This morning I came across an entry on a blog I follow that addressed the potential harm in the pursuit of self-esteem.
I’m glad I came across this because I thought about this very topic last night as I was working on mapping my values and virtues. In fact I opted not to list self-esteem as either a mental or an emotional virtue because I think the concept of self-esteem is garbage.
Let’s look into this further.
Famed psychologist Albert Ellis – like him or not – was a vocal opponent of self-esteem. I haven’t read (nor do I feel compelled to read) his book ‘The Myth of Self-Esteem‘ -one of about 80 books he published during his lifetime – but Ellis posited that the pursuit of self-esteem was self-defeating because it reduces our worth to the sum of our accomplishments.
Another book, House of Cards, written by Robin Dawes reflects a view of self-esteem similar to Ellis’.
Belief: Self-esteem is the key ingredient in well-being and achievement; low self-esteem is the main cause of drug abuse, violence and teen-age pregnancy.
Fact: Literally thousands of studies have failed to support this belief, which guided the California Task Force on Self-Esteem. As Dawes observes, the task force performed an unintended public service; it demonstrated that “the Holy Grail of pop psychology”–the belief that high self-esteem is the ticket to happiness and low self-esteem is the cause of social problems–“is nothing more then a mirage.” What research does show is that children need a sense of competence and mastery at learning new skills. Self-esteem will follow.
My personal views support this. I feel self-esteem is a concept rooted in classic American egoism that has passed its pop psychology expiration date. If there is such a thing as self-esteem, then it is the product of self-sufficiency and competence, rather than the cause of. Further, I view the concept of self-esteem in a similar light to Ellis in that I feel it is too externally rooted in achievement and accomplishment, and therefore does not provide an individual with an accurate self-assessment of his or her actual potential to achieve what he or she wishes to accomplish.
As a result, an individual’s tendency to focus on self-esteem and ‘feeling good about oneself’ causes them to base their confidence in performing specific tasks on their overall perceived worth, rather than their self-efficacy in a given area.
So if not self-esteem, what then?
As previously noted – I excluded self-esteem from my own list of mental and emotional values and virtues; however, I did include self-compassion, self-confidence, rationality, as well as optimism and a positive mindset. (This was among many others listed according to my ideal of my actualized physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, professional, social, and intellectual self).
In focusing on the above concepts, I can apply this combination of self-compassion, self-confidence, rationality, and an optimistic and positive mindset, to examine a given area of my life in a manner that enables me to provide myself with a supportive and encouraging inner-voice. Without this, I would be limited to the biased and narrow-minded viewpoint that the cult of self-esteem has doomed so many of us to.
It’s troubling to me that the cult of self-esteem places self-image and self-worth on a pedestal – for the problem is not in building lasting overconfidence, but that this inflated sense of worth (a bubble if you will) inevitably bursts once an adult faces a world devoid of the teachers, parents, and suitors who for so long held their ego up in an unsustainable light.
This video illustrates this concept perfectly:
Maybe we all need a little tough love mixed with unconditional self-acceptance in order to shake off some of the vain baggage and insecurity that self-esteem has wrought so many of us with.
Fuck self-esteem. Ah, doesn’t that feel good to say. Seriously, the more you demistify the constructs of society that are designed to provide you with unsustainable and worthless pleasures, the more you can free yourself to pursue the kind of lasting fulfillment and self-worth that no one can ever deny you – least of all yourself.
I’m reminded of a zen proverb (ahem, sorry – ‘Ancient Toltec Wisdom’) from the book The Four Agreements, in which author Don Miguel Ruiz states that we should take nothing personally, in other words – someone should be able to tell us we are the best person in the world, or the worst, and either should mean nothing to us.
I’m not telling you to abandon the positive feeling of approval, but the conversation you have with yourself, is far more important than the conversation you have with others.
And as I read this morning in The Pythagorean Sentences of Demophilus, written over 2,400 years ago:
“Consider both the praise and reproach of every foolish person as ridiculous”
In short, do not derive your own worth from the appraisal of others.
Now, I task you with reading the Wikipedia entry on self-esteem and thinking for yourself as you read it – maintaining objectivity as you review the widely held notions on self-esteem, and the overwhelming societal and intellectual value of self-esteem as a whole.
It would seem to me that any rational human being with a healthy self-confidence should realize what an absurdly maladaptive practice it is to subscribe to the idea that positive self-esteem is something we should aspire to be able to posses.
It is your right – it is your duty – to feel good about who you are, to love yourself with compassion, to be rational, and to be optimistic and positive about your present and future potential.
I will leave you with the image of a raccoon. Do you think the raccoon denies himself the fulfillment of his nature, his raccoonness? Do you think the raccoon is thinking he is not worthy of being good at being a raccoon and having what he deserves and wants? Do you think the raccoon lets anyone else deny him of that? Hell no. So why the hell would you as a human do any of this? Oh that’s right, because you’re human and other humans told you that your value was dependent upon certain conditions, and that if you didn’t meet those conditions, then you weren’t good. Right now I want you to claim your value back; reclaim your innate worth that existing as a unique living being entitles you too. Don’t subscribe to the idea that someone else’s opinion of you has to become your reality. Because ultimately that’s what subscribing to the cult of self-esteem is signing you up for. If your reality doesn’t dictate the world, the world will dictate your reality – stop giving self-esteem that power over you. Internalize the rational animal confidence into your psyche, and stop following the cult of self-esteem that so many humans buy into.
Am I anti self-esteem? You betch’ur raccoon ass I am. I am rational, self-loving, confident, healthy, optimistic, and positive minded – and I would never let someone or something else decide what I am worthy of feeling, accomplishing, or possessing. That would be [thinking I need self-esteem to be worthy would be] madness for a raccoon king like me.