The Myth of Self-Esteem

Self-esteem is one of the worst concepts ever propagated. The notion implies that if I had enough of “X,” then I would have less anxiety, less frustration, and more happiness. “X” can be a material thing, an experience, a relationship–almost anything. Self-esteem must die

Self-esteem is a subtle attempt at masking anxiety. You’re never going to get rid of anxiety or anger. They are a necessary part of life. It has been demonstrated that avoiding these emotions will just fire them up – a lot. In the famous White Bears study, Dr. Wegner demonstrated that when you to try not to think about something, you will think about it more. There is also a “trampoline effect” and you will think about it a LOT more. There are several problems with the concept of using self-esteem to solve anxiety and frustration.

First, attempting to build self-esteem involves using rational methods to deal with irrational neurological circuits. The emotional unconscious brain is much more powerful than the intellect; it’s a huge mismatch.

Second, what happens after you have achieved what should have alleviated your frustrations and anxiety, and it doesn’t work? And it won’t. Predictably, you will become more frustrated because where do you go next? The list of high-profile people who have self-destructed is long. They usually had every imaginable comfort life has to offer. It’s impossible to outrun your mind.




Third, self-esteem involves endless judgements of you versus those around you. You are either “better than” or “worse than” the people around you. This line of reasoning of creates labels; and you cannot really see who they are, what their needs might be, and how you might help. You have lost awareness. This is the antithesis of what is necessary for the world to become a better place – the acceptance and celebration of differences.

Nick and Holt

In my book, Back in Control, I talk about my son, Nick and his friend Holt, who are both world-class mogul skiers. I learned many of the performance concepts presented in my book from watching them how to deal with the adversities of competing under intense pressure, while being at the mercy of judges.

In 2007, Holt won the national championship in mogul skiing. He felt that significant contributing factors to his victory were the awareness and visualization techniques presented in my book. One principle is letting go of the outcome and performing with freedom.  Historically his performance had been inconsistent, he was so focused on winning. By connecting with his best effort instead of the outcome, his performance soared. The day after his victory, he turned to his performance coach, David Elaimy, and me and said, “You were right. Winning changed my life for about 12 hours. Life moves on.”

It’s important and rewarding to strive for excellence; it just has nothing to do with decreasing anxiety and frustration.




“Better Not Look Down”

Achievement doesn’t work

I have four out of eighty medical school classmates and two close friends that are dead from suicide. I also know of 14 additional medical colleagues who are also dead from suicide. One hit close to home. He was an excellent spine surgeon and a close friend of mine. He had spent the day in surgery with me assisting me on a difficult operation. At two o’clock he shook my hand and said, “Nice case, I have an appointment I can’t miss.” He  walked out, and three hours later shot himself.

All of them were “living the dream.” They were highly educated, had money, big reputations, beautiful families–the list is endless. They possessed more than enough to have self-esteem. Yet the anxious, perfectionistic drive that pushed them to the top destroyed them.

Suicide = anger

People don’t kill themselves because they are depressed. It is an angry act. Anger is destructive and the ultimate act of destruction is to destroy yourself. Perfectionism is rampant in the medical culture. Although “perfect” sounds reasonable when applied to surgery, it is actually deadly. What it does it creates an intense, chronic anxiety of “never being good enough”, and then frustration of never being able to achieve these unattainable goals. Perfectionism fosters anxiety-driven anger. Eventually the anxiety becomes intolerable.

I know this first-hand because I went through similar experience that came to a head in 2002. I was actively suicidal from extreme anxiety for 18 months and essentially crossed the line to put the plan into action. I got lucky and made it through this gauntlet. I published my story in 2011 in our national spine publication, SpineLine.

If you are connected with who you are, then you can create the life you want. If you are creating a life to fill a hole inside you, it is a major problem.

The ring of fire

Video: The Myth of Self Esteem