The Self-Esteem Trap

self-esteem-trapI wrote this book because I was at the end of my rope. I had sat hour upon hour in my psychotherapy practice listening to stories about how every child, teen and adult should be special, a winner, with the potential to be great. Although this expectation causes great suffering in individuals and families, it has been almost impossible to challenge.

The expectation is founded on the illusion that everyone has an extraordinary potential for creativity or genius or achievement that needs only to be unlocked in order for greatness to happen. When you assume that everyone has something extraordinary to contribute to life, then being ordinary is an embarrassment. This way of thinking has produced a generation of parents, children, teens, and young adults who are caught in…


The Self-Esteem Trap:


  • Obsessive self-focus.
  • Restless dissatisfaction.
  • Pressures to be exceptional.
  • Unrealistic fantasies of wealth, power, celebrity or achievement.
  • Unreadiness to take on adult responsibilities in an imperfect world.
  • Feelings of superiority and/or inferiority.
  • Excessive fears of being humiliated.

The Self-Esteem Trap has made powerful demands on our child-rearing and spawned relentless desires to be or have the best. Although many experts have studied and critiqued the problems that come from pressures to be special or extraordinary, we have not been able to free ourselves from this trap. Stepping out of it is too painful if we blame ourselves personally for being stuck here in the first place or if we see no other alternative for happiness and self-confidence.
I’ve written this book in order to begin a new conversation about the freedom of being ordinary, and the virtues of interdependence, in a new context which brings a whole new kind of self-confidence.

I’ve drawn on my decades of psychotherapy practice, my knowledge of human development, my personal experience as a parent and human being, and many theories from contemporary psychology. I also draw from various religious traditions, most prominently from Buddhism – of which I have been a practitioner and student since 1971. Buddhism turns upside down our Western psychology of the self and offers a truly new point of view that sees our interdependence – our give-and-take with others – as the foundation of self-confidence and happiness. At the core of its teaching about everyday life is the wisdom that we suffer greatly from taking ourselves too seriously and assuming that our own achievements, intelligence, wealth, power or fame will deliver lasting contentment and meaning.

Book Synopsis

This groundbreaking new book clarifies the misplaced but well-meaning intentions that have produced a generation of young adults…

  • who are unable or unwilling to imagine a life that’s anything but extraordinary.
  • who are stymied by the ordinary challenges of adulthood.
  • who are restless and unhappy with their desirable circumstances.
  • who suffer prematurely from angst and disillusionment with the world as it is.
  • who have no patience for developing talents over time.
  • who are reticent to share or collaborate.
  • who feel pressure to be and have the very best.
  • who fear humiliation above all else.
  • cannot escape the negative self-preoccupations of the self-esteem trap.

Psychologist Polly Young-Eisendrath – drawing on her years of experience as a Jungian analyst, psychologist and practitioner of Buddhism – offers an incisive analysis of the cultural, psychological and moral components of the self-esteem trap for kids, parents, teachers, counselors, and mental health professionals in their relationships with each other. After identifying the problem, analyzing its roots in the Baby Boom generation of parents, and clarifying its components, she lays a clear path for parents, and for teens and young adults themselves, toward a new kind of confidence and resilience that is founded on interdependence, autonomy, compassion and sharing. She advocates an ecological and environmentally-friendly parenting and personality make-over! It’s time that we all stopped overdosing on an illusion of the individual Self and wake up to the fact that everything we do is webbed in a network of relationships.



Psychologist and Jungian analyst Young-Eisendrath (Women and Desire: Beyond Wanting To Be Wanted) is onto something big. Those born between 1970 and 2000 (Gen Me-ers), she argues, are a vastly discontented group who find their lives unsatisfying and feel entitled to success owing to an overestimation of what the world will bring. She views this as a cultural problem begun in the 1980s when the collapse of the traditional parental hierarchy coincided with a hyperfocus on self-esteem. Today’s parents offer too much approval and enthusiasm for simply their children’s existence, disrupting kids’ growing abilities to accept realistically both their strengths and their weaknesses, which is the true foundation of self-esteem. Young-Eisendrath sees the solution in a return to being “ordinary,” as this is rooted in “wisdom about our human condition and a knowledge of how we are all connected.” While the text sometimes wanders, it is a pleasure to forgive. This is well written, accessible, soundly researched, and beautifully insightful in the vein of Irvin Yalom (The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy). Easily placed in parenting, social science, or psychology collections; recommended for all libraries.

