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Can self-esteem be overdone?

Confidence is a sweet spot between arrogance and despair.
Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Confidence

Advocates of self-esteem generally argue that genuine self-esteem is such a fantastic quality that you cannot have too much of it. Robert Reasoner, for example, writing on the NASE website asserts that 'having high self-esteem is equivalent to having good health'. However, if having exceptionally good health is the outcome of a life dedicated to one's own health (aerobic exercise, diet, meditation etc) you could be overly obsessed with yourself (self-centred) or overly pleased with how good your health is (smug).  In other words, working on your self-esteem may back-fire, particularly if it intervenes, as it could easily do, with relationships.

A common mistake people make is to think because something is good more of it must be better. This is the argument that Professor Barry Schwartz argues in relation to choice. Having some choice in our life is important for self-actualization and well-being. However, having more choice does not mean more well-being, for example. In fact the opposite can happen.  Schwartz argues that having lots of choice often leads to indecision and our attention being taken up with things that are not intrinsically satisfying. He also says it can lead to self-doubt and hence the erosion of confidence. 

The Greek philospher Aristotle talked about 'the golden mean'. This is the idea that qualities can be overdone or underdone. An excessive pursuit of self-esteem will not only lead to self-centredness and smugness but could weaken relationships, a major source of happiness and well-being, and thus be counterproductive. We believe there is probably an 'optimal' level of self-esteem beyond which more does not mean better. As we shall see in later sections, too much emphasis on self-esteem can fuel a culture of narcissism which would be detrimental to individuals and society as a whole. 

Finally, Judo-Christian culture is founded on the notion that excessive self-love, and pride, is sinful. Those who were thought highly of in the past were those who wore plain clothes and were humble not full of pride or vanity. Modern democratic societies have also been heavily influenced by notions of egalitarianism. This is probably the reason why everyday vocabulary has dozens of words to describe people who think too highly of themselves; arrogant, conceited, big-headed, smug, know-it-all, vain, proud, smart-alec etc. Scottish culture, in particular, is full of contemptuous phrases to puncture the ego of folk who think too much of themselves. So we should be very cautious about trying to completely overturn the thinking and values on which our societies are based. Thinking well of yourself and feeling worthy of happiness are important, and we think attractive qualities, but like everything else in life they can be taken too far. 

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