Self-esteem or Do You Want Something Better?

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When you look at the research provided by Roy Baumeister and others, it is apparent self-esteem is not suitable for you or anyone. Buy his book Willpower and check out chapter 9. Despite good research like his, self-esteem continues to be as popular as ever. It is a key principle taught by self-help gurus, counselors, and most of our education system. It is something that great leaders do not depend on.

If you want another option to reading Willpower, below is a link to a sermon. It looks at self-esteem and self-governance from a biblical perspective. The title is "Satan Loves This, Do You?" Click this link to download the document.

Marshmallow Test

GR8 Leaders promote something far better than self-esteem. 

There is a famous experiment done originally by Dr. Walter Mischel in the late 1960s. A young child was asked to sit at a table by themselves in a room. An adult came into the room and told them, "Here is a marshmallow. You can eat it now, or if you wait for 10 minutes, I will give you two marshmallows to eat." The adult repeated the statement at least one additional time to make sure the child understood. The adult would then leave the room.

Videos of children are funny and what you would expect. Some children waited, and others didn't. The antics of the children trying not to eat the marshmallow range from stoic to highly active as they try to distract their attention from the marshmallow.

Here is a link to a short video if you have yet to see the experiment. 

The Rest of the Story

Since research shows that self-esteem doesn't work for the good of society, what does?

There is something that consistently shows up. People with higher grades, higher levels of income, lower addictions, higher productivity, less sexual promiscuity, and fewer teenage pregnancies have that something. Actually, the list of positive elements is longer.

What makes the big difference in the kids who did not eat the marshmallows? The marshmallow video provides the answer. The video is cute and fun, but here is “the rest of the story.”

Many years after Dr. Mischel did the original Marshmallow Tests, his children convinced him to research what happened to the children in the original experiment. He found the ones who had shown the most willpower at age 4. They...

  • had better grades and test scores
  • scored 210 points higher on their SAT 
  • were more popular with their peers and teachers
  • earned higher salaries
  • had a lower body mass index
  • had fewer problems with drug abuse

The research says those traits could be genetic, but it also shows a strong link to the nurture and development of the child’s self-control. That is a dividend paid back to the child throughout their life. (Willpower p11)

Consider this sidebar. Despite all of the self-esteem psycho-babble, most of the video game industry does not believe that message. As with life, you start as an inexperienced newbie and only move forward after you achieve specific outcomes and proficiency. Yes, there are lousy values and bad morals in many of the games, but that is another issue.

Despite that, the one thing they have right is they teach some clear elements of self-control. You need clear goals to achieve, a way to measure progress, and clarity about how you compare to others doing the same thing. Those are clear, straightforward ways to build self-control.

Difference Between Self-esteem and Self-governance


  1. Primarily Subjective, feelings based
  2. An individual determines its existence and “level”
  3. My internal feelings are the standard I use to verify its existence
  4. I verify it, mostly about how I feel about me
  5. Requires affirmation, respect (demands it?), or encouragement from others without verifiable evidence of achievement or results
  6. Ignores or does not accept criticism if it doesn’t fit the current view of self
  7. Focuses on inward change with a hoped-for, but more often without any specific outward desired result or behavior change
  8. Benefits me because I think it will – “I am a unique snowflake”
  9. Believes it increases by positive thinking and affirmations
  10. Actually increases or enhances through self-control and achievement


  1. It is more Objective, facts-based
  2. Others can note or imply its existence and “level”
  3. My external results, change in behavior implies or verifies existence
  4. I and others verify it, primarily how I behave
  5. Aided by affirmation and encouragement from others based on visible, clear progress toward the desired result that I want to achieve
  6. More likely to accept criticism even when it does not feel good
  7. Focuses on an inward change evidenced by an outward desired result or behavior change; others can see evidence
  8. Benefits me because of my achievements and failures
  9. Believes it increases by “just doing it,” being a disciplined person
  10. Actually increases by serving others, clear goals, monitoring progress, support, and pre-deciding

Additionally, the results from both self-governance and self-esteem are vastly different. The research has plenty to provide evidence for each of the following columns.


  1. Lower performance – “Showing up = achievement”
  2. Entitlement and demands (I am a unique snowflake)
  3. Trying to build confidence from thinking it’s true because I think it is
  4. Self-absorption
  5. Need to be served
  6. Intolerance of others
  7. Irresponsible freedom
  8. Incivility and hostility toward others
  9. Segregation and separation from others


  1. Higher performance – striving to achieve, the scoreboard is reality
  2. Earned privileges and rewards; requests rather than demands
  3. Confidence from doing, experiencing, achieving
  4. Self-direction, initiative
  5. Service orientation
  6. Tolerance of others
  7. Responsible freedom
  8. Civility and collaboration with others
  9. Diversity and inclusion of others (Not demanding their respect)

Look at how the above items appear in society now, especially numbers 4-9 immediately above. Unfortunately, all items in the left column are easy to see now. That behavior is part of our elementary schools, high schools, college campuses, and governing bodies in Washington, D.C.

