle to recovery from addiction or self-development in general.

The problem with “self-esteem”

Self-esteem is a concept, part of a theory of human behavior, and thus a way of thinking. In this case it’s a way of thinking about how people should be thinking. The writings of Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, Nathaniel Brandon and so many others have caused the idea of self-esteem to become so much a part of the culture that few question its validity or usefulness. It has come to seem real even though it’s just a concept, just an idea about how things work.

Self-esteem can be defined as a sense of believing in one’s value, worth, or goodness. High self-esteem, in practice, is feeling good about oneself. Low self-esteem is feeling bad about oneself. Therapists often are trained to attempt to raise the self-esteem of their clients, the thought being that high self-esteem leads to improvements in life performance and low self esteem leads to impaired life performance. However, research does not support this view. For example, in one study, self-esteem scores could not even predict grades in college courses.

Self-esteem theory promotes the idea that it is desirable to think well and highly of oneself. There are several pitfalls with this idea. First, thinking anything about oneself requires one to become introspective and self conscious, to shift attention from what’s happening in life to oneself. In my experience however, people suffering from emotional or behavioral
disorders are already far too self-conscious and introspective. They spend a great deal of time wondering what’s wrong with them, trying to figure themselves out. So I’ve come to realize that sustained introspection is both an indicator and a cause of emotional disturbance. Only people who are suffering do it; those who are feeling good from their life experiences, rather than about themselves, are not thinking about themselves. They are “into it”, in the “flow”; they are fully present. Just think about athletes fully absorbed in their event. Are they thinking about themselves, are they trying to understand themselves, wondering if they are worthy? No way. They are in the moment, paying attention to what’s happening in the “now”, the place (the only place) where life is happening.

Much of conventional psychotherapy is concerned with the client developing insight into herself. The therapist has been trained to point out to the client aspects of their thoughts, feelings, or behavior that they seemingly haven’t noticed. “Study how you’ve been creating your problems. Realize the bad choices you’ve made. Understand why you’ve done that.”

The theory is that noticing these things will bring about desired change. What actually happens, however, is that the focus on self-insight reinforces an already overactive tendency towards introspection, taking the client even further out of the moment and into that never-never land of one’s own mind, away from life and the present moment.

Another “gift” from the mental health professors is the idea that in order to love others or be mentally healthy you must love yourself. So again, therapists are trained to get their clients to love themselves, to feel good about themselves, to feel worthy. What a huge exercise in self-consciousness! Once again the client is trained to look inward, precisely the wrong direction. Taking your blood pressure is about as far “inward” as I’d like anyone to be looking.

Self-esteem requires self-judgment. How worthy am I? But that invites comparison to others. That’s not desirable at all. And where there’s a high there must be a low. Success might bring on good feelings about oneself. But winning is always temporary. What happens when one inevitably fails? Self-esteem plummets. It’s two-sided coin and it can and does flip from positive to negative in a flash.

Almost everyone I work with suffers from low self-esteem, believes they should have high self-esteem, and feels even worse because they don’t. They are highly introspective, self-conscious, and self-judging. I don’t want my clients feeling badly about themselves. But the solution is not to get them to feel good about themselves. Why not?

Consider this: You’re in a jumbo jet, taxing down the runway and building speed. The engines are roaring now and you are about to lift off. How introspective do you want the pilot to be while he’s guiding the plane into the sky? How self-praising or self-condemning do you want him to be as he’s pulling back on the stick and keeping track of dozens of gauges and dials on the console? How good do you want him to feel about himself? So what is the solution? Maybe you’ve already guessed. Eliminate as much as humanly possible all instances of self-consciousness and introspection and completely reject the concept of self-esteem. The wolf, the lion, the tiger, some of nature’s most competent animals, think no thoughts about themselves. They are fully focused on what’s happening in their environment, they are fully present. They make excellent models. Have zero thoughts about yourself, avoid thinking about your worthiness, and direct your attention outward to life itself.

I want you to be focused on life, what’s happening, not on yourself. I want your feelings to be about what you are experiencing, not about yourself. Zero self-esteem is the ideal. Just like the wolf.

Dr. Doug Schooler is a Licensed Psychologist and Certified Master Practitioner of Rapid Resolution Therapy. He maintains an independent practice of psychology, The Center for Rapid Resolution Therapy, in Boca Raton, providing treatment to all ages since 1985 (www.DouglasSchooler.com). Before coming to Florida he taught psychology at Eastern Michigan University. He graduated from Queens College in 1964 and received his
PhD in psychology from the University of Rhode Island in 1976.