Olga Khazan: What are some contexts in which we usually hear about boosting self-esteem?
Kristin Neff: Well, it seems like it's just deeply permeated, especially American culture, where we have very high levels of self-esteem and narcissism. I think because of the big self-esteem movement, people just got it in their heads that the key to psychological health was self-esteem. Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell showed that because of this emphasis on self-esteem, we actually got a generation of narcissists. I think it’s generally out there in the culture, but maybe especially among parents and educators.
Jenny Crocker—she’s one of the best people who talks about this. She says, you have to stop the costly pursuit of high self-esteem. It's not having high self-esteem is the problem, it's pursuing it, which is usually based on feeling special and above-average or better than others. The best way to think about the problem of self-esteem is not whether or not you have it, but what you do to get it. That's where the issues really come in.
Khazan: So what's wrong with telling people to have better self-esteem?
Neff: When you take it too seriously, you become a narcissist. And we know narcissists tend to have problems with relationships, they push people away, so there are definitely maladaptive consequences to narcissism.
The other thing is, it's pretty common, at least in American society, that in order to have high self-esteem, you have to feel special and above-average. If someone said, "Oh, your performance was average," you would feel hurt by that, almost insulted.
When we fail, self-esteem deserts us, which is precisely when we need it most.
And so the problem is we're constantly comparing ourselves to others. We try to puff ourselves up. We have what's called self-enhancement bias, where we see ourselves as better in almost any culturally valued trait. There's a large body of research showing that bullying is largely caused by the quest for high self-esteem—the process of feeling special and better-than.
So if I can pick on the weird, nerdy kid, I actually get a self-esteem boost. Then, if you look at things like prejudice, at least some element playing a role in prejudice is if I feel that my religious group or my ethnic group is better than yours, that's one way to make a social comparison, and I am actually boosting my self-esteem. So that's a problem. And also the fact that on some level, someone is always going to be doing it better.
When I teach workshops I say, it's logically impossible for everyone to be above average at all times, so we're basically predicating ourselves with a logical impossibility. Eventually that's going to hit reality. Maybe somebody does do that better than me. Do I accept that or am I destabilized by that?
Usually, self-esteem is highly contingent on success. And the three domains it’s contingent on are, first, peer approval. That's what other kids at school and other people of work think of me, which is a really lousy source of information, because a) they don't know you very well and b) you don't know what they think of you very well.