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Seligman's critique of self-esteem

Baby-boomer child-rearing and the self-esteem movement in schools are not alleviating the on-going epidemic of depression and might even be creating it.
Martin Seligman, The Optimistic Child

The problems of emphasising 'feeling good'
It is over 10 years since Professor Martin Seligman set out his critique of the self-esteem movement in The Optimistic Child. As he points out it is not just that much of what it says is 'gaseous' and does not make sense, it could be doing harm by setting children up for depression. 

As we've already seen, Seligman points out that most definitions of self-esteem include the notion of 'doing well' and 'feeling good'. He is convinced that high self-esteem can be a 'delicious feeling' but he knows 'no effective technology' for teaching children to feel good about themselves which does not first teach them how to do well.

There's little doubt that Seligman's view that encouraging children to feel good about themselves is the mainstay of the self-esteem movement in schools, and in many homes, in the USA. In the last section we gave an explanation for why the feeling good side of self-esteem has been most promoted. Here's an example of what has become common currency in schools across America under this banner: 

  • Children are repeatedly told that they are 'special'; they may have to repeat this on numerous occasions or colour in 'I'm special' worksheets.
  • Children are told that they must 'love' themselves and are given various exercises to help this sink in.
  • Children are given lots of talking exercises where they have to talk about themselves and their special qualities. Usually they are only allowed to use positive adjectives.
  • Children are constantly praised, or even rewarded, when they achieve very little.
  • Children are protected from criticism and failure as it might make them feel bad.
  • Competition or other activities which might allow some children to shine and others to feel bad should be avoided.

Professor Jean Twenge's research for Generation Me illustrates that these type of activities are not confined to liberal states but are widespread throughout the US and this approach is taught in teacher training colleges. 

This whole approach is a far cry not just from Nathaniel Branden's exacting work on self-esteem but even the views of the National Association for Self-Esteem. If you were to follow Branden's recommendations you would follow a fairly harsh regimen to get children to be critical, independent thinkers who take complete responsibility for themselves and their lives. There would also be a great emphasis on skill development to boost self-efficacy. 

Instead the approach of those promoting self-esteem in American schools is likely to develop 'inauthentic' self-esteem in that it is not trying to encourage the development of the child's inner resources or thinking. As Seligman points out, this approach also deliberately tries to disconnect how the child feels about him or herself from any talent, success or achievement. Self-esteem has not to be contingent on performance or even how the child behaves to others or on their ethics. This has echoes of some aspects of Nathaniel Branden's work but the way this is done is nothing like Branden's approach. For example it has become commonplace in American schools to: 

  • Encourage self-esteem based on nothing tangible
  • Encourage 'pseudo' self-esteem simply based on praise and how you are subjectively viewed by others
  • Ignore the child's own value system or preferred approach. These self-esteem exercises do not recognise or validate differences. All children have to fit into this approach even if they are naturally modest or feel patronised by routine praise.

The Seligman approach 
Self-esteem is like the speedometer of a car. It tells you how well you are doing. But if you want the car to go faster you don't do anything to the speedometer, you turn your attention to the engine. 
Martin Seligman, Speech at the Vanguard Programme 2005

As the above quote suggests, Seligman's argument is that high self-esteem may be a great feeling but by itself it does not produce, or 'cause' anything. Feeling good about yourself is a by-product of 'doing well'. It is, he says about 'good commerce' with the world. This is similar, he argues, to what Aristotle says about happiness. It is not a feeling which can be separated from what we do. Just as happiness arises from 'right action' self-esteem rises because of the way we engage productively with the world. This is why Seligman writes: 'What California (and every state) needs is not children who are encouraged to feel good, but children who are taught the skills of doing well - how to study, how to avoid pregnancy, drugs, and gangs, and how to get off welfare.'

Seligman's sharp critique of self-esteem came about as a result of visits to schools when he was piloting his optimism and resilience programme for young people. His critique was also informed by 25 years research into child and adult depression. He says all depressed people have four kinds of problems:

1. Behavioural (eg passive, helpless and indecisive)
2. Emotional (eg sad)
3. Somatic (eg disturbed sleep and appetite)
4. Cognitive (eg may think life not worth living and feel worthless)

He points out that only the last 'half-symptom' amounts to the feeling side of self-esteem and is 'the least important' problem facing people who are depressed. To get someone out of depression, Seligman claims, you need to get them active and hopeful again and you don't do this with empty praise or other techniques promoted by the self-esteem movement. He writes: 

If your child suffers from feelings of worthlessness, hates herself, or feels no confidence, it is a reflection that she believes her commerce with the world is going badly. Once her commerce with the world improves and she realizes it, she will feel good.

