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Self-esteem is important, but how important is it? Actually, it is not as important as most people think. In the 1980’s the California Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem decided to find out. Researchers reviewed thousands of available studies on the subject and found that “There is little or no correlation between high self-esteem and a reduction in teen pregnancy, drug use, violence in schools.” In other words, telling children they are wonderful and that winning is not as important as playing the game makes them feel good, but there is no evidence that it makes them behave better or achieve anything.

One of the task force findings was that American students consistently have higher self-esteem but lower reading and math scores than students do from other industrialized countries. What we have in America is self-esteem unsubstantiated by intellectual achievement. In the last few years, there have been several studies exploring the relationship between self-esteem and academic performance. They found that self-esteem does not produce enhanced achievement. Rather, achievement produces enhanced self-esteem.

Self-esteem is how you feel about yourself. It is your general assessment of yourself. It is how much you like yourself.

Some characteristics of high self-esteem

  • I believe I am important.
  • I believe that the world is better because I am in it.
  • I have confidence in myself and my abilities.
  • I am able to ask for help.
  • I trust my decisions.
  • I believe that I am my own best resource.

Some characteristics of low-self esteem

  • I do not think I am important.
  • I expect to be cheated and discounted by others.
  • I do not trust others.
  • Other people do not like me.
  • I feel lonely and isolated.
  • I am not interested in myself, or other people around me. 

Self-esteem is a democratic idea

In a hierarchical society, one’s self-image is determined by one’s role: as a patriarch, as a Brahmin, as an elder, etc. Aristocratic societies do not speak of self-esteem but of honor. In a democratic society, self-esteem is regarded as an entitlement. Unlike honor, it does not have to be earned.

Self-esteem in the West is largely a product of the Romantic Movement, which exalts feelings over reason, the subjective over the objective. Self-esteem is based on the wisdom that Polonius imparted to Lacerates: to thine own self be true. We are encouraged to discover and then affirm our inner selves, which will lead to personal achievement and satisfaction.

This is one of the conclusions drawn by advocates of multiculturalism. Their premise is that the traditional Western curriculum makes minority and female students feel ignored and left out. They argue that the result of such exclusion is an injury to self-esteem and an impediment to the academic achievement of women and minorities. Therefore, there are now many programs to boost the self-image of students and not just minority students.

One such program is Outcomes Based Education, which downplays grades and other measures of merit and instead focuses on such things as maintaining “emotional and social well-being” or developing “a positive personal self-concept.” As has been shown in numerous studies, this does not make successful students; it only makes happy students.


This obsession with avoiding hurting a person’s self-esteem has been carried to the extreme. In 2001, four seventh-graders at Ridgefield Academy in Connecticut broke into the school, ransacked it, and later bragged about it. The school did not press charges but expelled the students. Parents of one boy sued because the treatment had caused their son “feelings of unworthiness” and left his “self-worth impugned.”

In Rhode Island, an official at Barrington High School determined it would be wrong to bar a student from the school’s track team, even though he is confined to a wheelchair. Therefore, they let him compete with able-bodied runners in the 100-meter dash. In Portland, Maine, residents of public housing were told to remove “Happy Holidays” signs in December because some people may feel excluded. In Manhattan, Rodeph Sholom Day School eliminated Mother’s Day because not all students have mothers at home. Some have two fathers, so Mother’s Day “may not be a positive experience.” A few years ago, the Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, argued that traditional children’s games, such as dodgeball, kickball, and tag, are competitive and exclusionary, and therefore, bad for a child’s self-esteem.

How does any of this help a child face life? Life is tough. To survive, you must be tough. Real life is based on hierarchy. The smartest, hardest working, and most talented people are at the top. It is called meritocracy. It may not be the way we want it to be, but it is the way life is. Praising a person when he or she has not met standards or has failed may make the person feel better, but it does not mean the person has accomplished anything.

