Why Self-esteem Is Overrated and What We Should Nurture Instead

Dusk over Silver Creek in Green Lake County, Wis., one of the author’s favorite places to kayak. Photos courtesy of the author.

I’ve decided self-esteem is overrated. Don’t get me wrong—I experience my own lack of it as a woeful state, and so do the people around me. I am a real pain in the neck when my self-esteem is threatened! And I’ve certainly invested a non-trivial amount of my life trying to either satisfy the demands of my ego or wrestle them into submission. (Good luck with that, huh?)

Yeah, I get it: protecting self-esteem is compelling.

But I am concluding that it is a losing battle. My experience as a high school teacher is that the widely adopted praise-as-fuel approach for boosting self-esteem has led to a generation of brittle, needy, cautious, defensive kids. Surprisingly obedient but endlessly demanding of reassurance, these kids need a steady drip of praise just to get by. They are addicted to expressions of approval and think they can do no wrong. I suspect that many of them, having received extravagant praise for trivial accomplishments from well-meaning adults, actually doubt their worthiness. They might be wondering: What does my teacher really think of my abilities when they praise me for such small things? Many become risk-averse and failure-averse. What would happen to the praise if I failed at something? So they stay in their safe little lane of minor accomplishments that apparently please the adults around them. They live from praise nugget to praise nugget, expecting teachers to give them an A and employers to give them a raise every time they wiggle. They are deeply wounded by criticism. Honest feedback, given matter-of-factly with respect for their capacity to do more or better, can be a shattering experience.

Looking at myself and my students, I don’t like where we’ve ended up. So I’ve been rethinking this whole boosting self-esteem thing. I’ve decided there’s a better approach: I think we should nurture the capacity for awe.

This came to me in our worship group’s recent discussion of situations that brought us awe. Story after story. Tears. Soaring hearts. Palms brought together over and over.

Comically, on Zoom, the live transcript could not handle the word—it kept writing it as “all.” Maybe there’s a metaphor lurking in there. All you need is awe! A-W-E!

When I think of the times I have felt awe, the fabulousness of the experience is not that I get to feel special or good about myself. The joy is that I don’t care about how big or small or great or trivial or good or flawed I am. I am simply bowled over by the greatness of something else.

And when I experience this, it is amazing. I think true awe is one of the high points of life! When I feel it, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Certainly not public esteem or praise or professional honors of any kind, not even private knowledge that I’ve done something truly well. True awe is when my heart grows so big that any threats or wounds or boosts to my pride simply don’t matter—at all.

Awe right-sizes me and my ego. Awe puts my reasons for both insecurity and arrogance in perspective. I’m reminded of Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in which one of the characters builds a machine called the Total Perspective Vortex designed to show someone else how ultimately trivial they are. The last laugh is that the person who gets put in it to show them their actual (in)significance in the cosmic scheme of things doesn’t get it. I think experiencing awe is a little bit like that—like the Total Perspective Vortex showing you how little you and your petty concerns are, and in the end, you don’t care at all! It doesn’t hurt; in fact, it’s a peak experience!

Could it be that it is only when we give up the idea that we are big or good or special or important—or even adequate!—that we have room for awe? Room to experience the vastness and beauty and perfection of the cosmos? Actually, I think it’s the other way around: we need to experience awe to be able to give up the ego for a moment. That seems way more doable and a lot more appealing!

What if instead of nurturing self-esteem, we nurtured a capacity for awe? What if instead of crowding the Spirit out of our hearts with attempts to meet the clamorous demands of our egos, we invited the Spirit in through awe, making our hearts so wide-open huge that our need for self-esteem no longer ruled our days? What if our capacity for awe grew to the point where we could actually experience daily awe for the people around us—the ordinary, flawed, miraculous souls who are in fact vessels for the Divine? What if we actually experienced the truth that God is in everyone, and allowed ourselves to be transformed by that reality?

The author on a recent solo kayak excursion where she experienced a sense of awe.

So next time I’m tempted to go hide in a cave and lick my wounds after a failure or criticism, I’m going to go out in my kayak instead and be bowled over by sandhill cranes bugling as they circle slowly overhead, or the perfection of a tree turning red and gold reflected in the glassy water at dusk. Next time someone I love is feeling hurt and beaten down, I’m going to direct their attention to a sunset. Next time I’m annoyed with someone, I’m going to contemplate what might be awe-inspiring about them—some overlooked quality, some uncelebrated good deed, some hardship overcome. In hindsight, some of my finest moments as a teacher were when I ditched the obvious lesson plan and threw my students a lifeline to awe: a time that stands out to me now is when I invited a former gang member to tell them his story of joining and then leaving an extremist hate group—a story of such wrenching horror and ultimately grace that no one was left unmoved. Adios to self-absorption!

I want to cultivate the feeling of awe in myself and others because we are, after all, temples for God’s spirit, vessels for God’s love, instruments for God’s will. Who knows? I may be entertaining an angel unawares.

Kat Griffith

Kat Griffith worships with the Winnebago Worship Group in east central Wisconsin. A former teacher, she is now pretty much a full-time volunteer dedicated to a variety of Quaker organizations and issues, including refugee resettlement, immigration, racial justice, and climate change. Her writing has appeared regularly in Friends Journal.

12 thoughts on “Why Self-esteem Is Overrated and What We Should Nurture Instead

  1. Absolutely brilliant! I totally relate to be boosted up with lots of praise by well meaning adults when I was younger and how it handicapped me from trying anything that could be risky out there in the world. This explains the big hole I felt inside at the time. Wonderful insights that are so immediately useful!

  2. I have shared this with about a dozen of my friends and several have offered back experiences of awe. Tho I’m mostly house bound myself, I have plenty of thoughts of awe where I live. When we lost our young grandson to cancer, a wise close friend comforted us with these words “it’s going to take a lot of sunsets to move past this. “

    1. A wise friend indeed!
      We have had several discussions sessions now where we just share experiences of awe. We don’t get tired of the topic!
      Best to you,

  3. Thanks for the insight and truth. Hadn’t thought that much about the word awe but it’s a keeper — when it happens it really changes the focus from the minutiae of our daily lives to the infinite beauty, power, and amazement that we are briefly a part of.

  4. The Zoom transcription may have been on to something. When consciously appealing to awe (or a sense of wonder) it’s probably best not to name it. Naming it is liable to prompt the ego to raise its shields.

    This reminded me of a story told by psychologist Robert Johnson that suggests another trap that awe can help us escape. He had a friend who reasoned himself into a sense of futility and purposelessness, demanding that Robert demonstrate empirically that there is a reason to go on living. Robert’s reply, which confused and embarrassed him even as he said it: “Go and look at the bark of twelve trees.” The friend left without a word. Robert felt crushed. Not long after, his friend returned, brimming over with enthusiasm for the wonder of trees.

    (I think I found this in “Owning your own shadow,” Johnson’s book about “the dark side of the psyche”.)

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