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May 26, 2004

Pursuing self-esteem harmful; focus on goals rather than yourself

ANN ARBOR, Mich.—The pursuit of self-esteem has become a central preoccupation of American culture, but the need to prove ourselves often causes more harm than good, according to a University of Michigan researcher.

Even though boosting self-esteem makes people feel good, it doesn't make people smarter or improve job performance or leadership. And few realize the psychological costs of trying to enhance self-esteem, says U-M psychology professor Jennifer Crocker, who will present her findings to the American Psychological Society this week. She gives more details in an article in the latest issue of Psychological Bulletin.

Crocker contends that “the pursuit of self-esteem is a uniquely American phenomenon, born of the nation's founding ideologies,” that American beliefs in self-reliance, meritocracy and the Protestant work ethic all encourage Americans to constantly try to prove our value to others. The Japanese are at the other extreme, she says, focusing instead on relationships with others and “fitting in rather than standing out."

Although nearly everyone pursues self-esteem, Crocker argues, high and low self-esteem people have different strategies to maintain and protect it. People with low self-esteem try to improve by seeking the approval or acceptance of others, and avoiding failure, while people with high self-esteem try to prove how competent they are and seek out opportunities to shine. Both dismiss criticism or get defensive when challenged, equating failing to achieve a goal with being a failure as a person, Crocker says.

She suggests that pursuing goals to prove one's value or worth as a person usually backfires. When people try to prove their worth by demonstrating they are competent, attractive or virtuous, they focus on themselves instead of other people, have a harder time identifying where they need to improve and feel pressure to succeed.

They prefer to work on tasks that make them feel competent instead of tasks that are difficult but important to achieve their goals, she says. Their self-esteem is boosted by success but drops when they fail, and over time, their unstable self-esteem contributes to symptoms of depression.

The alternative, according to Crocker, is to forget about what success and failure mean for our self-esteem. Instead, we should focus on what we need to learn and improve in ourselves and have goals that are good for other people as well as the self. When people have a goal that is bigger than themselves, they are more likely to get what they really want, she says.

“We need to shift from trying to prove how great we are to focusing on what we want to do, and what we need to learn and improve in ourselves to accomplish our goals," she said.

Crocker says it is healthier emotionally for an entrepreneur to focus on building a business to create a useful product, rather than the self-esteem-oriented goal of building a business to become rich or influential. That's because the definition of success constantly rises, she says, with people wanting more every time they reach a new level.

And ironically, by focusing on what they need to learn and what they want to contribute, leaders may actually create a more successful business, she adds. Similarly, trying to accomplish something to help others is more satisfying than doing things to win someone else's approval.

Instead of thinking of our successes and failures in terms of “what does it mean about me?” Crocker said, “It's not about me, it's about what I need to learn to make the contribution I want to make.''

Related links:

Jennifer Crocker

Psychological Bulletin

American Psychological Society

 

Contact: Joe Serwach
Phone: (734) 647-1844
E-mail: jserwach@umich.edu