You’re bad and you should feel bad: Against the self-esteem movement

Americans have been complaining about the narcissistic culture among our nation’s youth for decades. We’ve been inundated with opinion pieces griping about how by coddling our precious cherubs from the moment they exit the womb to the day they graduate college, parents are raising the next generation to be overconfident, hypersensitive, and self-absorbed. Moored in a crisis of expectations, Millennials today are paralyzed in a state of indignant indecision, or worse, hedonistic indifference once they enter the real world, directionless and crippled by hubris and student debt.

Depending on your political ideology, you might dismiss such critiques as misguided liberal hysteria over the “dangers” of selfishness or conservative nostalgia for an imaginary era of boundless freedom in which everyone responded to challenges by pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. Or, maybe you just think it’s a basic human tendency for people to believe that the next generation is doomed to rot in its own degeneracy.

While it’s true that many social commentaries on narcissism are superficial and overwrought, there are reasons to be legitimately concerned about the weight our present society places on the importance of self-esteem. Systematically stuffing heads both big and small full of their own wondrousness, to borrow Will Stor’s phrasing from this excellent Medium piece, has led to troubling implications for our individual well-being and our relationship to the state.

As the analogy goes, fish often don’t perceive the water they are swimming in. Today, the belief that high self-esteem is an unparalleled good is so ingrained in the bedrock of American culture that few people realize that for most of human history, self-regard was not considered an integral factor in motivating people to work hard and succeed. Instead, with religion serving as society’s primary source of authority, the emphasis was on personal restraint and self-sacrifice. In their book Willpower, Roy Baumeister and John Tierney illustrate how religion offered us a predictable system of rules and responsibilities as well as a community to monitor and enforce self-discipline.

By the middle of the twentieth century, this system fell out of vogue as modernization stripped traditional sources of morality of their power. In need of a new prism from which to make sense of the world, we adopted a new moral framework, what James L. Nolan calls “therapeutic emotivism” in which the self became the touchstone of cultural judgment. As Charles Rogers described, “No longer is society something the self must adjust to; it is now something the self must be liberated from…Where once the self was to be surrendered, denied, sacrificed, and died to, now the self is to be esteemed, actualized, affirmed, and unfettered.” (Nolan 19)

With the rise of the humanistic approach to psychology in the 1970s, psychiatrists and psychologists replaced priests and pastors by the dozens and the human potential movement was born. Nathaniel Branden, a Canadian psychotherapist and Ayn Rand’s closest associate for many years, ushered in the mainstream self-esteem movement in 1969 with his international bestseller, The Psychology of Self-Esteem. In it, he wrote that self-regard “has profound effects on a man’s thinking processes, emotions, desires, values and goals. It is the single most significant key to his behavior.”

Seventeen years later, the state of California spent $735,000 to establish a task force to analyze self-esteem and how it relates to social problems. The report concluded, “Self-esteem is the likeliest candidate for a social vaccine…Lack of self-esteem is central to most personal and social ills plaguing our state and nation as we approach the end of the 20th century.” Since the report’s release, government bodies and “scientific experts” have claimed that self-esteem is relevant to a laundry list of social ills including: violent crime, drug and domestic abuse, teenage pregnancy, poverty, pollution, underachievement in schools, homelessness, AIDS, hunger, physical disabilities and racism. (Nolan 188)

By 1981, over 120 federal regulations relating to self-esteem had been introduced and by 1994, over 170 statutes on self-esteem had been enacted in over 30 states in the realms of education, health care, welfare, and criminal justice. (Nolan 173) In 1994, more than 720 books published had the word “self” in the title compared to just 35 in 1950. Between 1968 and 1983, the number of clinical psychologists in the United States more than tripled and the number of clinical social workers grew from 25,000 in 1970 to 80,000 twenty years later. (Nolan 20-24) This newfound infatuation with self-esteem was perhaps most observable in our sacred institutions of learning, where, to quote Anneli Rufus:

school curricula and parenting techniques were radically transformed, their main objective now being to cultivate high self-esteem among the young, which activists proclaimed would cure those social woes and make America a safer, happier, and better place. A multibillion-dollar industry surged around self-esteem. Kids were taught to make ‘me’ flags of their putative ‘me’ nations, to view history and fiction through the filter of their feelings, and to start schooldays with affirmations such as I always make good choices and Everyone is happy to see me.

