Conditional vs. Unconditional Self-Esteem & How it Significantly Influences College and Law School Choice

This is a PSA of sorts, but to me it's much more important than an announcement. It's perspective. Healthy. It is from personal experience in that I have lived both sides of this life. But more importantly, the knowledge and much of the below comes from many years of research the field of psychology. I'll dive in.

Internal self-esteem, real self-esteem, is incredibly healthy. You can't have enough of it when you define it correctly, because it is almost spiritual. So let me define it correctly: it means you are leveraged by nothing. Put in the spiritual terms – your worth on this planet is entirely because you are here. We need you. You are no better or worse than the person to your left or right. We are all equally worthy.

I love that definition.

Unfortunately, much of the time I — and the vast majority of us — have a greater portion of external, conditional self-esteem than we do true self-esteem as described above. And that is unhealthy and maladaptive. Picture the most narcissistic person you know of or have seen in the media. That person, incredibly sadly, is almost devoid of self-love. That is narcissism. It is the opposite of self-love — it's the complete lack of it. Their narcissism is dictated from an external perception of themselves.

Psychologist Terry Real gives a wonderful example of this, which conveniently comes from the same Greek myth where we get the word "narcissism" in the first place. As Real tells it, Narcissus upset a god who then has a nymph curse him by falling in love with the first person he sees. He leaves the nymph and happens to glance at his reflection in the water as he passes by a well. He becomes so enamored by his own image in the well that he becomes rooted there. He can't leave the well — he is completely conditionally hinged on it, the image in the well. He dies at the well. Yet if he had an ounce of real self-love, rather than just love for that external image of himself, he could have just left his image and not died of thirst and starvation.

So now let me relate this to people who actually read our blog. There are three types of external self-esteem:

  1. Performance-based esteem (this is my issue, for what it's worth): how well we do things that we deem are important to us or others. A classic of example of this was, for me, how fast I used to be able to run a mile or 5k. I blogged about that here.
  2. Other-based esteem: again, quoting Real, “I don’t have self-worth, but I do if you think I do. I do if you have worth. Workaholism is an extreme version of performance-based esteem. Love addiction is an extreme version of other-based esteem."
  3. Attribute-based esteem: and here we run into an issue with college and graduate school choice. "My child goes to Harvard, so I have self worth" is an classic example of attribute-based esteem, no less than, "My child scores 90 yard touchdown runs, and that is attributed to me," or "Look how ripped my muscles are — I have self worth."

Let me double-click on #3, because I want to focus the rest of this blog on this and on healthy self-esteem. With an important assist from Dr. Terry Real one more time:

Our culture runs on attribute-based esteem. “Buy this product and you’ll be a person of distinction.” I like to say if we all got into relational recovery tomorrow, our economy would collapse. But don’t worry about it because it’s not going to happen.

He is absolutely right. My digital Timex watch when I was a high school student worked no worse than my friend's dad's Rolex. Actually, it worked better; it had a stop-watch. It cost me about $10, and the Rolex was about $3,000. Attribute-based.

At the college and graduate school level, this emphasis — and Real has it right; we all feel it so some degree — has all kinds of damaging effects. A denial from a school causes a major hit to our self-worth. I have seen this at such a devastating level that it's caused individuals to drop out of the entire law school admission process and drop their dreams on the spot. Conversely, and just as dangerously, an admit to an elite school can dramatically (and temporarily) boost our self-worth. Why is that dangerous? Because far too many people will go to any extreme for it — including going into incredible debt versus taking a full scholarship at a school that has very similar outcomes (in employment terms relative to their goals). At the most extreme example, you see people committing fraud to get their children into elite schools and bypass the admissions process all together. Look no further than jail time for this to see how damaging attribute-based esteem can be.

Please know I am not saying that an admit from a dream school isn't wonderful, nor am I saying you should not take out debt to go to that school. Everyone has their own unique situation, and it's impossible to give universal advice because of that.

But let's end of the healthy kind of self-worth. When making school choices, know this. Your value as a human on this pale blue dot has absolutely nothing to do with where your degree is from. Zero. Zilch. So when deciding, please make sure to factor that into the final decision too.

– Mike



Along the lines of mental well-being, this Monday I will be interviewing luminary and three-time TED Talk speaker psychologist Dr. Guy Winch about overcoming the feeling of rejection, particularly as it relates to the admissions and career search process. We'll have the podcast interview up early next week!