~ Julianne J. Smith, Ypsilanti Dist. Lib., MI


Young-Eisendrath, a Vermont-based Jungian analyst, practicing Buddhist and author (Women and Desire), identifies a “threatening and perplexing problem” she calls the self-esteem trap. Today’s children and young adults are suffering from a number of symptoms, including obsessive self-focus, restless dissatisfaction, pressures to be exceptional, unreadiness to accept responsibilities and feelings of either superiority or inferiority. According to the author, instead of contentment and positive self-regard, kids raised to believe they are extraordinary or “special” are more likely to be unhappy and disappointed. Being “ordinary” and realizing one’s connection to the human community is the real key to happiness, she argues, and cultivating the qualities of generosity, discipline, patience, diligence, concentration and wisdom will lead to children who are self-confident and content. She also warns against parents who “run interference,” protecting their children from inevitable disappointments. Instead, letting kids develop autonomy and experience the consequences of their decisions, she claims, is the way to go. At times, Young-Eisendrath’s scope seems unwieldy, but her message rings true.

~ Publishers Weekly


“The Self-Esteem Trap is a truly helpful book on wise parenting. It is full of important and practical lessons for fostering character, virtue, emotional intelligence, and genuine happiness in the next generation.”

~ Jack Kornfield, author of “The Wise Heart”


“Parents want what’s best for their children, and The Self-Esteem Trap is – finally – the book that delivers. Wise and packed with insight, the book explodes the myths of specialness and self-esteem, replacing them with solid values much more likely to lead to successful children and, even more important, children who turn out to be good people. If you’ve wondered how to cut through our culture´s obsession with perfect children, this is the book for you. The Self-Esteem Trap is also one of the few books I’ve read that approaches religion with open eyes and a broad perspective, with lots to offer both believers and doubters.”

~ Jean Twenge, Ph.D., author of “Generation Me”


“When we focus our attention on ourselves rather than on the world around us, including others, we are inevitably disappointed. We live in a world where we are now raised to attend to ourselves: Narcissism and ennui are the consequences. Dr. Young-Eisendrath wisely points this out as the source of our children’s unhappiness. More importantly she offers sound advice as to meeting the challenge of the self-esteem trap.”

~ Michael Lewis, Ph.D., author of “Shame: The Exposed Self”


“The Self-Esteem Trap is a groundbreaking look at how kids develop a sense of self, and a reassuring guide to help parents on the journey. Insightful, well written, and filled with practical advice, the book helps parents and caregivers understand the age of self-importance we live in today, and crippling sense of entitlement it can create for children. As Dr. Young-Eisendrath points out, we can’t give children self-esteem. It is a gift we must help them give themselves as they struggle and feel the joy of living in personal conscience, core values, and empathy for others.”

~ Michael Gurian, author of “The Wonder of Boys”


“It took 1,000 years for civilization to develop the concept of a ’self’. It took only 40 years to take it to an extreme of self-centeredness. Polly Young-Eisendrath provides a thoroughly delightful exploration as to why compassion and virtue are the necessary ingredients for the development of a healthy balance for ourselves and our children. This book is a sensitive and thoughtful guide to finding harmony in our lives.”

~ Richard Boyatzis, Ph.D., author of “Resonant Leadership” and
co-author of “Primal Leadership”


“Incisive, persuasive, practical, and wise. Young-Eisendrath tackles one of the most important of all the questions that will never have a definitive answer: how best to raise a child. She points out the common mistakes good and loving parents make, and gives pithy pointers that all parents can truly use, not just read and admire. An immensely valuable, reliable, and engaging book.”

~ Edward Hallowell, M.D., author of
“The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness”


“This is a brave book! Without blaming mothers, broken families, or any of the usual suspects, Dr. Polly Young-Eisendrath challenges the notion that what children most need is to grow up feeling ’special’. The target of her criticism is not so much dysfunctional families as a dysfunctional culture that devalues civility and compassion in favor of becoming someone’s idol. This provocative book by a wise and trusted psychotherapist and educator argues for cultivating the virtue of being ordinary. It is bound to reassure those parents who really want nothing more than to raise children who are loving and capable.”

~ Deborah Anna Luepnitz, Ph.D., author of “The Family Interpreted”


“With wisdom and immense compassion, Polly Young-Eisendrath describes an important problem of our time and gives us ways of resolving it. She writes of the trap of having to be special that baby boomer parents impart to their children who struggle in the end with feelings of inferiority and superiority, never to be satisfied with the ordinary happiness and life that could be theirs. Not since Alice Miller’s Drama of the Gifted Child has such empathic insight been shared about children, young adults, parents, and their struggles. But Polly not only understands the plight of children, she also has deep empathy for their parents with their own complicated histories who have found themselves caught in the bind of wanting to bestow self-esteem and honor their children’s unique qualities while at the same time knowing that self-esteem can only be earned through virtue, discipline, hard work, and caring for others. Her book is a readable, thoughtful guide for parents and their children and an eye-opening re-evaluation of some of our most treasured parenting practices.”

~ Sharon Lamb, Ed.D., author of “Packaging Girlhood”