Monday, July 17, 2017

The Trouble with Authentic Self-Esteem

Back in the day we wanted to be like everyone else. We wanted to follow the rules, just like everyone else. We wanted to conform to local customs and mores, just like everyone else.

We did not feel compelled to assert our individual authenticity but preferred to act like members in good standing of our communities. We even kept our private lives, our private thoughts, feelings and parts… to ourselves.

We acted as though we respected ourselves and sought to develop our capacity for modesty and humility. But then, under the aegis of the therapy culture, we traded it all in for high self-esteem. We got drunk on unearned praise, to the point where it seemed more important to puff up our flagging self-esteem than to work at becoming better citizens.

Nowadays we no longer care how we look to other people. To be more precise, we believe that we should control what other people think about us. If they do not see us as we want to be seen we denounce them as judgmental and cast them out of polite society.

No longer caring how we look, we believe that our true being is how we feel about ourselves. We may act like moral lepers on the outside, but we contain an inner beauty that other people must recognize and adore.

But, if our truth lies in what we are inside and if we want other people to know us truly, we need to publicize what we have inside. One might say that social media has enabled this tendency, and clearly it has. But, the root cause—I know that you care about root causes—lies in a therapy culture that told people that their lives could not be complete and fulfilled unless they cast a longing gaze into the depths of their souls, the better to understand who they really, really were. In other terms, introspection is the enemy of good behavior. When you look into your soul you blind yourself to how others see you. And you do so willfully.

We demand to be loved for who we are, not for what we do, not for what we did not do. We have made ourselves into self-contained autonomous human monads and expect that others will love us on our own terms. Social codes and moral judgments must be thrown out with the trash. They prevent us from being our authentic selves and from being loved as such.

Theodore Dalrymple analyzes the problem in a recent essay. He sees it as a glorification of celebrity, of people who make a living by publicizing their private lives, by occupying tabloid space. It beats work.

He writes:

I suppose that the mania for giving publicity to one’s own life arises from the feeling that what is only private cannot be of any importance, a feeling that is promoted by the publicity given to the supposedly intimate details of the lives of celebrities.

Dalrymple notes correctly that this effort to publicize the private produces a series of contradictions. Therapy-induced solipsism, the only possible consequence of introspective soul-searching, provides a singular advantage. It does not just relieve us of the obligation to conform to social norms. It makes us the unquestioned authority over our own mental domain.

You are the world’s leading authority on how you feel. No one can question your authority on what you think and believe. We have gotten to the point that if you are a male and believe you are a female, your belief trumps reality. Not only that, but everyone is obliged to speak of you as though you are female, treat you as a female, to the point where female soldiers must welcome you into their shower rooms and not notice your dangling genitalia. That comes to us, as you know, from the ever-so-enlightened American military.

You are the ultimate authority on how you feel. You can always pull rank about your feelings, and blurt out, in the midst of an argument: But, that’s how I feel. If you do so a pall of silence will quickly descend on the proceedings. After all, no one with good manners is going to say that that is not how you feel. And yet, the fact that you feel what you feel means precisely nothing. It is not, as the lawyers say, dispositive.

And yet, if you are what you have inside, if the real You exists in the depths of your soul (or maybe your gut), in a place, as Hamlet said, “from whose bourn no traveler returns” you are going to feel alone. You will feel chronically consigned to loneliness. It’s bad enough to discover your splendid inner beauty, but what if no one else cares?

Dalrymple suggests that you are going to start feeling unreal, as though you do not really exist. It is not an outrageous observation. If you are what you have inside, as a social being you do not exist. As moral beings, beings whose actions and behaviors and conduct are subjected to the judgment of others, we do not exist. The therapy culture thinks that this is a wonderful thing, because after all, its goal is to produce rampant amorality.

In Dalrymple’s words:

It is as if our lives are real only insofar as other people know about them, as many as possible.

Dalrymple works to unpack the contradictions, or, should we say, the cognitive dissonance behind the project.

People who concocted the theories did not much care about said contradictions, but we can rise above the mewling masses and ask about them.

However much we want people to know the beauty we have within, we do not want them to know everything that we have within. You might say that this is a residual vestige of a moral sense, a willingness to cover up certain embarrassing facts that we are harboring in our souls. The real reason, I suspect, is that we want the world to see us as aesthetically pleasing, as a fine work of art. We are willing to expose appalling thoughts and feelings, if they contribute to the aesthetic integrity of the image we are portraying.

Dalrymple says:

But, of course, in reality we don’t want everything to be known about us: We want only those things about us to be known that we want to be known about us.

When you treat your skin as so much canvas, painting images on it that will show the world what you really have inside, you ought to accept that many people will find such images off-putting. But, in our new world, they are not allowed to judge, except in the sense, as I see it, that they are standing in rapt attention before a work of art. Being spectators in a museum, enthralled by a living work of art, they should stop in the tracks and gawk at it in rapt contemplation. Funnily enough, they want to capture our attention and even our affection.

In Dalrymple’s words:

A person who treats his face and body like an ironmongery store can hardly desire or expect that you fail to notice it, but at the same time demands that you make no comment about it, draw no conclusions from it, express no aversion toward it, and treat him no differently because of it. You must accept him as he is, however he is, because he has an inalienable right to such acceptance.


ted said...

We live in a time of self expression over self mastery. And of course, we can't dare to make judgments. Because there is no Absolute to measure man/woman against. That's the core cultural issue in a nutshell.

Sam L. said...

I am aware that very few care to know much about me, and that's the way I like it.
I am Sam, the international man of mystery. (Say who?)

Ares Olympus said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
James said...

"His followers called him Mahasamatman and said he was a god. He preferred to drop the Maha- and the -atman, however, and called himself Sam. He never claimed to be a god, but then he never claimed not to be a god."
I know who you are.

James said...

Just messing with you Sam. It's from "Lord of Light" by Zelazny and it was a compliment Mahasamatman.

Anonymous said...

Ares needs the hook again.

Sam L. said...

James, I haven't read much Zelazney; indeed, quite likely very little, as I know the name, but can't recall ever reading one of his novels.

James said...

Well you remind me of him at least a little (he liked to shoot dice with demons).

Ares Olympus said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Ares Olympus said...

Stuart: Nowadays we no longer care how we look to other people. To be more precise, we believe that we should control what other people think about us. If they do not see us as we want to be seen we denounce them as judgmental and cast them out of polite society.

This sounds more like low self-esteem, or maybe a defense mechanism against feeling shame.

Stuart: We demand to be love for who we are, not for what we do, not for what we did not do.

Jonathan Haidt's discussed this as a shift from an honor culture to a dignity culture.

If Therapy culture is a part of the problem, we should look at this more deeply and see it is not a single thing, but something with positives that may have been co-opted by other forces, like Adam Curtis shows in his 2002 "The Century of Self"

Overall I find this post to be overstating a case, but maybe a necessary overstating since the self-expression side has been overstated. For me the answer doesn't lie in taking absolute sides on the value of "authentic Self-Esteem", putting all virtue on one side and all vice on the other, but trying to see how things fit together.