The Problem with High Self-Esteem
by Elizabeth Menon
One needs to define the meaning of self-esteem, before the much complex word 'high self-esteem' is considered. Dictionaries define self-esteem as, " confidence and respect for oneself", or "how much a person likes, accepts, and respects himself, overall as a person". The National Association for Self-Esteem defines it as, " The experience of being capable of meeting life's challenges and being worthy of happiness". A balanced high self-esteem is essential for the development of a healthy human being.
Healthy self-esteem, based on basic principles such as worthiness, competence, self-reliance and a genuine desire to love and accept others, enables one to face the challenges in life and emerge victorious in adverse situations. But, if the self-esteem is based on external factors such as one's appearance, family connections, place of birth or social status, it may give an inflated opinion of one's worth and competence from a very early stage in life. The outcome would be an individual with overly high self-esteem or unhealthy high self-esteem, which is unearned.
Self-esteem starts to build up from the time of birth and then on it is a gradual process, helped by one’s parents, teachers, peers or society as a whole. It is very important to have good self-esteem during the formative years when one has many issues to deal with. Children may develop a tendency to have a low self-esteem or even an unhealthy high self-esteem that eventually turn into narcissism.
It is paramount that children at this stage are given support and training on basic principles and values in life, teaching them to have good balance between competence, accomplishments and self-worth. Any such training may be adversely affected by indiscriminate use of praise by the teachers and parents, in their attempt to make the children feel more confident. These children may reach adulthood without having understood the real meaning of healthy self-esteem; the pursuit of higher academic accomplishments may create individuals who feel superior, showing egotistical and patronizing behaviour patterns.
It's the over-inflated opinion of one’s self-worth and ability that leads to the overly high self-esteem. One can get aggressive if threatened; showing destructive behaviour, drug abuse, drink driving, road-rage or violence, just to prove that one is superior. They also have a vulnerable side to their character that needs constant pampering and may even change or hide personal details to show supremacy over friends and colleagues, either to get a better job or a higher social standing.
Various problems in life can change the perception of people and how they analyse situations. It could be marital problems, financial ruin, alcohol or drug abuse that bring about the changes in one's life, having to resort to different methods to cover up the situation. One may show signs of an unhealthy high self-esteem or enter a phase of denial and pretend to be happy, or go to the other extreme showing signs of low self-esteem. This extreme behaviour pattern often happens when there is total imbalance between what one believes in and what one is capable of doing or the inability to recognise it, which could be the result of an over-inflated opinion of one’s personal worth.
There are few people in any society with unhealthy self-esteem who have an uncontrollable urge to control everything. World History shows examples of 'people of small stature', trying to show the world that they are 'big'- Julius Caesar, Napoleon, Hitler and Stalin are few of the examples. Mussolini, Ho-Chi-Min, Mao, King Herod, and Pol Pot are among those who believed in their inflated opinion of self worth. The egotistical, dictatorial and conceited behaviour of these men and many others like them have one thing in common, the self-worthiness becoming narcissism, showing the disharmony between their sense of values and behaviour.
High self-esteem should not be confused with an overly high self-esteem, though quite difficult to distinguish between the two at times. The Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale (1965) is the 'gold standard' measure, to arrive at the diagnosis. A sense of self worth, and a sense of one’s own capabilities in good equilibrium: harmony between the psychological strength and behaviour could keep the 'overly high self-esteem' at bay.
A good balance between sense of worthiness and confidence in one’s abilities is what is required in most situations. Self-education, to become aware of the situation and a desire to change by seeking professional help and interacting with close friends and immediate family would be most welcome and beneficial. But, holding on to the principles and values that one believes in and having the conviction to make the right choices when faced with adversities, one can enjoy a productive life.