How Self Esteem is Failing our Young People

In my counselling  practice, I have many young people with what their parents call “low self esteem.”   How can young people with successful lives, loving attuned parents, and involved families, struggle with “low self esteem.?”    We understand self esteem to be feelings of self worth or self value, allowing people to be confident agents in their own lives.   Yet find individuals who are extremely successful in their worlds and exude a genuine sense of competence, but still struggle with “low self esteem,”  or a deep form of emptiness. Psychologist Alice Miller, The Drama of the Gifted Child: the Search for the True Self, describes working  Miller (1991) records,

Behind all this lurks depression, a feeling of emptiness and self-alienation, and a sense that life has no meaning.  These dark feelings will come to the fore as soon as the drug of grandiosity fails, as soon as they are not ‘on top’ …. Then they are plagued by anxiety or deep feelings of guilt and shame”


Our modern society demands a perfection or ideal,  but we are never fully successful.   In other words, “I am supposed to be amazing, but I know that I am not.”


How do we gain self esteem…yikes!

To understand what is happening we need to look at how we learn to acquire self-esteem.  Young people today are under a great deal of pressure to be beautiful, to achieve, to be independent, assertive, and attractive….ultimately to be perfect.  In contemporary life, we are judged against our peers through job success, social success, wealth, and style. We compare our clothing, our homes, and our looks against the “cultural” standard. We compare ourselves up, “I am not as good as…,” and we compare ourselves down, “I am better than….” Media images, peers, family, and society dictate what it means to be successful, and what is “normal.”  Our society dictates a myth and draws young people into a way of being as they try to fit their normal peg into a glamorous hole.  The myth of self-esteem teaches us to value “self” for personal appearance, social acceptance and achievement.


We acquire self-esteem through comparing.  I especially see this with the girls I work with in my counselling practice.  Girls are constantly comparing “self” to others.  I am not as good as ….   I am better than…..  She is such a loser….  I am not as pretty as….  However, this source of gaining worth is a trap.   We never seem to achieve enough or never seem to be enough!  We never feel satisfied and so we always fall short. When self-esteem relates to appearance, social acceptance, or achievement;  we set up for failure and disappointment.  Young people become anxious, depressed, anorexic or revert to self harm because they cannot measure up….the striving for self esteem in our society is a treacherous road to alienation and feelings of failure forcing us to come face to face with a core sense of inadequacy.


Self esteem also encourages us to focus a great deal on ourselves, becoming a form of narcissism.  Twenge (2006), critical of society’s narcissistic “me first” epidemic maintains the effects on children and youth are that they “simply take it for granted that we should all feel good about ourselves, we are all special, and we all deserve to follow our dreams.”  Epplin (2013), in his article for Atlantic Monthly “You Can Do Anything, Must Every Kids’ Movie Reinforce the Cult of Self Esteem,” exposes the spell of individualism through what he terms the “magic feather.”  Movie characters must “relinquish the crutch of the magic feather or, more generally, surmount their biggest fears–and believe that their greatness comes from within” (Epplin, 2013).  The myth of self esteem teaches us we are all supposed to be special, great, and amazing.  Yet, deep down we do not feel we measure up.

So what is the answer?

… it is a 180 degree shift in the way we function.

First, we must stop this relentless comparing or rating of self and others.  We  are  complex beings with many, many behaviours always growing and changing…..You are a “self” in formation…. Think of “self” as a  never quite finished “self portrait.”  You paint your portrait with a palette of colours; all of your varied feelings, thoughts, experiences and relationships.  Consequently the whole process is fluid, not fixed, not stable.  Self is an ongoing process, shaped and created, moment by moment.  We invent and reinvent “self” socially, cognitively and physically.  Rather than understanding the portrait as complete we understand ourselves to be in the process.  This means we are never perfect; we are always changing.

There are two things we need pay attention to;

1.      Stop Comparing and Stop Rating Yourself

Paul Huak in his book Overcoming the Rating Game: Beyond Self- Love – Beyond Self Esteem gives us a hint.

 There is only one technique you need to help you if you want to avoid feelings of inferiority, low self-respect, low self-esteem and low worth.  To cure yourself of these conditions, do one thing: never rate yourself or others.


2.      Start Accepting

There are three areas of acceptance to focus on:  self, others and life.


Unconditionally accept your portrait with all its imperfections.  Rather than starting from what I am supposed to be, start with I am.  I do not need to be perfect, I am growing, and I can be ok with that.  I accept my imperfections.

Do not stop here.  This serves only to inform another sense of narcissism or focus solely on self.  We must turn our eyes outward to others.


Accept imperfection in others:  It also means we stop rating others and accept the human spirit of others beyond their imperfections, behaviours or how they disappoint us.  People cannot give you what you long for in your heart. Do not expect them to be in charge of your portrait.  This focus on other moves us beyond us narcissism


Accept imperfection in life:  we learn to accept life is a spiral…..Good and bad, high and low, challenging and stable where fullness of life comes to us in all of these experiences.

Self esteem is a dangerous business.  Gaining self esteem through comparing is an exercise in alienation.  By accepting imperfections we DECIDE to have unconditional acceptance for self, others and life!

Let’s move beyond the requirement of self esteem to acceptance,  well being and all of the many aspects of thriving. 

 Acceptance is one key to thriving. 

 Accepting you are.  Accepting we all are…..Warts and all.

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