Why do so many people feel “not good enough”-What is Self-esteem?
In my professional life, I have met many people who are desperately trying to gain approval and acceptance from others. They state that they never feel “good enough” and are terrified of social rejection. The Employee Assistance Program (EAP) clients I have also recently seen have been dominated by workers who feel “not good enough” despite competencies, qualifications and success.
Often “not good enough” feelings can also be referred to as low self -esteem.
For many, hurt and invalidation starts very early in life and continues throughout their life in one form or another. As a result, many people learn that their fundamental sense of self-esteem and self-worth comes not from within but from others, and so they constantly seek other people’s approval or attention. Social media appears to have exaggerated this experience as comparisons to others is unavoidable.
Self-esteem, that is contingent on success and competence, triggers fundamentally different habitual thought and behaviour patterns than contingent self-esteem, that involves seeking compensation from others for acceptance.
According to research by Johnson ,2016, these behaviours and attitudes have in recent studies been linked to distinctive patterns of coping with social threats with quite different health outcomes.
Thirty years ago, social and emotional skills would not have been given much consideration in a school curriculum. It was the era of self-esteem, with educators and mental health professionals focussing more on helping children become more capable wielders of the world by making them feel good about themselves through achievement and mastery, rather than constant comparisons with others.
If one concludes self -esteem in young adults has decreased in the last 30 years what may be more important in achieving high self-esteem is a sense of self-mastery—getting along in the world and knowing you can handle yourself in myriad situations. The concept is liberating for adults as rather than facing the painful task of going back into childhood to figure out why you are insecure, you can learn specific skills at any age to become competent. Therefore, being a life- long learner and experiencing new activities can help you gain a sense of mastery leading to higher levels of self-esteem.(Johnson, 2014)
A recent review of the literature highlights new insights gained from recent longitudinal studies examining the development of self-esteem and its influence on important life outcomes. The evidence suggests that;
(a) "self-esteem increases from adolescence to middle adulthood, peaks at about age 50 to 60 years, and then decreases at an accelerating pace into old age; moreover, there are no cohort differences in the self-esteem trajectory from adolescence to old age;
(b) self-esteem is a relatively stable, but by no means immutable, trait; individuals with relatively high (or low) self-esteem at one stage of life are likely to have relatively high (or low) self-esteem decades later;
(c) high self-esteem prospectively predicts success and well-being in life domains such as relationships, work, and health.”
(The Development of Self -Esteem,2018)
Given the increasing evidence that self-esteem has important real-world consequences, the topic of self-esteem development and mastery is of considerable societal significance and it would appear that the sooner low self esteem is addressed in life the higher quality of life (measured by relationships, work and health) a person is likely to have.
Counsellors have an important role to play in validation and exploration of a person’s competencies by utilising paradigms such as Solution-focussed competency-based techniques and encouraging clients to change their own life scripts through self-mastery of new skills.
Johnson. M. (2016). Relations between explicit and implicit self-esteem measures and self-presentation. Personality and Individual Differences, 95, 159-162.
Johnson, M. (2014). Dimensionality of the Basic and Earning Self-esteem Scales: The importance of theoretical basis and item selection. Nordic Psychology, 66, 230-233
The Development of Self Esteem.