So we can see why Seligman believes that self-esteem boosting will do nothing to stop the epidemic of depression. But why does he believe that it might actually cause it?

The rise and causes of depression
Depression is one of the biggest disorders of the modern age yet it was virtually unknown at the turn of the 20th century. Only 3% of women born around 1910 in the US had a severe depression by the time they were 30 but for those born in the 1950s this figure exceeded 60% - a twentyfold increase. While men are not quite as susceptible to depression as women the rise in figures for men follows a similar trend. Seligman presents arguments and evidence to show that his rise is not about definitions. Nor is it the result of any biological changes. He believes it has to do with societal changes during the 20th century, particularly the rise of individualism and the 'feeling good' society and its emphasis on the self. The victims of this epidemic are getting younger and younger. A few decades ago the average rate for the on-set of depression was 30. Nowadays it is 15. The figures for depression are particularly high in the USA but a similar pattern in the rise and age profile of those vulnerable to depression can be seen throughout the western world. 

Seligman outlines a number of more specific reasons why changes in culture and making people, particularly the young, vulnerable to depression. 

Seligman argues that one of the inevitable casualties of the rise of individualism is meaning. 'The individual, the consuming self,' he writes 'isolated from larger entities, is a very poor site for a meaningful life. However, the bloated self is fertile soil for the growth of depression.' But why should this be? As was outlined in the Happiness section, in his most recent work, Authentic Happiness, Seligman argues that meaning and happiness are inextricably linked and that we need to serve goals larger than ourselves. Here he expresses this idea but makes more of the fact that if people are isolated from larger concerns they will believe that all that matters in life is what happens to them. This means that the set-backs, failures and problems which are an inevitable part of life can become overwhelming and so they often feel unable to cope. Previous generations were consoled during difficult times by patriotism, the belief in the importance of the family or the wider community and their faith in God. This not only provided solace and consolation it also buffered people from depression.

The importance of bad feelings 
This tendency to overemphasise the negativity of things going wrong in your life has also, according to Seligman, been exaggerated and encouraged by the self-esteem movement. As a psychologist he is very aware that 'strong emotions such as anxiety, depression, and anger, exist for a purpose: they galvanize you into action to change yourself or your world, and by doing so to terminate the negative emotion.'  Feeling bad can help us learn to become more optimistic and to overcome feelings of helplessness. Inevitably, such feelings carry pain but they are an effective 'alarm system' which warns us of 'danger, loss, and trespass'. Artificially trying to protect children from bad feelings will undermine their development, not aid it. 

Csikszentmihalyi's concept of flow has been described in detail in the section on Positive Psychology. Seligman uses it here to point out that flow, an important ingredient in a full and satisfying life, only occurs when we are involved in activities which stretch and challenge us. This is why he writes: 'the cushioning of frustration, the premature alleviation of anxiety, and learning to avoid the highest challenges all impede flow.'  Again trying to protect children from bad feelings, such as frustration, will undermine their quality of life, and development,  not enhance it. 

Seligman explains another way bad feelings can be put to good use under the heading 'persistence'. He points out that any complex task involves a series of steps which can lead to failure. If the child gives up too early then they will learn to become 'helpless' and not experience 'mastery':

In order for you child to experience mastery, it is necessary for him to fail, to feel bad, and try again repeatedly until success occurs. None of these steps can be circumvented. Failure and feeling bad are necessary building blocks for ultimate success and feeling good. 

Quite simply 'children need to fail'. This is why he argues that if we try to protect them from this we shall reduce their mastery and hence their self-esteem.

Seligman's conclusions
Seligman argues convincingly that a much better way forward is to abandon the feeling good injunctions of the self-esteem movement and to concentrate instead on 'explanatory style', and teaching children the skills involved in optimism and enhancing resilience. (See one of the next sections on Optimism for a discussion of this.)

Writing in 1995 he also predicts that what is happening in schools, and the 'feel good ethic' in general will lead to the production of low self-esteem 'on a massive scale'.  However, this is not the conclusion of Professor Jean Twenge. She agrees fundamentally with the analysis Seligman outlines in The Optimistic Child. She provides further evidence of the rise of anxiety and depression in young people, and like him thinks this is an outcome of the self-esteem movement. But she also shows that the self-esteem movement has encouraged the rise of self-esteem in young people, as well as an obsession with self and narcissism. 

Copyright: Carol Craig, Centre for Confidence, 2006

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