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Definitional difficulties

One does not need to be a trained psychologist to know that some people with low self-esteem strive to compensate for their deficit by boasting, arrogance and conceited behaviour. What educated person does not know about compensatory mechanisms?
Nathaniel Branden, 1997.

One of Professor Roy Baumeister's criticisms of self-esteem is that it is too broad a concept and so the people who can be classified as having 'high self-esteem' are a very heterogeneous group. Here's we outline why this is an issue. 

It is very difficult to discuss self-esteem for the simple reason that so much as been written about it - approximately 2,000 books and then countless articles and programmes all claiming they have techniques to boost self-esteem. 

For the sake of simplicity let us take the definition which is used by the National Association for Self-Esteem (NASE). Their definition is closely linked to Nathaniel Branden's work and they define self-esteem as 'the experience of being capable of meetings life's challenges and being worthy of happiness'. 

Like Branden NASE make a distinction between 'authentic' and 'inauthentic' self-esteem. Those with authentic self-esteem have an accurate perception of themselves and take responsibility for their own shortcomings and life choices. Their sense of themselves and self-confidence does not require that they look good in other people's eyes. This means that they have no reason to belittle others and so their self-esteem does not lead to arrogance. 

Those with 'inauthentic' self-esteem have a strong need to look good in other people's eyes. This group is intent on impressing others to feel worthy. They can be very competitive, blame others for any of their own failures, and can puff themselves up and put others down to feel good about themselves. So, their version of feeling worthy is not about how they evaluate themselves but how they are seen by others. It is external and 'defensive'. Psychologists, including Baumesiter, broadly accept there is a distinction to be made been genuine self-esteem and 'inauthentic', defensive or unstable self-esteem.

The problem for the exponents of the benefits of self-esteem is that as self-esteem is socially desirable, people with defensive, externally based (low) self-esteem will also report 'high' self-esteem when asked. As these people appear to have a high opinion of themselves, others may sometimes think they have high self-esteem. However, Nathaniel Branden may well be right, in the quote given above, that non-psychologists often understand that a person who acts as if he or she is superior may have a chip on their shoulder. But that still does not take away from the fact that unless researchers control for other variables, such as the importance of other people's opinions, no distinction will be made between those with authentic and inauthentic self-esteem. 

This is why Baumeister argues that one of the fundamental difficulties with the concept of self-esteem is that it ends up being a mixed bag of people who have realistic and genuine self of themselves and feel worthy, as well as those who do not feel worthy and are intent on proving their worth in the eyes of others - an intention which can lead to all sorts of negative behaviour such as cheating. 

The mixed bag idea is complicated further when we realise that people who can be classed as 'narcissists' will also end up in the high self-esteem group. We shall explore narcissism more fully in another section but broadly it a word used to describe people who love themselves too much. Some theorists argue that in western individualistic society some degree of narcissism is essential for the healthy personality. Others argue that as babies we are all narcissistic. People with a narcissistic personality disorder are those who exhibit a number of the following characteristics: grandiose sense of self; fantasies of unlimited success; lack of empathy; craving of attention, adulation etc from others; manipulative behaviour (using others as pawns in their egotistical quest); arrogance and the belief they are better than others; obsessed with themselves. It is estimated that about 75% of narcissists are male. Narcissism may be the result of an abusive childhood but some research suggests it is genetic. The paradox of narcissism is that narcissists belittle others in the quest to elevate themselves but also need to see themselves reflected well in the others that they do not rate. 

Copyright: Carol Craig, Centre for Confidence and Well-Being, 2006 

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