The perils of self-esteem (or why self-confidence is bad for you)…

This week’s blog comes to you from Paris.

Last week – I wrote about how believing in a particular identity can screw you up. I was writing about how buying into the notion of what comprises an ‘adult’ can lead to all sorts of feelings of inadequacy and failure. Today I want to write a sequel of sorts; why another type of self concept can be extremely bad for you: self-confidence.


I’ll start with a caveat and a mea culpa. First, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of self belief, but (and this is important) any excessive ‘fusion’ with any type of self concept is probably going to be a problem (for a bit of background on why the whole notion of the self is illusory, read here). Second (this is the mea culpa bit), I’ll apologise on behalf of all of my colleagues, and the hang-ons who’ve made a fortune selling ‘self-help’ rubbish. Sadly, for a long time, psychologists (and the hang-ons) preached wholeheartedly on the value and importance of self-confidence, self-esteem, self-worth, self-efficacy, and chutzpah. They were wrong, and I’m going to tell you why.

Let’s take a small backward step – it would probably be helpful if I actually defined what I mean by self-confidence and its allied terms. Typically, self-confidence means having a strong belief in oneself, which allows for a certain amount of resilience in difficult or stressful situations. Self-esteem is a more self-directed version, effectively loving or admiring oneself, whilst self-efficacy is ‘situationally specific self-confidence’. All up, the idea is that if you can develop your self belief to a high level, not only will you like yourself more, you’ll be better equipped to deal with the difficulties faced in life, and quicker to rebound from challenges.

Sounds good right. Why, in fact, wouldn’t anyone work hard on this? No wonder it was the darling of psychologists for ages – help clients to believe in themselves and they’ll be much better off. But, here’s the problem (as simply as I can state it): when someone places his or her notion of self at the centre of his or her wellbeing, it becomes an Achilles heel – it’s a bit like putting all your eggs in one basket, inevitably the basket will break and you’re screwed. Perhaps a little thought experiment might help to illustrate this notion. Imagine that I learn to identify myself (who I am) as a psychologist. I believe that I’m a good psychologist, and because it’s both my profession and my passion, a large amount of my self-belief naturally becomes focused on and around this self-concept. Over time, with some successes, my confidence as a psychologist increases, and I begin to fuse more and more of my self concept with my belief in my abilities as a psychologist. Let’s now imagine that something happened that threatened my ability to function as a psychologist, say an accident or an illness. Let’s imagine that I then recover fully, but can no longer practice my profession: who am I? If my self is fused with the notion of my competence as a psychologist, and this comprises my self-confidence and my self-worth, chances are, mentally, I’m fucked.

Here’s my point: defining ourselves by a strong notion of who we are, and pinning our confidence and self-worth on that fusion is a recipe for disaster. At best, we find ourselves constantly disappointed by our inability to achieve the perfection we associate with our idealised self. At worst, we end up without a working self-concept. It’s remarkable how often I see this in my daily practice as a psychologist.

I’d actually go further to suggest that it’s this fusion with self, and the disappointment that people face in not being able to realise their expectations for that self that leads to the majority of the psychological dysregulations (remember, I’m not using the terms ‘mental illness’ or ‘mental health’ anymore). In other words, many people find themselves constantly unable to live up to who they are told they should be. Because they believe they should be self-confident, but don’t feel it, and are convinced that they need to have a strong self-belief, but can’t find it, they feel lost and empty. Alternatively, those who fuse excessively with their self-concept often refuse to countenance that their view of the world might be flawed, or that they might be at fault in their beliefs or actions. Consequently, they act like arseholes and, when their self-concept is threatened they tend to react poorly (especially when their identity is forcibly removed – refer to my example above).

