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What does self-esteem actually mean?

Updated: Aug 22

The education system is highly preoccupied with the mental well-being of staff and students presently (https://www.tes.com/news/working-together-support-wellbeing-schools-sponsored) and I recently read a book with much to say on the issue. In Therapy Culture: Creating Vulnerability In An Uncertain Age, Frank Furedi is unhappy about self-esteem. However, unlike many researchers, Furedi is more concerned about the word itself, rather than the concept that it claims to describe. In applying Furedi’s ideas to secondary school teaching, there is immediate food for thought. How often do teachers use the term, ‘self-esteem’? And what does it actually mean? According to Furedi, the term ‘self-esteem’ has changed meaning in the last three hundred years:

In the seventeenth century, it referred to independence, self-judgement or self-will. In the eighteenth and nineteenth century its meaning was modified to refer to the act of self-knowledge. (Furedi, 2004, p.3)

The term ‘self-esteem’, in contemporary usage, probably has something to do with the notion of being comfortable in one’s own skin or a healthy perception of one’s own emotions and status (back to the derivation shortly). In terms of frequency of usage, Furedi points out an interesting trend:

A Factiva search of 300 UK newspapers in 1980 did not find a single reference to the term ‘self-esteem’. It found three citations in 1986. By 1990, this figure rose to 103. A decade later, in 2000, there were a staggering 3,328 references to ‘self-esteem’ (Furedi, 2004, p.3).

The references to this nebulous word have increased, but what has happened to the mental wellbeing of young people? Schools now frequently employ counsellors and countless initiatives such as mentors, life coaches and mental awareness days designed to help children cope with growing up. These ventures fir with the general message that the problem of mental illness is ever present. According to mentalhealth.org.uk (https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/statistics/mental-health-statistics-children-and-young-people) one in ten children suffer with a mental illness. There seems to be a negative correlation here: as references to wellbeing, including self-esteem increase young people’s well-being gets worse.

Furedi traces the notion of therapy culture back to the development of “industrial capitalism”. When individualism is a desirable part of a culture it is inevitable that a person’s sense of identity becomes very important. The body is sovereign, each person must fulfil their potential and who you are becomes integral to having a worthwhile life. Individuals adopt an inward focus where “the slightest swing in mood or alteration in feeling can and is often interpreted to have great significance” (Furedi, 2004, p.144). Furedi challenges whether this “turn inward” (p.143) can have the inadvertent effect of over-emphasising emotion and creating a culture where subjective feelings trounce objective truths.

So, self-esteem has elided from a word meaning self-knowledge to emotional awareness. In 2018, a close analysis of how one is feeling is thought to provide the foundation for a healthy life. Developing self-esteem, we think, should be beneficial: young people should feel the benefits of being encouraged to look inward. Yet in the US there is evidence that young people’s so called self-esteem correlates negatively with examination scores. Furedi cites US research into intergenerational surveys revealing that, since the 1960s, young people’s self-esteem has risen whilst SAT scores have declined (Furedi, 2004, p.157).

Furthermore, he cites research finding that confident children are more prone to bullying, racism and drink-driving (Furedi, 2004, p. 158). Whilst it might be true that select individuals at secondary school have suffered hugely and need support, it seems a little dangerous to assume that self-esteem inflation (whatever that is) is always a good thing. Furedi equates self-esteem with assertiveness and over confidence, which might be the extreme end of feeling at ease with oneself. Some students (bless them) might need their self-esteem, or emotional status, challenged rather than expanded.

It is now part of the discourse in secondary education to talk extensively about the mental well-being of students. Suddenly, we are all prospective counsellors and healers. Why do we assume that student happiness can be found by their self-reflection? There may be a more beneficial way of helping young people live a fulfilling life: encourage their extrinsic engagement with the world and save them from the cult of self-esteem.


Furedi, F. (2004) Therapy Culture: Cultivating Vulnerability In An Uncertain Age (Routledge: London and New York)


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