Success does not cure low self esteem

By David Joel Miller

Racking up the successes may make your low self-esteem worse, not better.

Success and Failure

Success and Failure.

You would think that people with a string of successes to their credit would feel good about themselves. Often this is not the case.

Olympic caliber athletes get depressed even suicidal; professionals in many fields suffer from low self-esteem.

The cause of this low self-esteem among high achievers is that ancient enemy – perfectionism.

Perfectionism destroys self-esteem.

The highly motivated student, the one with the all “A’s” on their record, if they were to just once get a B that would ruin their perfect record. Needing to be perfect is a way to overcompensate for feelings of inadequacy.

The way this works is one of the sneakiest of all possible manifestations of fear of failure. Set impossible high goals and then if you fail to achieve them this is not your fault. Who could possibly be expected to be perfect?

The consequence of this setting yourself up to fail but making the goal beyond anyone’s reach is to feel that having not achieved perfection, not being the best at everything, you are worthless and nothing.

We saw in a previous post, it is not the all A student that is the happiest. The good enough student, the B student, is far happier. So is the student who is self-motivated, who does things to satisfy themselves and learns for the sake of learning not the external motivation of grades.

Dr. Berry at U.C. Berkeley wrote an interesting paper on the causes of failure (Special Feature: Fear of Failure in the Student Experience, Personnel/ and Guidance Journal, 1975.) As I understand this article he understands perfectionists as being high in Fear of Failure.

Refusing compliments lowers self-esteem.

In my experience people who suffer from a strong case of perfectionism discount all compliments. They find it impossible to accept that any form of praise can be sincere and they find themselves unable to accept compliments. The inferences here is that for them to accept an accolade means they are in some way in control of and responsible for their success. If you accept success then you also assume responsibility for your failure and the one thing any good perfectionist does not want to do is set themselves up to have to acknowledge a failure.

Perfectionists do not hear praise, from themselves or others. What they do hear is the criticisms, real or implied. Since good is never good enough and nothing but perfect is acceptable any mention of a success risks being heard as a back-handed compliment. Yes you did well this time, but what did you expect, the task was easy. Or more importantly, what will you do next time? For the perfectionist, failure is nipping at their heels and success is a distant target off on the horizon.

They dismiss out of hand all compliments by hold onto and cherish the negative message that even they are not perfect and eventually will fail.

Dr. Berry tells the story of his experiences as a child, participating in a contest with friends to throw snowballs at a post. They picked a post that was an extremely far away. The consequence of setting this impossible target? If you hit it, then it was just luck. If you miss, it was so far away no one could be expected to hit it. Either way, you were expected to miss and therefore could not fail.

Perfectionists set up just such tests for themselves.

The purpose of aiming for perfection, so this theory of psychology and others goes, is to establish such unreasonably high standards that no one could be criticized for not meeting that goal. The perfectionist keeps on trying to reach perfection until one day they give up trying as impossible and drop out of school or other activities or they finally do fail and then ascribe their lack of success to the impossible expectations of others.

Do you fear failure? Are you setting yourself up with excuses that result in creating the failure you fear? What would it mean to you to set realistic goals and actually meet some of them?

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For more about David Joel Miller and my work in the areas of mental health, substance abuse and Co-occurring disorders see the about the author page. For information about my other writing work beyond this blog check out my Google+ page or the Facebook author’s page, up under David Joel Miller. Posts to the “books, trainings, and classes” category will tell you about those activities. If you are in the Fresno California area, information about my private practice is at A list of books I have read and can recommend is over at Recommended Books


5 thoughts on “Success does not cure low self esteem

  1. Pingback: What do several failed relationships mean? | counselorssoapbox

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  4. Pingback: Your Self-talk can predict the future | counselorssoapbox

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