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Why The Quest for Self-Esteem is Bad for you and What to Learn Instead!


My kids enjoy playing soccer. What surprised me though, was the concept of a “mercy rule” which does not happen much outside the United States and certainly didn’t when I grew up. Then there were school competitions, and the concept of “everyone’s a winner.”  Over the past few decades, parents have been micromanaging their children’s lives, pumping them full of false confidence, all because they thought that this would enhance their children’s self-esteem and position them better in life. What got lost however, was our children’s self-respect. And herein lies a big problem.

Ellen J. Langer, PhD, a professor of psychology at Harvard University, states the two concepts of self-esteem and self-respect seem very similar but the differences between them are crucial. Langer says:

“To esteem anything is to evaluate it positively and hold it in high regard, but evaluation gets us into trouble because while we sometimes win, we also sometimes lose. To respect something, on the other hand, is to accept it.”

Langer goes on to say that “The person with self-respect simply likes her- or himself. This self-respect is not contingent on success because there are always failures to contend with. Neither is it a result of comparing ourselves with others because there is always someone better. These are tactics usually employed to increase self-esteem. Self-respect, however, is a given. We simply like ourselves or we don’t.With self-respect, we like ourselves because of who we are and not because of what we can or cannot do“.

reNow let’s think back to some of our problems over the past decades. A mortgage crisis because people borrowed more than they could afford because they believed they should have it anyway; sports stars accused of taking performance enhancing drugs to win, even if it meant cheating; the Bernie Madoff multi-billion dollar ponzi scheme; and a general sense of unfulfillment and entitlement in our society. This is the aftermath of self-esteem creating several generations of narcissists. Constant praise by parents; kids “never losing” even when they really did; parents taking over their kids’ lives and spoiling them has led to a generation of children who cannot cope, struggle to understand who they are, and who fail at life.

Now consider this from Jill Rigby, author of Raising Respectful Children in a Disrespectful World. Rigby asserts that the quest for self-esteem has turned the world upside-down, and that shifting the objective to self-respect will turn the world right-side up again. Rigby explains that “kids with self-respect put others ahead of themselves. They feel an obligation to others and a responsibility to society. Bullies cannot rock their foundation, because kids who have self-respect know who they are and what they stand for. They have a balanced view of the world. Their confidence is balanced with humility. They exhibit humble confidence.”

The key then is to stop comparing ourselves to everyone else and stop measuring our self-esteem by our success in life. We can’t all win, all of the time. Also, before we can truly respect others, we have to be able to respect ourselves. Let’s cast aside the idea of self-esteem and instead, focus on building self-respect in ourselves and our children. That means simply liking yourself for who you are and not making it contingent on success; there will always be failures to contend with.


  1. Frank Daniti says:

    I read all of your articles, Bill and they were great. Positive thinking and self improvement is a very big part of my life. Many thanks for all the interesting insights. Best regards.

    • @billmaw says:

      Thank you, Frank! I am glad it was helpful. Are you a blog subscriber? If not, please do before Thursday, so you get my next article when it posts Thursday morning.

      Have a great day!


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