Self-esteem is an ambiguous, but crucial part in one’s personal development. At some point, Koreans began to pay more attention to the term ‘self-esteem’. Self-esteem is defined in the dictionary as how you feel about yourself, your self-worth or your pride in yourself.
Self-help manuals and personal self-esteem essays are becoming very popular. According to the list of the top 10 best-selling books at Kyobo bookstore over the past five years, 5 of the 10 books from last year’s list were self-help manuals or selfesteem essays which is the highest record in the recent five years.
This interest in selfesteem has also is the media as an increasing number of programs are focusing on self-esteem. Lee Min-su, producer of Kim Jae-dong’s Talk to You said that he has noticed a trend in that many people these days want to talk and hear about self-esteem issues. Self-esteem has become a topic that many people think about, talk about, and hear about.
The Current State of University Students’ Self-esteem
Compared to university students in the 80’s or 90’s, many present-day university students suffer from low selfesteem. This generation even goes so far as to call themselves the Sampo generation, or Opo generation, or even N po generation (“po” is an abbreviation of the Korean word “to give up”). This generally means that they give up crucial milestones like courtship, marriage, having children, and home ownership because it is hard to get a job that can financially support a family. Ironically, most students today graduate with more impressive skills than those in the past. Most students take the English certificates such as IBT, TOEIC, TEPS, and they become experts at utilizing computers and doing the document works.
Lee Min-su, producer of the program Kim Jae-dong’s Talk to You said “Youth in our modern society are praiseworthy in that they work and live intensely. Although the level or variety of qualifications have been upgraded compared to the past generation, most university students constantly compare themselves with others and focus on their problems or weaknesses rather than commending themselves for what they have accomplished. Youth in the past didn’t feel the need to do so because we all knew that our friends wouldn’t be our competitors when looking for a job.”
On December 29, 2016, Hanyang University (HYU) held a Heart Talk Talk Healing Concert which was mainly about sharing their low self-esteem distress and giving advice to the students to raise their own self-esteem. The organizer of the concert as well as one of the panel members, Professor Ha Jung-hee, said, “I was surprised to see how many students were interested in raising their self-esteem.” Senior researcher Lee Sung-won, who was also a panel member said, “Although the concert was held during the winter break, around 105 HYU students applied during a 3 day period and even about 40 students applied on the spot. It was an amazing participation rate compared to the other activities held by the Center.” Professor Ha Jung-hee added “I think this shows that students now experience low self-esteem and it illustrates their desire to build their low self-esteem.”
If university students are interested in improving their self-esteem, why do so many young people have low selfesteem?
Comparison Leads to Low Self-esteem
One of the biggest factors that contributes to low self-esteem is the prevalence of comparisons in our society. Modern society continuously encourages competition between students. Therefore, students unintentionally compare themselves and their qualifications to others, which lead them to underrate their own capabilities. In fact, about 83.1% of all students who participated in the survey claimed that they have average or low self-esteem. Among those with “average or low self-esteem,” about 80.5% stated that the reason for their low self-esteem is that they feel inferior compared to others.
One of the students who participated in the Heart Talk Talk Healing Concert is Kim Sae-ri, a sophomore who majors in Piano. She also picked “comparing myself to others” as the biggest factor contributing to her low self-esteem. She added that she was surprised to meet more students than she had expected who were also struggling with their low self-esteem for similar reasons.
Ko Eun-sol, a sophomore who majors in Korean Language Education, also participated in the concert. She chose “comparison” as the greatest cause of university students’ low self-esteem as well. “When we were in high school, we only had one goal: getting a good grade. However, in university, there are more factors and standards of comparison besides grades. In that respect, students lose their individuality and start comparing themselves to others,” she added.
“I participated in the concert because there are so many people around me who are battling with their self-esteem. I wanted to encourage them,” said Bong Soo-ji, a junior majoring in Korean Language Education. Moreover, she also picked “comparison” as the biggest reason for university students’ low selfesteem, adding “Because students value their qualifications only when society deems it ‘valuable’ as well.”
Based on students’ honest responses, it is clear that “comparison” is definitely one of the biggest reasons why university students have low selfesteem. Comparing themselves with others contributes to the students’ concerns regarding their self-esteem and employment, relationships, and their appearance. Among these concerns, finding employment is becoming harder and harder these days. Students are being pressured to get higher grades and to obtain better qualifications. By doing so, they reluctantly compete with their peers, and this causes them to compare themselves with others in many different aspects.