If self-esteem was ever too low in this country, that’s certainly not the case anymore. According to Jean Twenge in her 2006 book Generation Me, by the mid-1990s, the average college male and female had higher self-esteem than 86 and 71 percent of their counterparts in 1968, respectively. The average child in the mid-1990s had higher self-esteem than 73 percent of children in 1979. By 1980, 80 percent of 14- to 16-year-olds agreed with the statement “I am an important person,” up from a mere 10 percent in the 1950s. Today, American children’s self-confidence ranks much higher than their counterparts in other developed countries even though their academic achievements rank near the bottom. (Nolan 184-185) 40% of Millennials believe they deserve a promotion every two years, regardless of whether they deliver results.

Have higher levels of self-esteem translated into meaningful results? The answer seems to be a resounding no. Soaring self-esteem has not vanquished abuse, poverty, underachievement, or any other social ill as proponents claimed it would. Psychologist Roy Baumeister’s research has concluded that “neither objective tests nor impartial raters can detect any difference in the quality of work” based on self-esteem. In 1999, he conducted a comprehensive review of all of the literature on self-esteem for the modern-day Association for Psychological Science. As Storr remarked, “His report made the claims of the self-esteem movement look like those of a street-corner wizard.”

Baumeister found that efforts to boost self-esteem didn’t lead to academic success, stronger or longer relationships, or more responsible and healthy behavior. The only benefits that he identified are that possessing high levels of self-esteem a) feels good and b) supports initiative. Given that Baumeister also found that people with high self-regard are more likely to underestimate the potentially negative consequences of risky behaviors, to rationalize decisions, and to ignore sensible advice, it’s not obviously beneficial that people with high self-esteem also tend to be go-getters. As Erica Goode wrote, “When it comes to whether people use that initiative for good or for ill, or whether they succeed or fail in many different areas of life, research indicates that psychological factors other than self-esteem are far more important.”

In many ways then, the self-esteem movement provides us with another textbook example of unintended consequences. As well-meaning as measures to increase children’s self-confidence may be, the data suggests that the self esteem movement artificially inflated people’s sense of self-worth at best and incentivized poor decision-making at worst.

Even more troubling, Nolan argued that our societal fixation with self-esteem has allowed concerns over happiness and health to eclipse questions of good or bad and right and wrong. He describes the therapeutic ethos as a kind of postmodern and post-Nietzschean nihilism:

It is not the depressive nihilism that groans about the oppressive, binding influence of older moral orders; nor is it the morosely combative nihilism that says, “We believe in nothing. Rather, it is the more sanguine nihilism that says, ‘We believe in anything.’” It is nihilism with a happy face on it. (300-301)

This new form of nihilism made it possible for the state to quietly insert itself into numerous areas of private life where it has no place being. Once the the triple threat of classical republicanism, Lockean liberalism, and Protestant Christianity lost traction in society, state and “scientific” authorities began to assert their influence over the moral fabric by repressing beliefs, behaviors, and mental states that they deemed unacceptable in a more underhanded way than ever before.

Thomas Szasz described the cohesive power of the “therapeutic state” when he wrote, “The president invokes the same symbols and uses the same type of language that our children experience in the schools, that we see on television talk shows, that we read in our self-help manuals, and that we hear in our consultations with counselors and even clergy.”

The therapeutic state shrouds its authoritarianism in a gauzy layer of touchy-feely support. As Nolan wrote, “Where the nanny state told people what to do, the counselor state tells people what to think and feel.” Terrifyingly, the guiding morality of 60 percent of Millennials in any situation is that they’ll “just be able to feel what’s right,” according to the National Study of Youth and Religion. Apparently adults these days aren’t teaching kids that if they don’t stand for something, they’ll fall for anything. It’s no wonder then that the self-esteem movement has garnered bipartisan support from Republicans like Colin Powell, Barbara Bush, and Jack Kemp in addition to countless prominent Democrats. Joe Klein wrote in the New Republic, that “[Clinton’s] appeal wasn’t charisma, it was therapy. He promised a twelve-step presidency.”

