Starting as early as elementary school, the importance of having high self-esteem was ingrained into our developing brains. Loosely defined as believing in one's own abilities and self-worth, self-esteem was seen as the ticket to happiness. But as Tasha Eurich, organizational psychologist and New York Times best-selling author of Insight, points out, believing that we're perfect just as we are can easily veer into narcissism territory.
"In the 1970s, the fire of self-esteem began to catch," she writes on Quartz, referring to the midcentury humanistic psychology movement that prioritized self-esteem and self-actualization above all else. "One long-running study analyzed high schoolers' responses to the statement 'I am an important person' over nearly four decades. In the 1950s, only 12% agreed, but by 1989, that number had soared to roughly 80%," she adds.
Psychology Today agrees with Eurich's belief that there's a fine line between healthy and unhealthy high self-esteem. "Too much self-love … results in an off-putting sense of entitlement and an inability to learn from failures," the publication writes. "Perhaps no other self-help topic has spawned so much advice and so many (often conflicting) theories."
Considering the fact that many psychologists and sociologists believe we're currently in the midst of a modern-day narcissism epidemic, which is high in self-esteem and low in empathy, the repercussions of pushing high self-esteem are worth considering. "Since [the 1970s], our collective sense of self-importance has only intensified," Eurich adds. She believes this is partly due to social media and the fact that it "makes it all-too-easy to focus exclusively on ourselves."
Rather than focusing on high self-esteem and running the risk of veering into the narcissism culture that runs so rampant in our generation, she recommends focusing on self-acceptance as a means to find happiness. "The alternative to boundless self-esteem doesn't have to be self-loathing," she continues. "Where self-esteem means thinking we're amazing regardless of the objective reality, self-acceptance means understanding our objective reality, giving ourselves permission to be imperfect, and deciding to value ourselves anyway."
She cites research showing that both self-esteem and self-acceptance are equal predictors of happiness and optimism, but that people high in self-acceptance "hold positive views of themselves that aren't dependent on external validation (like participation ribbons, Facebook likes, and gold stars)." After all, "the more realistically we are able to see ourselves, the more empathy and grace we can extend to the person we learn we are."
Pick up Eurich's new book, Insight: Why We're Not as Self-Aware as We Think, for more, and share your thoughts on self-esteem versus self-acceptance in the comments.