Here’s another fun fact about the perils of a reliance on self-confidence: self-confidence is unreliable, unstable, highly emotionally variable, and extremely context dependent. Put simply, although we believe that our self is stable over time, it changes depending on internal variables and external context. Consequently, any self-belief we might have won’t be reliable over time or location. As a sport psychologist, I used to work heavily on building up self-confidence in athletes based on the belief that it would increase performance during competition. Sadly, this strategy seldom worked, mostly because the variables never stayed constant. An athlete might have been able to develop a strong level of self-belief and reliance and then, the night before an event, have a fight with her boyfriend, or be having issues at work or, get freaked out by marshalling errors before a race, or be shaken by a fall or incident during the event, and so on and so on. In other words, relying on self-confidence was a dangerous strategy because it was so easily undermined. Worse, in those athletes who managed to build their self-confidence up into its dark twins, hubris and arrogance, when things went wrong (and things always go wrong), they tended to take it badly, with catastrophic impacts on their immediate (and often future) performance. In other words, basing your self concept around confidence, and fusing with an idea of what your self should be, makes it easy for it to be pulled out from under you.

So if excessive fusion with a self concept is so bad for us, and self-confidence a problem for mental health (not to mention the fact that the self is probably an illusion anyway), why do we insist on building up our self-esteem? Why do we need affirmation and approval? Well, it probably comes down to evolution (yes, again…). First, it appears that the sense of self evolved to help us integrate a large amount of information and to take action in real time. This helped us survive and to interact with other humans. Second, we are highly social creatures, so we look to others to help define ourselves and our place in the world. Traditionally, this meant acting within a societal role, but with the slow dissolution of societal boundaries (this is actually a good thing), we’ve lost a lot of our identity and sense of place – and we’ve yet to replace it with anything meaningful. In fact, over the last 30 or so years, society has placed a greater emphasis on self-esteem than it has on interpersonal cooperation – the implication is that it’s more important to feel good about yourself than to help others, or cooperate with the wider world around us. The side effect of this devolution has been an increasing tendency toward consumption, short-term hedonism, and competition – all designed to help us feel better about ourselves but, sadly, usually achieving the opposite (read here for a discussion of why). Last, as I mentioned earlier (sadly), psychologists and self-help ‘gurus’ have preached the importance of self-esteem until it’s become gospel.

So, what’s the alternative to self-confidence? Well, I’m going to argue that it’s not the confidence part that’s the problem per se. Instead, it’s the fusion with any type of self concept that’s to blame. As I’ve said, by defining ourselves using a limited framework, we either highlight what we don’t have and then feel its absence, or we believe obsessively in our definition of who we are (and often using this belief to justify heinous actions). Consequently, breaking the attachment with self and self-definition is a primary goal. This is not easy! 

You can make a start by learning to question your instincts (I’ve written a bit about this here). If it ‘feels right’ or it fits with and reinforces your world view, it should be treated with suspicion. Ask yourself “am I thinking/feeling this way because it’s correct, or is it just the result of the perceptual filters I’ve developed to reinforce my world view” (or words to that effect). The next step is to determine what’s actually important (meaningful) to you – your values, for want of a better term (see here). These should be beliefs that can be acted on, and when acted upon result in longer-term satisfaction (although they can be uncomfortable or confronting in the short term because, often, they’ll contradict your self-concept). The final step is to act in line with these values – especially when it feels difficult or even ‘wrong’. Using your values framework to guide action inoculates you against a collapse of self belief, because you’re acting from a solid, multidimensional framework, not from a fragile, monomaniacal worldview.

OK, this one’s gone on a bit long but, to summarise, all of us want to feel that we have a place in the world, and most of us attempt to realise this need by fusing with a self-concept. We attempt to bolster this sense of self by increasing our self confidence and esteem, revelling in our successes and, over time, narrowing our behaviour to incorporate a single world view. Sadly, this type of behaviour is limiting and often results in either dissatisfaction or self-absorption. Neither tends to end well. So, instead of trying to build up your self confidence, ditch the self-affirmations and work on finding out what’s actually meaningful in your life. Then choose your actions from this much stabler base. It won’t be easy, but long-term, you’ll be a healthier, more stable, and substantially more effective human.