When a High Self-Esteem is No Longer Healthy

Researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University had a simple question.

Can we help students who are struggling in class turn things around by helping to boost their self-esteem? 

They had a good basis for the question. After all, there is a correlation between getting good grades and having a high self-esteem [1]. But which comes first? Do students with a high self-esteem naturally try harder because they believe in themselves? Or is it just natural that those who work hard and get good grades have a high self-esteem from achieving great results?


In order to answer this question, researchers took a group of students who recently received a C or below on their latest midterm and separated them into two groups. One group was given an encouraging message by the professor every week until the next exam, while the other group was given a neutral message. [2]

To the researchers surprise, the students who received an encouraging message from the professor actually did worse on the next exam than those who received a neutral message! Not only that, they actually did worse than they did on the midterm! Dropping the average score from 59 to 39!


How can we explain this? What happened with the students who were given encouraging messages from the professor?

According to Roy Baumeister - a social psychologist and one of the top researchers on the science of willpower - by sending these encouraging messages, the professor made the students feel better about their own natural abilities. They began to believe that they were smarter than they actually were. This resulted in even less time studying for the next exam because they felt it wasn’t necessary. [3]

“After all, I’m smart, I don't need to study! The professor even thinks so!”


In western society, we have spent the last half-century preaching the value of raising your children with a high level of self-esteem. This was not without reason. Psychologists across the country had come to many theoretical conclusions about the value of raising children with a high level of self-esteem. So parents were encouraged to tell their children they were exceptional. Coaches were encouraged to give everyone a trophy and teachers were instructed to offer “incompletes” rather than “fails”. 

Unfortunately, after studying this generation of self-confident individuals, we can see the flaws in this practice. Studies have indicated that self-esteem does not lead to less cigarette smoking, alcohol/drug use, or obesity [4]. But it does correlate with one trait that people did not see coming – narcissism. When taken too far, high self-esteem gives an individual license to do whatever they want. While also expecting all of the rewards they feel they deserve. Narcissism has increased sharply in recent decades as college students expect higher grades without putting in the effort, and young professionals expect to be made into CEOs without paying their dues [5]. This is a troubling trend, but one that can be corrected with a different perspective.


Self-esteem is ultimately just an image. It is what one believes oneself to be worthy of. But we can shift our perspective slightly to see a much more valuable concept – self-control. Self-control is grounded reality [6]. It is not a grandiose image that is conceived of words and opinion the way self-esteem is. Self-control is about taking the real actions that someone who deserves a high self-esteem should be taking. We should not take the easy way out with our young people by imposing a suggested image of their greatness. Instead we should reward work ethic, discipline and desire to become something great.


A generation of teenagers and young adults has been given a major disadvantage in life – an unearned high self-esteem. A high self-esteem that is not justly earned through hard work can be dangerous. It makes people believe that they deserve things that they don’t think they need to work for. A much more effective concept to teach young people is self-control. Self-control is the basis for which a healthy self-esteem is earned. Giving everyone a trophy is the easy way out. It is far better to give everyone the lesson that trophies are given to those with the best work ethic, determination and tenacity. After all, aren’t those the traits that we wanted to bring out of the self-esteem movement?  


  1. Dittman, M. "Self-esteem That's Based on External Sources Has Mental Health Consequences, Study Says." Http://www.apa.org, Dec. 2002.
  2. Forsyth, Donelson R., Natalie K. Lawrence, Jeni L. Burnette, and Roy F. Baumeister. "Attempting to Improve the Academic Performance of Struggling College Students by Bolstering Their Self–esteem: An Intervention That Backfired." Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 26.4 (2007): 447-59.
  3. Crocker, Jennifer. "The Costs of Seeking Self-Esteem." Journal of Social Issues 58.3 (2002): 597-615. Web.
  4. Paulhus, Delroy L. "Interpersonal and Intrapsychic Adaptiveness of Trait Self-enhancement: A Mixed Blessing?" Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 74.5 (1998): 1197-208.
  5. Twenge, Jean M., and W. Keith. Campbell. The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement. New York: Free, 2009. Print.
  6. Baumeister, Roy F. "Rethinking Self-Esteem Why Nonprofits Should Stop Pushing Self-esteem and Start Endorsing Self-control." Stanford Social Innovation Review (2005)