Emotions & Shame

Self-Esteem Must Come From Within

The cost of achieving “good self-esteem” may be higher than you think.

A healthy self-esteem can only come from within individual, according to a study of over 600 college freshmen.

A University of Michigan study of more than 600 college freshmen, published in the September 2002 issue of the Journal of Social Issues, revealed that trying to increase or preserve self-esteem — even by getting good grades — carries high mental and physical costs. These costs include increased levels of interpersonal stress and conflict, and elevated levels of drug and alcohol use.

The study was conducted by Jennifer Crocker, a psychologist at the U-M Institute for Social Research (ISR), the world’s largest academic survey and research organization. The work is part of a series of studies Crocker has been conducting that reveal how the pursuit of self-esteem, a central preoccupation in U.S. society, can undermine rather than support success and personal health. Her work is funded by the National Institute of Mental Health.

Despite the widespread belief in the value of self-esteem in this culture, a growing body of research, including Crocker’s, indicates that pursuing self-esteem has substantial costs, making it more difficult for people to perform well and to relinquish competitiveness and self-absorption in order to relate well to others. “The pursuit of self-esteem is ultimately self-destructive and may be costly to others as well,” Crocker says.

In her study of college freshmen, Crocker found that these costs also included increased conflicts with romantic partners and friends, increased academic problems, higher drug and alcohol use and more symptoms of disordered eating.

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Crocker and colleagues asked students to fill out a questionnaire at the start of the fall term to assess their overall level of self-esteem and their endorsement of seven common foundations of self-esteem, some external and others internal. These include: appearance, competition, the approval of others, family support, virtue, religious faith and academic competence.

Overall, she found that most of the students — like most Americans — have high levels of self-esteem. Only 4 percent of students said none of the seven bases of self-esteem were important to them, suggesting how common it is to base self-esteem on accomplishments, behaviors and qualities other than one’s intrinsic value as a person.

More than 80 percent of students surveyed at the start of the fall term said academic competence was important to their feelings of self-worth, while 77 percent cited their family’s support and pride in them, 66 percent cited doing better than others, and 65 percent (70 percent of women) said their sense of self-worth was influenced by how they look. About 66 percent said feeling of being a good person was important, while 40 percent cited religious faith and 37 percent cited the approval of other people.

At the end of the fall and spring terms, the researchers followed up to assess how the students were doing socially and academically, and to measure their psychological health, including their levels of hostility and anger, and their use of drugs and alcohol. Crocker controlled for the students’ levels of self-esteem, and for gender, ethnicity and parental income. She found that students who based their self-worth on external sources such as appearance, doing better than others or the approval of other people, even their families, showed more stress and anger and were more likely to have higher levels of drug and alcohol use and more symptoms of disordered eating.

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Surprisingly, she also found that college students who based their self-worth on their academic performance reported more conflicts with professors and teaching assistants than students who scored relatively low in their endorsement of good grades as a source of self-worth. Furthermore, although these students were highly motivated and reported studying more hours each week, they did not receive higher grades, Crocker found.

“My research shows that when you make your self-esteem contingent on something other than your basic value as a human being, it’s not a good thing, even if the source of your self-esteem is something as praise-worthy as getting good grades,” she says.

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