Bad self-esteem can actually be a good signal

“Yeah, it’s because he has low self-esteem”

I can’t remember how many times I’ve heard ‘low self-esteem’ used to explain why someone acted the way they did.

If I had a nickel for every time someone… you get the picture 🤑

All throughout my early life, I've consistently heard people invoke self-esteem to explain:

  • Why people buy flashy cars
  • Why some people have unstable romantic lives
  • Why some people act obnoxiously at parties
  • Why some people are bad at math
  • Why people wear expensive watches and shoes
  • Etc. etc.

But I've always had a problem with the concept. I've always wondered: why is having a less-than-incredible self-image a bad thing? Our self-images are largely determined by feedback we receive from our environment (including other people), after all.

If we’re really good at basketball, we’ll receive plenty of positive feedback from our coach, our teammates, and our peers. This will make us, rightly, feed good about ourselves.

If we’re really bad at basketball, on the other hand, we won’t get much positive feedback. In fact, we might get teased a bit.

But this isn’t a bad thing.

The first person should receive positive feedback. His natural talents and skills align with the activity. He’s good.

And, as we know from reinforcement psychology, people do more of the things they’re rewarded (receive positive feedback) for. We want person 1 to keep playing basketball. They have a potential future in it.

Person 2, on the other hand, should probably move on to something else. He’s not good at basketball… so he’s not being rewarded for his efforts with praise and positive attention. His time might be better spent on something like art, music, or computer science.

If person 2 is spending all of his time on basketball, and getting 0 positive feedback, he’s not going to feel good about himself. He’s going to have “low self-esteem”. If, on the other hand, he starts spending less time on basketball, and discovers something he’s really good at, his self-esteem will *magically* increase.

Most of the time, I think our self-esteem is a pretty good barometer of how well we’re doing in life. It tracks pretty closely to our feeling of being useful and important to our peers—our tribe.

Person 1 is useful to the tribe. He’s showing the athletic prowess needed to give his school a good change of outcompeting its rivals.

Person 2… not so much. His basketball playing isn’t all that useful. It might actually be a liability. It might hurt the school in a critical game.

So it’s not surprise that person 1 would feel what we call “high self esteem” and person 2 would feel “low self esteem”.

What’s the solution to person 2’s lack of self confidence? Getting good at something of value.

We shouldn’t get them to repeat mantras, or trick them by rewarding them for lackluster performance. We should help them find an area that they can excel in, and encourage them in that pursuit. When they're good at something of value, something that helps out the tribe, they'll get positive feedback from their peers--and they'll feel better about themselves.

This is the only answer.

We’ve evolved to have a good sense of our place in the status hierarchy of our group. And status is achieved by being useful, by providing the group with resources and showing exemplary behavior--such as bravery, strength, loyalty, etc. So if we feel bad about ourselves, we need to realize that this is a useful signal. It's a prompt for us to do something different, to change our ways. 

If we decide to close our eyes and tell ourselves "we're awesome no matter what", instead... we'll be in for a world of hurt. We'll continue to persist in our folly. We'll prevent ourselves from accurately understanding our place in our group, which will prevent us from taking the proper steps to move up, to get where we want to be,

Until tomorrow.

-Jason

Jason Hreha