Is High Self-Esteem Helpful or Harmful?

By: Jenna Savage


Mental health professionals, educators, and parents have all spoken up about the importance of strong self-esteem in America’s youth. Many academic and extracurricular activities are aimed at teaching students that they have the ability to do well at any task they attempt. As a result, the nation is seeing a surge in self-esteem among students, especially university students. However, that news may not be as good as it sounds. It turns out that there is a disparity between high self-esteem and achievement, according to a BBC News article.

Self-confidence and high self-esteem are two different concepts. Self-confidence is when a person believes that he or she has the ability to learn a skill, whereas self-esteem is the worth that a person places on him or herself. In extreme cases, elevated self-esteem can lead to narcissism, which is when self-esteem interferes with a person’s achievements and relationships. Although not everyone with high self-esteem will develop narcissism, the increase in an inflated sense of self-worth among students is somewhat alarming, especially because there is a gap in achievement.

To determine how university students view themselves, American freshman in colleges and universities were asked to fill out a survey known as the American Freshman Survey. It has been conducted since 1966. The most recent survey had around nine million participants and was analyzed by a U.S. psychologist known as Jean Twenge, who discovered that American freshman are more likely to label themselves as gifted than they were in the past. Meanwhile, students are studying much less than they were in the 1980s and are not performing at a level that justifies their inflated senses of self.

Twenge suggests that the problem cannot be blamed on one factor, but rather, a variety of factors, such as parenting, culture, and social media. In addition, America’s students are often taught that the key to success is believing in themselves. However, failure and weakness are factors that teach students to strive and work hard. Past studies, like one conducted by Forsyth and Kerr and referenced by the BBC News article, demonstrated that students benefit more from being taught they can acquire skills, rather than being taught to feel self-important regardless of the amount of effort exerted. In fact, in the Forsyth and Kerr study, students who were encouraged to improve upon their self-worth often performed worse than others.

Another problem of an inflated sense of self-worth is that students with high self-esteem often have unrealistic goals for themselves. They believe that they can achieve anything but rarely put the work into getting there, and as a result, there is an inflation in ambition without achievement.

In the end, parents, educators, and mental health professionals may benefit from differentiating self-confidence and self-esteem, and from teaching students that a little failure can be a lesson in motivation. No one is perfect – but the idea that students can get close to achieving perfection is more dangerous than it seems.