The Shocking Truth About High Self-Esteem

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

It seemed like a good idea in theory. 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 exam and separated them into 2 groups. 

1 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]

Surely those who receive praise and encouragement by the professor will use that boost to their self-esteem to motivate themselves. They will study harder and get a better grade on the next exam!


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!

And that wasn't the worst part. Those who were given praise and encouragement by the professor actually did worse on the next exam than they did on the midterm!

Their scores actually decreased from an average of 59 down to 39!

So why did this happen? How could the students actually perform worse after the boost to their self-esteem?

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 an improvement in grades. Nor does it 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. The belief that one has a right to all of the rewards he feels he deserves without having to work for it. 

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. It is not a grandiose image that is conceived of words and opinion the way that self-esteem is. Self-control is about taking the real actions that someone who deserves a high self-esteem should be taking. [6]

Someone with a high self-esteem believes that she deserves exceptional grades in school. Someone with self-control has the determination to study long hours and earn them.

Someone with a high self-esteem believes that he deserves to have a body like Brad Pitt. Someone with self-control has the discipline to wake up early, go to the gymeat a healthy diet and earn that body.

Someone with a high self-esteem believes that she isn't getting a promotion because the boss is out to get her. Someone with self-control is willing to go the extra mile, put in the extra work and earn her right to that promotion.


Absolutely not.

After all, researchers did find that people who have high grades do indeed have a high level of self-esteem! The difference is that they earned the high grades which led to feeling good about themselves.

They earned their high level of self-esteem through their effort and discipline. They did not believe that they were entitled to high grades simply because they were special. 

True happiness does not come from us believing that we deserve all the rewards that life has to offer. It comes from learning that we really do have what it takes to earn them. It doesn't come from envisioning our future success, it comes from putting in the work to actually achieve it. 

Having a high level of self-esteem is something that we should all be working for. But it should be earned, not given. 


People who succeed in life have a high level of self-esteem. But it is because they worked hard, earned their results and proved to themselves that success was possible. Not because they felt great about themselves to start with.

A far more important tool in achieving success than a high level of self-esteem is a high level of self-control. Self-control is about having the drive and the discipline to do what it takes to earn the results that you want, rather than feel that you are entitled to them.

Positive thoughts mean nothing without positive action. 


  1. Dittman, M. "Self-esteem That's Based on External Sources Has Mental Health Consequences, Study Says." Http://, 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)