Harvard Mental Health Letter

The use and misuse of self-esteem

How important is it, and should psychotherapy promote it?

Self-esteem is one of the subjects personality researchers and mental health professionals most like to study. Thousands of journal articles have been devoted to it, along with dozens of books telling adults how to raise their own self-esteem or their children's. In the 1980s, the California State Legislature funded a task force to investigate the possibility of raising the self-esteem of Californians, in the hope of a huge return by way of reduced welfare dependency, unwanted pregnancy, drug addiction, and crime. The results were disappointing, and since then doubts have set in. Many still regard heightened self-esteem as a worthy aim of social policy and psychotherapy, but others fiercely dispute its significance and value.

It's difficult not to feel that self-esteem is important. We all want to like ourselves, prove ourselves, and have reasons to believe that our virtues and talents are recognized. We want others to see us as likable, competent, and trustworthy. But pride is one of the seven deadly sins, and narcissism, which can be interpreted as exaggerated self-esteem, is widely regarded as an undesirable personality trait.

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