THE SELF-ESTEEM MOVEMENT IS A BIG PART OF THE PROBLEM
The self-esteem movement is a big part of the problem today.
It seemed to start with good intentions. (They always do.)
After all, almost nobody likes being criticized or insulted. Hardly anyone enjoys finding out they don’t “measure up” in any way. Anyone who walks out on stage in front of the entire world and pours their heart out usually wants that crowd to applaud instead of boo, praise instead of ridicule, throw roses instead of tomatoes.
Sometimes assuming the best in others helps bring out their best.
Fair enough. This much is clear.
The idea of self-esteem, in itself, isn’t a bad thing.
But anything “good” can become “bad” when it goes too far.
The problem happens when self-esteem becomes one’s entire model of human nature.
Self-esteem can be an "everything problem."
Our current situation with self-esteem is really a symptom of something bigger.
The trick, it seems, is seeing things with the right perspective.
Take beer, for example.
Beer is often a “very good” thing.
But what happens when beer becomes the most important thing in a person’s life?
What happens when it becomes the sole focus of someone’s life, and all they ever drink? What happens when it becomes all someone wants to do, all day, every day?
Then it becomes a “bad” thing.
We can take a healthy, wholesome thing, and "lose perspective" on it or blow it all out of proportion, and then it becomes toxic.
Maybe it’s the same with self-esteem.
In moderate doses, in a specific context, paying some attention to self-esteem can work just fine.
Genuine confidence is good and healthy.
But if it becomes all-consuming, it can take a turn and become dysfunctional.
“Self-esteem” seems to have taken that turn into “toxic” territory in some cases.
Self-esteem can mutate from healthy, wholesome support and affirmation into…something else.
It can become a mindless affirmation of everything a person does.
It can lay the groundwork for self-absorption and narcissism.
It can lead to a hypersensitivity to any form of criticism as an attack – and not just an attack on one particular topic or aspect of a person, but on one’s very being.
For example, we could look at George Costanza.
George might say, “What do you think about my toupee?”
Jerry might say, “You look ridiculous.”
Elaine might scream, “I don’t like this thing!”
George might not relish getting this kind of feedback.
But later, he might reevaluate things, and eventually say to both of them, “Thanks! I really did look ridiculous.”
If they had all drunk the Kool-Aid of the self-esteem movement, things might have gone very differently.
Jerry might have still thought that George looked ridiculous.
Elaine might still have not liked that thing.
George might have even looked – objectively and genuinely – ridiculous.
But what if they’d been true believers in the church of self-esteem?
Then Jerry would have swallowed his feelings, left his real thoughts unsaid, and instead grumbled something along the lines of, “Why, George! You look quite dapper.”
Elaine would have said, “I…(gulp)…like this thing.”
George might have concluded: “Why, I look very handsome!”
The entire experience would be painful and boring.
George might have lived the rest of his life looking ridiculous to everyone around him, and never knowing it.
Jerry and Elaine would have had to stuff their actual feelings down every time they saw George.
The three of them would get in the habit, really, of lying to each other.
They’d each be lying with good intentions, out of “kindness,” and for what they thought were good reasons. They would have been polite, and they would have been protecting each others’ feelings. But still, from that point forward, all of them would have to spend every day pretending George’s fake hair looked magnificent. “Yes, George. You’re practically Fabio.”
Real friends are “mean” to each other in a friendly and even supportive way. They’re honest. It’s an essential ingredient of intimacy. It’s what friends do. Real friendship isn’t merely mutual coddling – there’s give and take in it. Real friends are “offriendsive” to each other. They “offend” each other within a greater context of compassion and even love.
The alternative to this (pure hostility aside) is a more cold, impersonal, mechanical politeness. It’s what strangers do. (Or, it’s what strangers used to do, or would do in a functioning society. Today, we seem to be losing even this.)
Eventually, George, Jerry, and Elaine would have started treating each other the way they treat everyone else.
And they can hardly stand “everyone else.”
To Jerry, Elaine, and George, almost all other people seem annoying and insufferable. The inability to notice absurdity or point it out creates a stuffy, stifling environment where no one is allowed to be honest with each other. As relationships disintegrate, genuine intimacy and friendship become impossible, and the only acceptable behavior involves pretending to endorse peoples’ delusionally high opinion of themselves.