Additional Articles About Self-esteem

Roy Baumeister, in his book Willpower, says, "The theory of self-esteem was a well-intentioned attempt to use psychology for the public good, and it indeed seemed promising at first." He was an early proponent of self-esteem. However, years of research show no correlation between increased good for society and self-esteem.

Here is one of his most important conclusions:

“On the whole, benefits of high self-esteem accrue to the self while its costs are borne by others, who must deal with side effects like arrogance and conceit. At worst, self-esteem becomes narcissism, the self-absorbed conviction of personal superiority. Narcissists are legends in their own mind…”

And you can find many articles discussing the dangers and the results of focusing on self-esteem. Here are some older ones to show that people have been concerned about this, and research has been around for years to show that it doesn’t work.

Dick Meyer, Editorial Director of based in Washington. Oct. 4, 2002

WASHINGTON—My personal gag instinct has now been reinforced by reams of genuine psychological studies indicating that high not the fount of nirvana, and low self-esteem is not the root of all evil. New, serious studies have found that rapists and robbers are as likely to think highly of themselves as dentists and dockworkers. …the London School of Economics...

Dr. Nicholas Emler's research found no clear link between low self-esteem and behaviors we automatically associate with low self-esteem – juvenile delinquency, teen smoking, drug use or racism.  "There is absolutely no evidence that low self-esteem is particularly harmful," Emler said.

…The self-esteem lobby has infiltrated pedagogy and parenting in a huge way. Stacks of books tell parents to tell their kids that they’re special. Teachers too. The kids might not be taught to spell “special” but special they are. We’re all special. The new research on self-esteem suggests that all this isn’t just silliness. Unchallenged self-esteem therapies used in real life to attack problems like teen pregnancy, juvenile crime and alcohol abuse are probably sapping time and energy from far more productive responses.

…I’ll go way out on a limb here and say that it’s better to teach a growing Self skills like discipline, control, tenacity, charity, manners, sportsmanship and math than it is to teach a Self to chant, “I’m special and I love myself every day and in every way.” …Often it's those things that take us outside of our own Selves and into communities or other people’s needs that are most therapeutic – religion, volunteer work, mentoring, teaching, coaching, cheering on your team.

George Will, Syndicated Columnist, April 21, 2005

WASHINGTON—…From childhood on, Americans are told by “experts” – therapists, self-esteem educators, grief counselors, traumatologists – that it is healthy for them continuously to take their emotional temperature, inventory their feelings and vent them. 

…Because children are considered terribly vulnerable and fragile, playground games like dodge ball are being replaced by anxiety-reducing and self-esteem-enhancing games of tag where nobody is ever “out.” But abundant research indicates no connection between high self-esteem and high achievement or virtue.

…Sensitivity screeners remove from texts and tests distressing references to things like rats, snakes, typhoons, blizzards and … birthday parties (which might distress children who do not have them). The sensitivity police favor teaching what Sommers and Satel call “no-fault history.” Hence California’s Department of Education stipulating that when “ethnic or cultural groups are portrayed, portrayals must not depict differences in customs or lifestyles as undesirable” – slavery? segregation? anti-Semitism? cannibalism? – “and must not reflect adversely on such differences.”

Experts warn about what children are allowed to juggle: Tennis balls cause frustration, where-as “scarves are soft, nonthreatening, and float down slowly.” …Remember the theory that because Vietnam was supposedly an unjust war, it would produce an epidemic of “post-traumatic stress disorders.” So a study released in 1990 claimed that half of Vietnam veterans suffered from some PTSD – even though only 15 percent of Vietnam veterans had served in combat units.

The following citation has been lost, but the story, real or fiction, is not atypical behavior.

An elementary school teacher was teaching her class about heroes, so she asked her class of 25 to name their heroes. The first little girl stood up and provided a list of Madonna, Michael Jackson, and Boy George. The next student was a boy, and he quickly named Michael Jackson, Spiderman, and Superman. And so it went around the room.

None of those answers surprised her; in fact, she expected it. What was extremely surprising was to hear who eight of the children named. No, it wasn’t another rock star, and certainly not Andrew Jackson, George Washington, Charles Lindbergh, or Thomas Edison.

The surprising, even shocking thing, was they named themselves as heroes. It is one thing to replace the figures of Mt. Rushmore with rock stars; that’s bad enough, but to replace them with yourself is a sad indictment of a self-absorbed society.

The above are a few of the many that you can find. A few more are included in the GR8 Relationships study guide in chapter 6.


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