therapeutic emotivism

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.”