Eventually, in this situation, Jerry, George, and Elaine would hardly be able to stand being around each other as well.
The self-esteem movement, fully adopted, would have eventually robbed them of their closest friends.
The point is this: not all “criticism” is lethal.
I am not my toupee.
If someone doesn’t like my shirt, it’s OK. I am not my shirt.
If someone criticizes my performance in a sport, that’s OK. I am not defined entirely by my performance in a sport.
If someone even disagrees with some of my beliefs about life, or even my core beliefs about life, that can be OK. Life is complex. There are nearly an infinite number of angles or ways to see it. And also, I am more than certain beliefs or ideas I have about life.
How do you measure a person, after all? What is the true value of a human being?
That’s a big question, and one worth exploring sometime. But we can say this: the ultimate worth of a person is not measured by a toupee. Or a shirt. Or the size of a wallet, or how many followers a person has.
So, what is it measured by?
This is where “self-esteem” connects with “self-knowledge.”
Some advice from thousands of years ago was to “Know Thyself.”
It wasn’t “Esteem Thyself.”
Mindless affirmation is a lopsided affair. Gratuitous praise often just cheapens the value of praise. It tries to assume that everything in a persons’ orbit is literally and absolutely perfect.
But some toupees genuinely look ridiculous.
Acknowledging that doesn’t mean rejecting the humanity of a toupee-wearer. To honestly admit that this toupee looks ridiculous doesn’t condemn a person to eternal hellfire.
Sometimes a comment about a toupee is just a comment about a toupee.
It doesn’t have to involve the actual worth of a human being.
If objective reality exists, and endearing imperfections exist as part of objective reality (if some toupees genuinely look ridiculous), then mindless affirmation can become a denial of objective reality.
This denial translates into everyone pretending to affirm each other while actually lying to each other, and even themselves.
It becomes a hostility to any form of criticism, however valid it might be (“I truly don’t like this thing!”) which can mean one person having to stuff their feelings in order to prevent another’s feelings from being hurt.
It becomes highly critical of the act of criticizing, highly judgmental about the act of judging, and an act of rejection of any other form of rejection. In an effort to eliminate judging itself – an impossible task – it merely drives it underground. Judgment doesn’t just “go away” like this. It can’t. Instead, it merely gets banished down to the basement where it morphs and later re-emerges in a more aggressive and destructive form.
What started out in an effort to be psychologically healthy ends up as psychologically toxic.
What starts out as an attempt to respect and even affirm everyone’s feelings ends up mandating everyone to stuff their feelings.
It creates conditions where individuals can’t have honest conversations about complex issues.
Fundamentalist believers in the “self-esteem” model of human nature define themselves as everything about themselves. I am my toupee. I am the number of followers I have. I am the size of my wallet.
An attack, or criticism of, or even a mild disagreement with anything in their orbit then becomes an attack on (criticism of) their very selves.
In this way, a mild disagreement can seem like an attack on one’s very being.
Self-esteem becomes more than an oversimplified and seriously flawed model of human nature. It becomes a “religion.” In other words, it becomes part of our most basic assumptions about The Big Questions of life, and our answers to those questions.
Our answers to The Big Questions of life affect everything.
That includes who we think we are.
So part of the real trouble, ultimately, is due to a case of mistaken identity.
On a deep enough level, it seems, we don’t know who we really are.
This starts the ball rolling. From that point, we define ourselves in all kinds of mistaken ways, and we take it all very seriously.
Instead, if we would loosen up a bit, we might see that we often aren’t who we think we are, and we often define ourselves in ways that can be a little silly – and funny – and we might all be better off if we’d look more closely at this entire issue of “identity.”
None of us are our toupees.
The answer in all this isn’t for everyone to try to continually flatter (or insult) each other.
Genuine, healthy confidence doesn't come as a result of being obsessed with self-esteem.
It's a paradox.
People with genuine, healthy confidence don't even seem to think about "self-esteem" much.
They’re often too busy just getting the job done. What “job”? Whatever their “job” in life is. Their meaning in life derives from things and people beyond themselves. This makes them, in a healthy way, humble and even selfless.
