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Exploding the Myths of the Self-Help Generation

By Stephen Briers
  • Read in 16 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 10 key ideas
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Psychobabble by Stephen Briers

Psychobabble explains how the self-help industry is misleading people, and why the human mind can't be swayed by catchy self-help mantras and lucid pop-psychology diagrams alone.

Key idea 1 of 10

Self-esteem is overrated.

It seems obvious that self-esteem is critical for our happiness. After all, it’s good to feel good about ourselves, right? But how important is high self-esteem really? Is it an integral part of every successful and healthy person, as self-help books want you to believe?

In pop psychology books, poor self-esteem is blamed for a whole slew of problems. For example, authors attribute underachievement at school or work to the student’s or employee’s underdeveloped belief in himself and his abilities.

In the same vein, some popular self-help books link marital problems to one or more partners’ lack of self-respect.

Many texts suggest that even school bullies resort to tyrannizing other kids and extorting their lunch money merely as a means to improve their own painfully low self-esteem. The assumption is that, by dominating their peers, bullies can enhance their own lack of self-worth.

Yet for many behavioral problems, it turns out that self-esteem just isn’t an issue.

For example, research has shown that there is no link between a teen’s self-esteem and problematic behaviors like stealing, excessive drinking and promiscuity.

Going back to the playground, bullies have been shown to be even surer of themselves than their peers, rather than the pitiable, doubt-stricken souls we might otherwise imagine them to be.

Moreover, neither a person’s job performance nor their relationship skills are affected by their level of self-esteem. Employees with a high self-esteem, for example, don’t necessarily outperform others in either their jobs or in laboratory tasks.

What’s more, psychological programs that aim to boost students’ self-esteem do nothing to improve their performance in school. In fact, when struggling college students received messages intended to bolster their self-esteem, they actually did even worse in the exams that followed.

It would seem that people with high self-esteem can have problems, too. If we’re interested at all in the taxonomy of our problems, then we’ll have to look for something better than the catch-all “self-esteem.”

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