There are two main ways self-esteem can break down. First, individuals, or groups of people, can lose faith in their cultural worldviews. Such disillusionment can be precipitated by economic upheaval, technological and scientific innovations, environmental catastrophes, wars, plagues, or unwelcome intrusions by other cultures.
And even when faith in the cultural scheme of things is intact, one still has to feel a valued part of it. Falling short, whether due to your ascribed place in society, your own failings, or unrealistic cultural expectations, is the second cause of struggles with self-worth.
American society, in particular, puts great value on attributes and achievements that are unreachable for most individuals.
FOR AMERICAN WOMEN, YOUTHFUL beauty remains a primary determinant of self-esteem.
Very few women are model-thin; none stay young. Very few men have the vast resources of Donald Trump or Bill Gates. And very few men, women, or children become famous authors, movie stars, musicians, and athletes. Given such unrealistic standards of value, it’s no wonder that shaky self-esteem is the norm in the United States.
The pursuit of self-esteem is a driving force behind just about everything that people want in life.
As William James put it, “A man’s Self is the sum total of all that he can call his, not only his body and his psychic powers, but his clothes and his house, his wife and children, his ancestors and friends, his reputation and works, his lands and horses, and yacht and bank-account. All these things give him the same emotions. If they wax and prosper, he feels triumphant; if they dwindle and die away, he feels cast down.”
Distant, unresponsive, or overly demanding parents can create barriers to self-esteem that cripple a person for life.