This is a pet issue of mine and I wrote about it here:
Most people confuse "self-esteem" with what I will refer to as a "sense of self". It is the latter--not the former, that is so often screwed up in the angry, violent, grandiose, and generally narcissistic people in the world. If you have a healthy "Self", you are likely to have a healthy self-esteem--which is not the same at all as a high self-esteem.
The psychological defect that leads to so many problems is a defective or distorted sense of one's SELF. The excessive self-esteem you see in a bully comes from a distortion of reality that person has with regard to their self. "It was widely believed that low self-esteem could be a cause of violence, but in reality violent individuals, groups and nations think very well of themselves". Do you really suppose that people like Saddam Hussein or Osama Bin Laden suffer from poor self-esteem? On the contrary. Exaggerated self-esteem is one of the hallmarks of a pathological narcissist or psychopath.
The pop-psychology that promulgated the widespread belief that if you nurture kid's self-esteem neglected to mention that if the sense of self was already damaged, all you managed to do was to create a narcissistic monster...it was a waste of time and money--as this article reports. If the 19th century was the age of hysteria (and basically, Freud was responding to the excessive sexual repression present in that century); then the 20th was the age of narcissism. In this new century, that narcissism seems to be morphing into an even more malignant sociopathy that pervades society and impacts almost all our social, political, and educational institutions.
Our cultural focus on enhancing "self-esteem" has resulted in the near-worship of emotions and feelings at the expense of reason and thought; on emphasizing "root causes" and victimhood, instead of demanding that behavior be civilized and that individuals exert self-discipline and self-control--no matter what they are "feeling".
Of course, psychiatry--particularly "pop" psychiatry and psychology have played a large role in the over-promotion of the self-esteem bandwagon. ShrinkWrapped comments:
This is where so much of our current pedagogy and the entire world of PC fails most dramatically. Children can tolerate losing; they know when another child is better at sports or math or spelling than they. A healthy child is not defeated by this but learns what he or she is able to do, and can do their best. The PC victimology in speech codes on so many campuses is worse than nonsensical; any person whose self esteem is damaged by cross words, is an individual with exceptionally fragile self esteem. The so-called Self Esteem movement has things exactly backwards. People do not achieve self esteem by never being hurt; they maintain their self esteem in the face of disappointments and hurts.
This is not only true of children, of course; it is also true of our patients. If we support their self-esteem at the expense of encouraging them to face reality; we do them no favors. Only by weathering the disappointments and hurts in life, do people develop a healthy self esteem, and most importantly, a healthy self.
A place where "all the children are above average" is really a place where all the children know that they are mediocre; and, where they learn to resent excellence in general; and learns to avoid tackling difficult projects so as not to burst the "self esteem bubble" that has been created around them.
Giving children the unconditional love they require in life--no matter whether they are above or below "average"-- is one thing, and it is very important; but every child and every individual has to work independently at their own level to the best of their own ability, to earn their own self-esteem. It can't be handed to them; and it can't be faked for them.
At least, not if you want a healthy child.