By embracing this unifying framework, we surrendered decision-making to the state to determine whether “one must take a certain therapeutic drug to attend public school, attend a sensitivity training seminar to stay in school or to keep a certain job, adopt a particular understanding of oneself and one’s relationships to get out of prison, pay higher health insurance premiums to cover state-required mental health costs, and the like.” (Nolan 323)

Nothing about the above quote sounds liberating. If we want to actually get serious about “reaching our potential” and maximizing well-being, we would do well to heed Baumeister’s advice and forget about self-esteem. As the Japanese have discovered, unfocused introspection actually tends to make people more miserable. Instead, they practice a form of therapy called Morita, in which the goal is not to alleviate discomfort or to attain a transcendent emotional state, but to act constructively and deliberately to avoid being ruled by inevitable emotional ups and downs. Practicing discipline teaches us far more about ourselves than any self-esteem boosting exercise; the original meaning of the word “disciple,” after all, is to comprehend.

Ultimately, self-acceptance and fulfillment come from making thousands of small, unsexy short-term sacrifices for the sake of long-term achievements down the road, not from masturbating our self-esteem mechanisms. Notably, Nathaniel Branden himself understood that self-esteem cannot be bestowed as a gift.

As Storr noted, “The movement’s sin was making it sound easy. It removed the part about striving, replacing it with an unearned assumption of exceptionalism.” Nolan wrote that “We have developed a discourse of affirmation, and to deviate from that would be to enter another arena, linguistically and grammatically, so that what came out of our mouths would be impolite at best, unintelligible at worst.” Indeed, a watered-down version of positive self-regard caught on for obvious reasons. No one wants to go to therapy to be taken down a notch or to be uncomfortably challenged. No one wants teachers telling their kid that they aren’t a special snowflake.

However, those moments of discomfort are where authentic living happens and where true growth occurs. As Lauren Slater wrote in The Trouble with Self-Esteem:

Our criteria for evaluating the self should be based on how well it does in work and in love, not based upon how good it feels. We blame Freud for a lot of things, but we can’t blame that cigar-smoking Victorian for this particular cultural obsession. It was Freud, after all, who said that the job of psychotherapy was to turn neurotic suffering into ordinary suffering. Freud never claimed we should be happy, and he never claimed confidence was the key to a life well lived.

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4 comments

  1. A brilliant article that summarizes succinctly the ills that continue to plague our society. The quote “It is not the depressive nihilism that groans about the oppressive, binding influence of older moral orders; nor is it the morosely combative nihilism that says, “We believe in nothing. Rather, it is the more sanguine nihilism that says, ‘We believe in anything.’” It is nihilism with a happy face on it. (300-301)” is the best thing I have read in a very long time. You have an excellent website here.

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    1. First of all, Baumeister equates self-esteem with self-regard – which in Branden’s view, it certainly is NOT. When you start with a bad definition of what you intend to study, you really are not going to get valuable information about the idea you are supposedly examining – for the simple reason that you aren’t investigating the proper concept.

      Self-regard is “a consideration of oneself or one’s interests”, but that is not Branden’s view of self esteem at all. Nor does his view equate to the positive opinions others have of us. Nor is it enhanced by others telling us how wonderful we are.

      Self esteem does not equate to thinking about oneself and/or what might or might not be in one’s interests, self-esteem is not a focussed regard of oneself, or even an unfocussed one. Self-esteem is a sub-conscious evaluation experienced as a generalized feeling about one’s relationship to the world: it is a generalized feeling about one’s capability of survival and achieving happiness, i.e. one’s ability to flourish, and it is also a feeling of whether one is worthy of survival and flourishing.

      How it effects us is through a realistic sense of one’s own ability to succeed, and worthiness of success. It affects what challenges a person will undertake, and it affects the moral choices he makes in achieving those goals. Earned self-esteem in the sense of efficacy creates a sense of being ready, able and willing to engage in greater challenges, and slef-esteem in the sense of worthiness keeps us from engaging in risky behavior that can sabotage one’s success.

      At least, that is my understanding of Branden’s claim. Whether that claim is true or not can only be determined empirically, if one tests for the claim based on the nature of what self-esteem is, as claimed – not on measuring the value of some straw man, and then dismissing the value of something that was never tested.

      Such a procedure would be hardly scientific.

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