In praise of low self-esteem …

I am currently adding another tool to my executive leadership coaching toolbox by training to deliver the Thomas International TEIQue test, which measures traits underpinning emotional intelligence. As with all psychometric tests, this test uses a series of questions to capture insights into ourselves, which we can use to articulate and understand ourselves; in many cases, I find, this process can be not only revelatory but transformational – and certainly I see this time and again when I use one of my most favourite tests ever, the Thomas International PPA (Personal Profile Analysis), which explores work behaviours and preferences, based on the long-established DISC assessment. Delving into the indicators which emerge from these tests can take leaders on a journey deep into themselves, and can help them explain, ‘own’ and challenge their own behaviours, as well as often understanding better – and forgiving! – the behaviours of their colleagues. If one of our overarching aims in this world is to improve human relationships, then psychometric tests – well handled, and built on appropriately through coaching – go a long way towards this goal.

Anyway, as part of my initiation and training, I had a really good conversation the other day with a qualified TEIQue practitioner, to start looking in detail at the test.  Based on K. V. Petrides’ 1998 trait emotional intelligence theory, and registered with the British Psychological Society, as it has been audited against the technical criteria established by the European Standing Committee on Tests and Testing, the TEIQue explores 17 facets of emotional intelligence, and compares them to a representative group of the working population to establish where individuals place themselves in comparison with others – in which percentile, in other words, do they find themselves? This could, if you were not careful, lead to inappropriate interpretations of the scores, if we assume that ‘low’ equates to ‘bad’, because everything depends on context; after all, as one of the training materials pointed out, someone in a job such as an auditor who scored high on ‘optimism’, and who therefore assumed the best future intentions in everything, might not actually be very good at their job.

In the course of the conversation with this qualified practitioner, we also explored the concept of ‘self-esteem’, because again we are so used to being told in our society that low self-esteem is undesirable, and we should all be working on raising our self-esteem. This drive towards higher self-esteem can, I have noticed over the years, have a number of unintended consequences, because – if we define self-esteem as a trait – then in fact it is not very likely to change over time, and while it may be more comfortable and indeed more pleasant for individuals if they have higher rather than lower self-esteem, I am reminded of a conversation with a rather cross teenage girl a number of years ago, who said she was fed up of always being told that she needed to improve her self-esteem … she saw the world in a certain way, she was perfectly fine with this, and if her teachers kept going on about this self-esteem business, it was just going to make her feel inadequate and worse, so could they please just stop! She had a very good point.

Moreover, I have realised in the course of my training so far that many of the most successful sportspeople and other high achievers often have low self-esteem. We often say ‘suffer from’ low self-esteem, and yes – such high achievers do suffer to some degree, because it is not always easy to feel that you are less good than others, especially when, objectively, you aren’t less good, and could even be considerably better. When this turns into a downwards spiral of choosing not to engage with the wider world, and not to make the most of what the world has to offer, then – yes – it is harmful, and it is worth having interventions from trusted adults – parents, teachers, and so on. But when this low self-esteem turns into a driver, a desire to do better, to push the boundaries, to prove oneself … well, is it actually that bad? And couldn’t it actually be a good thing? Look what can happen when people are driven to practise, practise, practise in order to improve …

So – a few words in praise of low self-esteem. If you have it, flaunt it … And certainly embrace it as your friend. You are the best, most unique, special version of you there ever has been or ever will be, after all. Enjoy your low self-esteem as part of the whole ‘you’.

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