The self-esteem movement must count as a pillar of the American therapy culture.
Allow one of its important theorists, Carl Rogers to define the term:
Every human being, with no exception, for the mere fact to be it, is worthy of unconditional respect of everybody else; he deserves to esteem himself and to be esteemed.
This sounds like a definitive assertion of human self-worth. Perhaps it is symptomatic of the movement itself, but this sentence is also a poorly written syntactical jumble.
Be that as it may, Rogers is not just saying that you need to feel good about yourself, no matter what. He is also dictating how other people must treat you. If you believe that you are great and special, regardless of what you have or have not done, everyone else is enjoined to feed your illusions.
By all appearances, the theory leaves no place for competition. It certainly rejects status hierarchies. If everyone, by the mere fact of being, is just as good as everyone else, why bother to compete for status or success.
If you respect the thief or the beggar as much as you respect the physician or the musician, what does that say about your capacity to form judgments?
If you respect the man who is rude to you as much as you respect the man who is polite to you, how good are you going to feel about yourself?
If you respect the scoundrel as much as you respect the person who is responsible, reliable, loyal and trustworthy, how will you make your way through life?
Has the self-esteem movement abolished your right to choose your friends by the “content of their character?”
Self-esteemists will reply that Nathaniel Branden and Abraham Maslow, two major gurus of the movement, believe that your goal in life should be total self-actualization.
But, must we then offer more esteem to those who are perfectly self-actualized? If we do, does that contradict the non-judgmental predicate in Rogers’ thought?
With all the emphasis on being, what about doing? You are an ethical individual because of what you do, not because you have actualized your being. You function in society because you follow rules and get along with other people, not because you have actualized your full potential.
When all is said and done, self-esteemism is making a virtue of anomie.
Strangely enough, that most competitive of organizations, the United States Army has been using, as a slogan: “Be all that you can be.” Apparently, the Army knows its constituency. Surely, it’s strange to imagine that the purpose of military service is self-actualization.
Imagine a military officer saying to his troops: Win or lose, no matter what, we want you to be all that you can be.
Recently, Will Storr offered a valuable overview of the self-esteem movement in an essay on its primary detractor, Prof. Roy Baumeister.
Storr recalled that when self-esteem was all the rage, its proponents claimed that a mere boost of self-esteem could solve all of the nation’s problems. It sounds a bit like hubris, don’t you think?
In Storr’s words:
The idea of self-esteem as a social panacea was too good to question. It spread through the country and much of the Western world. Heads big and small were systematically stuffed full of their own wondrousness. As the 1980s became the 1990s, schools and kindergartens began boosting self-esteem in classes, encouraging children to write letters to themselves, telling themselves how special they are. Five-year-olds in a Texas nursery were made to wear T-shirts that said ‘I’m loveable and capable’ and to recite the mantra daily. High school awards were dropped by the thousands, and grades were inflated to protect the esteem of low achievers. (One teacher argued, “I don’t think it’s grade inflation. It’s grade encouragement.”)
Baumeister decided to evaluate the claims of the self-esteem movement. As I have reported in other posts, he created a study that would show whether students with high self-esteem outperformed those with low self-esteem. It seems like a fair enough question.
Storr reported on the shocking results:
So, the logic went, if you boosted self-esteem you’d also boost grades. But the authors had made one of the most elementary mistakes in science. “When they tracked people over time,” says Baumeister, “the grades came first, and then the self-esteem. High self-esteem was a result of good grades, not a cause.”
Baumeister realized that efforts to boost self-esteem hadn’t improved school performance. Nor did self-esteem help in the successful performance of various tasks. It didn’t make people more likeable in the long term, or increase the quality or duration of their relationships. It didn’t prevent children smoking, taking drugs, or engaging in “early sex.” His report made the claims of the self-esteem movement look like those of a street-corner wizard.
Some self-esteem gurus did pay lip service to competition. When their theories were put into practice, a different truth emerged. Policies promoted by the movement made children less competitive, thus, less likely to fulfill their human potential.
Since the movement tends to believe in the intrinsic value of offering up empty praise, it can be also judged by what happens to the human brain when it is fed quantities of empty praise.
Baumeister and his colleagues discovered that overloading a child with empty praise produces an state that resembles the effect produced by certain drugs, like cocaine.
In A 2000 paper in the journal Advances in Experimental Psychology, Baumeister and colleagues proposed a new way of thinking about the problem. In their “sociometer” theory, self-esteem is a system for monitoring how well we’re doing in our quest for social acceptance. Assaults on our self-esteem trigger a form of pain signal that alerts us to the fact that damage is occurring to the opinions that others hold of us. “Self-esteem,” they wrote, “is one’s subjective appraisal of how one is faring with regard to being a valuable, viable and sought-after member of the groups and relationships to which one belongs and aspires to belong.”
The paper also contained a warning. It compared the pleasure of hollow self-esteem boosting to cocaine abuse.
“Drugs take advantage of natural pleasure mechanisms in the human body that exist to register the accomplishment of desirable goals,” they wrote. “A drug such as cocaine may create a euphoric feeling without one’s having to actually experience events that normally bring pleasure, fooling the nervous system into responding as if circumstances were good. In the same way, cognitively inflating one’s self-image is a way of fooling the natural sociometer mechanism into thinking one is a valued relational partner.”
If this is true, children are being primed to believe that drugs are the solution to all problems. And they are trained to become addicted, if not to drugs, then to something else.
In Storr’s words:
Narcissism, then, is a kind of addiction to self-esteem. So what would happen if you took an entire generation of young people and systematically and repeatedly masturbated their self-esteem mechanisms? Could it be true that the children raised in the school of Rogers, Branden, and Vasconcellos were growing up to be entitled, egomaniacal narcissists?