Phony vs. Earned Self-Esteem
By Joel F. Wade - January 11, 2013

A study by Jean Twenge of San Diego State University, published in the current issue of Social Psychological and Personality Science, is getting a lot of news this week. Twenge found that college kids today are more likely to call themselves gifted and driven to succeed, while their test scores and hours spent studying are decreasing. She also found that the tendency toward narcissism among college students has also increased over the last 30 years.

Some reports get a bit more frenzied than I prefer. Titles and writing like, "We are raising a generation of deluded narcissists!" just gets us scared, whereas I prefer to be effective. Twenge has been studying this trend for several years, has accumulated some impressive research and has written several books.

Today I want to look at what I consider one of the sources of this trend: the phony self-esteem movement, and how it feeds the fixed trait mindset – and thus the need to see oneself as just fantastic. This also shows what can be done to remedy the situation, instead of just freaking out.

I have written before about Carol Dweck's work on mindsets. The fixed trait mindset is one based on inborn gifts or shortcomings; the growth mindset is one based on what we do with our gifts and circumstances. The growth mindset is much more desirable. Different views of self-esteem feed into each.

Many years ago, when I was a young psychology graduate student studying with Nathaniel Branden, I remember him talking one day about having been invited to be part of The California Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem, led by California State Assemblyman John Vasconcellos.

Nathaniel declined, as he couldn't see why he would be involved in that since he did not see a role for government in the development of self-esteem. Nonetheless, the task force carried on and created guidelines for building "self-esteem" in a way that Branden would never have advocated.

According to a New York Times article about the study group in October of 1986:

Mr. Vasconcellos, a 53-year-old Democrat, is described by an aide as 'the most radical humanist in the Legislature.' Mr. Twombly said the study group was an attempt by the Assemblyman to translate into political action his 20 years of 'personal emotional work' in various forms of psychological therapy at Esalen Institute near Big Sur and other places.

'I've explored a lot of alternative ways of being and relating,' Mr. Vasconcellos said. The bill that created the 25-member study group says its aim is to compile 'the world's most credible and contemporary research regarding whether healthy self-esteem relates to the development of personal responsibility and social problems' such as crime, drug abuse, teen-age pregnancy and welfare dependency.

Whether it was Vasconcellos's intention or not, the model of self-esteem that the task force has effectively encouraged was the one that my favorite social psychologist, Roy Baumeister, showed did nothing to improve a person's happiness, success or character.

The common definition of self-esteem is "feeling good about yourself." By that definition, the population with one of the highest levels of self-esteem is criminals. (I'm not kidding; they feel great about themselves)!

This is worlds away from the self-esteem written about and advocated by Branden, for whom the definition is "the reputation we build with ourselves." Branden's self-esteem is earned self-esteem.

The differences between these two visions could not be more dramatic, or more consequential. It is the difference between inflating a student's grades so that their self-esteem is not injured versus giving students clear and honest feedback on their performance so that they can take the action they need to improve.

It's the difference between giving awards for simply participating in an event versus giving awards for actual performance – and regardless of what place they come in, praising a child's effort, not just their participation.

It is also the difference between encouraging a fixed trait mindset versus encouraging a growth mindset.

A fixed trait mindset is one where you think of yourself in terms of set qualities such as intelligence, talent, attractiveness, etc.

When kids learn to think of themselves in such terms, there are consequences. A fixed trait by definition does not change. So if you have a fixed trait self-concept that is negative, there is no hope for improvement. If you have a fixed trait self-concept that is positive, there is nothing you need to do to maintain or improve it; in fact, all that can happen is that you can lose it – so you become very risk-averse.

With a fixed trait mindset, your positive self-concept becomes fragile. Let's say you think of yourself as "brilliant." What happens if you do poorly on a test at school? You're brilliant, right? How can a brilliant kid do poorly on a test? Brilliant kids do brilliantly on tests, without having to do much work, since they're so brilliant. If you do poorly, then by this logic it must mean that you're not so brilliant, and your inflated self-concept can be crushed.

In the same way, an inherently "talented" artist, musician, or athlete should be great at everything they do, regardless of how much or how little work they put into it. Any setback to this scenario can be a devastating blow to the fixed trait self-concept.

With a "positive" fixed trait mindset, the easier something comes to you, the more that confirms the trait; the harder you have to work at something, the more that label is thrown into doubt.

This translates into behavior: A person with a fixed trait mindset will tend to avoid challenges, give up easily and collapse in the face of failure. This all follows very logically from the fixed trait mindset.

Why challenge yourself? The brilliance or talent has already been established so the best you can do is confirm it once again, while any shortcoming can be devastating.

This is exactly what the "self-esteem movement" championed by the California Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem has helped to grow in our kids. I suspect that the higher levels of depression and other psychological troubles and the inflated sense of entitlement that we see today in college-age kids and young adults may have something to do with this.

In contrast, if you think of self-esteem as "the reputation that you build with yourself," then by that very definition it is something that must be earned. Looked at in another way, it is also something that can be earned – which makes pursuing excellence, confronting challenges and bouncing back from adversity very attractive and exciting endeavors.

Success can be achieved and the problems along the way solved; you're not at the mercy of luck or inborn traits.

This is analogous to Dweck's growth mindset.

Indeed, when people have a growth mindset, they tend to be excited by challenges and energized by the pursuit of excellence, and they also tend to come back strong after experiencing failure.

In short, if you want to truly enhance a child's self-esteem, don't dwell on their gifts, talents and intelligence; focus instead on their actions. Give children tasks that are challenging, hold high expectations for the work they do, teach them the joy of facing difficulties and overcoming them with hard work and discipline.

Get to know them, see them for who they are and praise them for what they put into something, not whether they happen to be gifted.

You do a child no good by praising how wonderful, talented, gifted, brilliant or beautiful they are. These are things over which they have no control and they know it. It's like praising them for their eye color. All the ribbons and certificates and medals given to children for "being a great participant" mean nothing, particularly when a child knows darned well they did nothing to earn it.

You don't have to deny a child's brightness or talent but your focus should be always on what they do with whatever their abilities and circumstances are. Teach them to earn their achievements; challenge and support them to dive into what they're doing with enthusiasm, curiosity, focus and hard work so they can see what they are capable of.

There is no free lunch, and there is no free self-esteem, either. Real, earned self-esteem is not something that can be given to you by another person; it is a reputation that you build with yourself over time, and through conscious thought and action.

The California Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem was a typical politician's attempt at a shortcut; more effective in giving politicians a sense of meaning and accomplishment for having made people "better" through forcing certain behaviors through law.

But there are no shortcuts when it comes to your reputation; and this is no less true when it comes to your reputation with yourself.