Is Self-Esteem the Wrong Prize?

I was spring cleaning this weekend when I came across an old book, Ten Steps to High Self-Esteem. Flipping through the pages, I had to laugh. Chapter One: How to Feel Great About Yourself. Right there in just 38 pages.

The American love affair with self-esteem

Americans have had a love affair with the self-esteem and self-help industry for years. But like the diet business, it’s a quickie that gets us over a rough spot, and leaves us hungry. It is that gob of cotton candy when what we really need is meat and potatoes and maybe even some lima beans.

We seek self-esteem so we’ll feel great about ourselves. Yet researchers have found that when self-esteem is the main goal, relationships are hindered because people become too focused on themselves. The pursuit of self-esteem as its own reward can make us brittle and nervous.

Worst of all, it’s the wrong prize.

Humility, vulnerability and self-esteem

True humility and vulnerability are lost on most of us, because when they show up, they look like confidence and self-esteem.

The attitude of a person who is willing to be vulnerable sounds like this:

I will tell you what I know from experience, but I don’t know everything.

I am open and eager to learn from you.

I stand for certain beliefs, but I don’t believe I am better than you.

I have my opinions, but I am interested in what you think.

My greatest lessons have come through the mistakes I’ve made–and I’ll share them with you.

Trust and self-esteem in business environments

So often in business, people burn up energy straining to be right.  The paradox is that the one thing we can’t get anywhere else is you—including the interesting flaws of a real human being.

If you don’t know your stuff, you won’t be at the table. But if your communication is void of gratitude and respect for others, we won’t care too much about knowing you.

On the other hand, if you tell us what really matters to you, say what you believe, share your mistakes and the lessons life has taught you—we will trust you.

Self-esteem is the side benefit of trust

Earning trust of others is no small thing.  Trust is the right prize, and self-esteem is just a side benefit.


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Lou Solomon

Lou Solomon is the founder of Interact. She is a TEDx speaker and a member of the adjunct faculty at the McColl School of Business at Queens University of Charlotte. Her articles have appeared in Harvard Business Review,,, and Fast Company.