The answer to real self-respect doesn't lie in forcing everyone else to pretend to respect us.
It also isn’t for everyone to imprison or exterminate anyone who fails to flatter us enough.
It’s to know ourselves a little better.
“I don’t have to define myself entirely by my toupee.”
At the risk of sounding hokey, there's room in all this for “forgiveness.” This can work for both others and ourselves. Honestly and humbly admitting our human imperfections can relieve us from the effort of trying to be perfect through our own efforts. It also relieves us from trying to force everyone to see us the way we want to be seen.
We don’t necessarily have to be militant about demanding that everyone must pretend to adore our toupees. We can forgive other people if they “don’t like this thing” – and we can forgive ourselves for sometimes wearing toupees that look ridiculous.
We can even laugh about it.
After all, we all have our toupees that look ridiculous.
Instead of trying to force everyone in the world to respect our toupees, we can laugh.
This approach can help us relax a little.
If we genuinely know ourselves properly, we can interact with people who disagree with us without our very being feeling threatened.
From there, conversation can happen.
This opens the door to dialogue. Even dialogue that’s “offriendsive.”
We can then benefit from the perspectives of others.
We can all wind up better off.
And maybe, in the end, we’ll wind up looking more dashing after all.
Postscript: A Brief History of Self-Esteem
Question: How did the self-esteem movement take over the world?
Answer: One theory (in a condensed, caricatured form) goes something like this.
Once upon a time, we used very different models of human nature than we do today.
These models helped us understand each other, ourselves, and they helped us explain why we do what we do.
Those models of human nature were based on spiritual and philosophical traditions that were meant to draw from the wisest and best humanity had to offer. They didn’t always work perfectly, but they were at least serious, and had been thought through to some degree.
Along came The Enlightenment. “Science” becomes the new authority. This meant, in so many words, that we abandon “the old ways” and try some “new and improved” methods by finding things out for ourselves, hopefully in an organized and systematic way.
This approach had plenty of benefits, clearly. But it also ushered in forms of – for lack of a better word – “secularism.” Secularism can be understood as a life philosophy or worldview of "materialism." Some forms of secularism declared, more or less, that the Enlightenment-scientific-rational empiricism was the complete and only valid approach to understanding the universe, and the entirety of religion and spirituality was nothing but premodern, irrational superstition, and should therefore be abandoned in favor of science.
Naturally, this line of thought eventually crept its way over to the study of human nature, and eventually spawned the development of psychology. “Psychology” in this sense can be defined as “the scientific study of human nature.”
This led to the abandonment or near-collapse of any form of genuine spiritual/philosophical framework – aka “The Death of God” (which Nietzsche tried to warn us about.) This led to widespread soft nihilism (which Nietzsche also tried to warn us about.)
All of this left a gaping hole – a vacuum – in our understanding of human nature.
Our explanations behind “why we do what we do” became short, simple, and shallow. Our “map” of human nature became cartoonish. Our answers to The Big Questions of life or the existential riddles we all face devolved, disintegrated, and became increasingly simplistic and cartoonish. Philosophies were replaced by slogans.
We began studying humanity through a keyhole, and relying solely on what we could see through that keyhole. The “keyhole” view meant we were allowed to see only what a small cadre of scientific authorities had tested, approved of, and deemed worthy.
But this led to trouble. Why? In the grand scheme of things, science hadn’t rigorously tested and approved much. The universe is big, and human nature is complex. There were too many variables – too much of everything. After all, good science is often time-consuming, expensive, and extremely difficult.
There are limits to what science can accurately test, measure, replicate, and anoint “worthy.” Only those very few small and haphazard scraps of knowledge passed the test of being falsifiable, demonstrable, replicatable, able to survive rigorous empirical testing under strict, double-blind laboratory conditions, and so on. Only a few random and scattered fragments of isolated facts were declared worthy to live by.
The bar of science is high, and highly specific. If we restrict what we know of human nature only to what we can see under a microscope or in a test tube, then we will miss something important. If we try to measure a soul with a ruler, we won’t get an accurate view of a soul. If we try to weigh a mind on a scale, we might get a reading of “zero,” and announce that minds don’t exist.
But the problem isn’t that minds don’t exist. We were just trying to measure them in the wrong ways.
