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What's The Big Deal Over Self-Esteem

From eDiets - The online diet, fitness, and healthy living resource

Uh-oh. A new report reveals that high self-esteem may not be the best thing in the world for you. People with high self-esteem, it finds, may be more of a threat to society than those with a lower sense of self-worth.

According to the report, by a psychologist at the prestigious London School of Economics, people with high self-esteem are more likely than others to be racist, violent and criminal. Those with low self-esteem might do violence to themselves via eating disorders and suicide, but they are not a threat to others.

The London report is just one of a host of recent studies bashing self-esteem. But I’m not so sure that self-esteem is a bad thing. I’d still rather have more of it than less. The real issue is what is meant by self-esteem, and whether you realize how we get it.

There’s a common notion afoot that we can’t succeed at anything unless we have unqualified high regard for ourselves, and it springs from some source deep inside (if only we could find it). If that’s what you think self-esteem is, then chances are you’ll go around looking for it in all the wrong places, attempting to bolster your sense of self from within. You might even resort to repeating simplistic self-affirmations.

A very reliable line of new research shows that self-esteem is really more a reflection of our relationship to others. And when self-esteem gets low, the appropriate response is not to fix your inner self but to repair your standing in the eyes of others. In other words, to behave in ways that maintain your connections with other people.

According to this work, we are built to be in social relationships (although those of us who live in Western cultures have been a tad oversold on the merits of individualism).

Evidence comes from clever studies showing that most of us are exquisitely sensitive to signs of disapproval and rejection from others. A raised voice or a grimace of anger from someone we like can launch us into high anxiety and wreck our feelings about ourselves.

Self-esteem, then, is really a monitoring system of our social approval. And it’s weighted in such a way that we need clear demonstrations of acceptance for self-esteem to be positive. Neutral feedback registers almost as low as outright rejection!

The London report probably confuses cause and effect. The truth is those who are violent, racist and criminal are not nasty because they have high self-esteem. Both their capacity for meanness and their high self-esteem stem from something else... a more basic defect. They lack the ability to "read" the feelings of others. They have no social or emotional intelligence.

With an inability to detect signs of disapproval from others, they never know what others really think of them. As a result, they develop an unrealistic sense of themselves. And as something of a threat to the rest of us, who is going to risk telling them the truth?

So, when your self-esteem is low, take heart. Check your own behavior for things that could be turning other people off. Say you’re talking to someone and you notice the person is suddenly frowning (a clear sign of disapproval). It’s time to think to yourself, "I probably said something they don’t like. I’ve got to let them know I was just kidding."

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