The Effects of Low Self-esteem
Even someone who seems perfectly fine or who made a huge success and has many friends may experience low selfesteem. Low self-esteem is a problem that can affect anyone, even those who seem to have it all.
Low self-esteem leads to several serious problems. The first problem is lack of confidence. “These days, there are so many social factors that make students feel inadequate. This puts unwanted limitations in front of students and hinders them from achieving the things they could have achieved if they had more confidence,” said Professor Ha. Self-esteem is the foundation of one’s confidence, which then pushes one to take on challenging tasks and recovers from failure. This is why people with low self-esteem tend to avoid trying new things and are skeptical towards life. Low self-esteem will make university students degenerate from where they are. Low self-esteem is the start of a vicious cycle that does nothing but hurts you.
The second problem with having low self-esteem is that one tends to see oneself in a distorted manner. People with low self-esteem tend to underestimate themselves and put themselves down. They spend most of their time judging themselves by the standards made by others and constantly compare themselves to others. This then keeps them from realizing their potentials. Also, no one will recognize their competence. It’s more likely to evaluate someone competent if they have confidence than someone who lacks confidence.
This problem can affect anyone even, interestingly, perfectionists. Perfectionists have a relatively higher standard of perfection, and this distortion leads them to blame themselves if they do not live up to their own high standards. Some perfectionists also force their standards onto others.
The other problem is that low selfesteem causes difficulty in forming or maintaining good relationships with others. Professor Ha gave a couple’s relationship as an example: “A healthy relationship between lovers can be maintained if both have high self-esteem. If one of them constantly complains about his or her life and is pessimistic about the future, the other will gradually get tired.” This logic not only applies to romantic relationships, but also to relationships in general. If you have low self-esteem, it may prevent you from maintaining equal relationships with others.
Pathway to Healthy Self-esteem
Students’ low self-esteem is not only their own fault, but also that of our society. In fact, the author of the bestselling book Self-esteem Class, Yoon Hong-gyun, mentions, “This society is actually very hard to live in for university students. After the International Monetary Fund (IMF) crisis, society has completely changed. Finding a job is becoming harder and students are pushed to compete with others. Unfortunately, they lose their self-confidence in the process. The label ‘university student’ should symbolize freedom, but societal pressure makes them question their own value.” In general, the initial cause lies outside of us, not within us. There is no reason for students to blame themselves and fall into depression.
The first thing young people can do when they are struggling with low selfesteem is to understand that one’s youth is a time of trial and error. Author Yoon explains, “The practice of looking at the inner-self and respecting and loving yourself as you are is crucial. Many students push themselves to succeed in their twenties. However, the twenties to early thirties is not a time to succeed. If we compare it to seasons, the twenties can be spring to summer. The harvest time is in the fall, but students keep blaming themselves for not succeeding and not reaping crops yet. Their twenties is just a phase during which they have to endure failures for the ‘harvest’ in the fall. In other words, they do not have to blame themselves or be discouraged about their current situations, but should wait for their future. They have to keep in mind that this is just a natural phase,” he added.
Author of the best-selling book Appearance is Self-Esteem, Kim Joomi also pointed out, “the desire not to fail” as the key factor why students are struggling with self-esteem. However, students do not have to be held back by their failures. “Failures are natural. Rather than focusing on the failures, students need to accept and learn from them. Accepting your failures is the best way to get to know yourself.” “Students need to shed their fear of failure, and learn from a variety of experiences,” she said. “There certainly is a way out when you feel like you have nowhere to go or there is nothing else to do. Stop blaming yourself or letting yourself get bogged down by depression. Instead, try to find solutions and take a positive view of your new environment,” she added. As a person who also once had low selfesteem, she emphasized the importance of loving yourself and not comparing yourself with others.
Students should follow the advice of the experts by not comparing themselves to others and loving themselves for who they are. They should also not blame or put themselves down after failing, because failure is natural.
Find and Love Yourself
Almost all university students, or the youth in general, struggle with low selfesteem. In today’s society, they have to unwillingly compete with others on many fronts. However, it is very important to preserve their self-esteem and avoid depression by not comparing themselves with others and finding value within that comparison. As author Yoon has mentioned, strong self-esteem is the most powerful tool for surviving in this tough world. To cultivate strong selfesteem, students must know who they are, love themselves, and stop comparing themselves with others.