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How to have a healthier sense of self-esteem without being a jerk

Hint: You need to criticize yourself.

How to have a healthier sense of self-esteem without being a jerk
[Photo: ClassicStock/Getty Images]

We live in a world that glorifies confidence and celebrates self-belief. That’s why people who toot their own horn without inhibition tend to advance their careers more often than their more modest counterparts. This, in turn, explains the prevalence of narcissistic leaders.

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In most societies, individuals are more likely to succeed when they have deceived themselves into thinking they are talented when in fact they are not, rather than when they are aware of their flaws.

If you care about developing your actual talents and being more competent, it is essential to start with a proper reality check to understand your limitations. Since most people–bosses, in particular–are rarely able or willing to provide us with honest, constructive, and critical feedback on our potential, your best bet is to be self-critical and be the unequivocal and ruthless judge of your own performance and talents.

Here are some useful parameters for aligning your views with reality rather than your wishful thinking:

Help others critique you

Civilized society demands a degree of politeness and diplomacy, and we tend to be more so when we care about the people we interact with. This can be taken too far. When people become so conflict-resistance and fake-friendly, they completely eliminate negative feedback from their conversations.

When this occurs at work, it inevitably harms our personal development by giving us a false sense of security and creating the illusion that we are doing well when in fact we are not. Sometimes it’s obvious that feedback is being withheld. You can tell when others may not be as happy with our performance as they pretend to be, like when they say “fine” or “great” without adding anything, regardless of what we deliver. Yet there’s no opportunity to know how we can potentially improve.

One of the best ways to address this issue is to make it easier for others to criticize you. For example, instead of asking whether what you did was right, or whether they are happy with your performance, request explicit criticism. Ask your boss or colleague, “How could I have done this better?” or “What can I do to improve next time?” Better yet, request very specific feedback: “Is there one main area where I could improve?” and “What is the difference between what I did and perfection?” You could add that you will not be offended by their honesty. Explain that you are really in need of guidance to improve, so you appreciate their constructive criticism much more than praise.

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Engage in upward rather than downward comparison

Although comparing yourself to people who are more talented, more successful, or more acclaimed is no doubt painful, research suggests that such comparisons are often linked to higher performance. It also leads to more improvements than comparing yourself to people who aren’t as good as you, just to feel better. The choice is clear: You can either prioritize feeling good or getting better. But since the latter should also result in your feeling good, you are better off benchmarking up, rather than down.

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket

We all have a self-concept, defined as the sum of activities, beliefs, and behaviors that we see as making up our identity. For example, my self-concept may include being a psychologist. To the degree that I can do this well, I will have higher self-esteem, because our self-love is a function of our perceived ability to do the things that matter to us.

One of the most interesting findings in social psychology is that people differ quite substantially in the way they define their self-concept. For some people, it’s quite focused, concrete, and unidimensional. Imagine that the only thing that mattered to me is being a good psychologist. My self-esteem would depend almost entirely on my achievements in that field. The same goes for people who are mostly focused on being a “good person,” or a “good husband,” or “hard-working boss.”

Other people manage to create very complex, diverse, and heterogeneous self-concepts. Putting their eggs in different baskets suggests their self-esteem isn’t dependent on one or two major areas, which makes their accomplishments in any individual area less impactful. That also protects them from setbacks in any individual area and makes them less reactive to disappointments and failure as they try to improve.

A person like this would know that if his or her preparation, practice, and training in a specific area of competence doesn’t pay off–for instance, if he or she were working hard to deliver an important presentation–that the outcome of that event can only produce a trivial boost or wound to their self-esteem, because there are so many other important areas of life. You’ll be able to become more self-critical if you de-emphasize the importance of competence and performance in any one specific area you are trying to master and see your self as far more varied and multidimensional instead.

If it hurts then act

It may be that the thought of failing–or even actually failing–hurts your self-esteem to the point that you prefer to deceive yourself into thinking that everything is fine when it’s not. It’s usually a sign of sanity and rationality to maintain accurate touch with reality, no matter how unpleasant or hard. And one of the best ways to recover from setbacks is to accept the facts and deal with them.

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If you are unhappy about your performance and regret how you performed, it’s best to just focus on getting better. If it matters so much to you and you can’t decrease the importance this has to you, then get back to work until you improve as much as you can. Pain, whether from past failures or the projection of future potential failures, is a great motivator. In fact, motivation is the most important self-improvement tool you can have because it accounts for a bigger proportion of performance in most jobs than talent. But motivation is also responsible for increasing your actual talent.

Don’t take it too far

Even if accurate self-views are key to calibrating and pursuing improvement goals, it’s key that you maintain a healthy degree of self-belief in your capabilities. You may already be naturally self-critical, in which case you probably need to calibrate upwards and adjust your views of reality toward a more lenient, self-serving interpretation of events. Regardless of your personality, your goal should be to aim for a balance between self-encouragement and constructive self-criticism, mixing up healthy praises without getting to the point of unconditional self-adulation, with demanding and ambitious self-imposed standards.

You can’t rely on others to become your inspirational mentors or motivational coaches, but you can at least help create the conditions to act as your own consistent and reliable performance coach. Coaching yourself to become your own coach will pay off in any area of life to help you develop any type of skill. And its free, too!

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