False praise

In the original American Idol television show, contests competed in singing. Each week one was eliminated until only one survived. Performances were rated by three judges, pop star Paul Abdul who did not want to hurt anyone’s self-esteem, American record executive Randy Jackson who sometimes would hurt self-esteem, and British record executive Simon Cowell who did not hesitate to tell it like it is. Paula was considered sweet and kind, Simon was considered mean and heartless. Which is better, telling a person they do not have what it takes to survive in the music industry and to move on to something where they may achieve greatness, or telling the person how great they are so they may continue working toward something that will probably end in failure.

Thankfully, many parents have discovered the martial arts. In the martial arts, students are ranked. They are promoted by performing required techniques in a satisfactory manner and failure must be faced and dealt with. Sometimes your friend may move to the next rank and you do not. Students compete in tournaments and learn to win with humility and lose with dignity. In class, while performing techniques, students sometimes have problems with certain techniques while those around them have them mastered.

Instead of tearing down self-esteem, the martial arts build self-esteem. As students accomplish things they felt were unachievable, learn to deal with failure, and learn to interface with people who are better or worse than they are; their self-esteem grows.

In the early 1990s, researchers tested the effects of self-esteem by measuring how high school students perceived their own academic ability. Students were asked to agree or disagree with the statement “I am good at mathematics.” The results showed that the more highly students thought of their ability, they less ability they had, and vice versa. Students in Washington D.C. ranked first in self-esteem but ranked next to last in actual performance. Students in North Dakota ranked first in math tests but ranked last in self-esteem.

Regrettably, many martial arts schools have fallen into the pit of social equality. They have lowered their standards to the point that ANYONE can earn a black belt, no matter their abilities; the schools don’t want to damage the self-esteem of students by failing them. Of course, there is another reason for this lowering of standards, the schools want to keep the students in training and paying all the fees.

Ways to increase self-esteem

The California Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem developed ten ways to help people feel better about themselves:
  • Accept yourself. Every day when you get up, say to yourself, "I am a worthwhile and lovable person, no matter how many "mistakes" I make.
  • Set realistic goals. Try to better yourself, but set goals that are within your reach. For example, if you want to stop smoking and go on a diet, do not try both at the same time.
  • Forgive yourself and others. Remind yourself: "Today is the first day of the rest of my life." Forgive yourself and others, and let go of past feelings of guilt and resentment. Get on with your life. 
  • Express your feelings. Start by being honest with yourself. Next, find someone you trust, such as a spouse, a parent, a close friend, or your taekwondo instructor, and tell him or her how you feel. Truthfully express your feelings this way and you will slowly build confidence.
  • Trust yourself and others. Make an agreement with yourself to be more responsible. Do something simple like getting up at a certain time in the morning. When you do it a few times, you will begin to trust yourself in situations that are more important.
  • Take appropriate risks. Go back to school. Seek a better job. If you do not take chances, you will be in the same old rut.
  • Tap your creativity. Everyone is creative, but we stifle our creativity because we are afraid of failure. Force yourself to keep at it until you get it right. Most of all; have fun.
  • Find your spirituality. We can all increase our self-esteem by realizing we are accepted and loved by the Creator, exactly as we are.
  • Eliminate negative thoughts. You damage your self-esteem by allowing your mind to be filled with negative thoughts such as "I'm a terrible worker" or "I'm too fat."
  • Like your body. Your health and appearance are important parts of your self-esteem. Accept the things you cannot change, such as your height. Work to change the things you can, such as being overweight.

You are not doing anyone a favor by telling them they are doing a good job when they are not. You are not helping children by protecting them from failure. Self-esteem comes from trying new things, accepting failure, and then trying and accomplishing another new thing, and from accepting that you may not be good at everything but that you can be good at something.

  • D’souza, Dinesh. Feeling Good But Doing Poorly.
  • Carlson, Tucker. Go Ahead Hurt My Feelings.

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