Still, we decided to restrict what we know of human nature to what we could measure, test, quantify, replicate, etc. This led to a few isolated fragments getting through the gate – but not many. We learned things about stimulus-response, and various brain functions, cognitive fallacies and so on.
But this is a meager diet that leaves us spiritually malnourished.
It became difficult to live on the small, random scraps of knowledge or haphazard facts that were dropped from the tables of university studies. The more rigorous or “scientific” the filter became, the more trivial the results were. Rats in mazes can be measured thoroughly and controlled fully, which would help us a great deal if humans were rats.
But nature abhors a vacuum. And we have no choice but to try to explain and understand ourselves and other human beings somehow.
This opened a huge, intense, ravenous need to find something to fill the gaping hole left by “The Death of God.”
Once “the sacred” gets unanchored and runs loose, it isn’t merely that “everything becomes sacred.”
It also doesn’t mean that “nothing is sacred.”
Rather, anything can be deemed sacred. Celebrities, musicians, politicians, drugs, trees, beer, toupees, ourselves – anything.
This might all seem just fine, except when certain things like feelings are deemed sacred. This opens the door for anyone who hurts feelings – mistakenly or otherwise – to be charged with heresy.
And “heretics” – even when they’re defined as someone who thinks a toupee looks ridiculous – are seen as dangerous and threatening.
In this setting, many children were raised not by any kind of genuine spiritual/religious/philosophical framework, or even by parents, wise teachers, or even friends, but by celebrities, corporate marketing departments, musicians, politicians, and popular culture at large. Parents – often too busy, distracted, or exhausted to do much else – sometimes left much of the heavy lifting in the difficult and exhausting job of raising children to media.
Media generally works by capturing, holding, and mechanically titillating one’s attention. (“Shiny object! Look here, right now! Squirrel!”) All of this became a highly evolved technology. The currency we all pay in is psychological economy is attention. And in what was surely a totally unrelated development, A.D.D. – which didn’t exist until recently – suddenly became fairly widespread.
All of this occurs within a vacuum where no cohesive, integrated framework that explains everything exists. We get small, random globs of random facts – disjointed and disconnected from everything around it, all floating in empty space, all in a vivid, strained absence of greater context.
The intense need to fill the vacuum soon found relief.
Lacking any sort of greater spiritual/religious/philosophical framework to explain human nature, many reached for a low-hanging fruit that would satisfy everyone. “Self-esteem” rose as an easy, universal, one-size-fits-all pseudoscientific model that tried to flatter everyone and offend no one. The basic idea is, “It’s all good!” It’s highly marketable and easily viral.
The basic idea of this approach was to claim that everyone’s ego is literally perfect exactly as it is, and that all human problems result from low self-esteem. The solution, therefore, lies simply in heading in the opposite direction.
The result translated into everyone praising each other all the time, or at least trying to. Affirmation became the only virtue, lack of affirmation the only vice. Anything less than gratuitous affirmation – from the mildest criticism and beyond – came to be seen as an unenlightened heresy of evil Neanderthals.
This flattened out moral thought. Instead of “Do this, don’t do that,” it all became “Do whatever you want!” – and even more: “Whatever you’re doing is great! And smart! And heroic! Hurrah!” The only rule became “Don’t judge” (which declares that the only thing we’re allowed to judge is judging itself.) It morphed into moral nihilism disguised as virtue.
The self-esteem movement was also flattering. “You’re great, after all, and everything you do is great, and nothing you ever do is not great. Really!”
People generally like being flattered. We also like being told what we want to hear. We also like being told that we’ve already arrived at the Ultimate Destination of Human Potential, and so, are essentially the center at the universe. The self-esteem movement unapologetically tries to convey all of this.
It’s no surprise that it spread like wildfire.
But it’s flawed. It’s lopsided or imbalanced, like Yin without Yang, left without right, up without down. Healthy affirmation without being balanced with healthy negation spins out and veers off to one side. It flattens out a person's story in life, because real human stories involve character growth – and if someone believes they’re already fully grown, then there’s nowhere left to grow. This is another way it becomes nihilistic.
Ironically enough, this also meant that anyone who didn’t drink the Kool-Aid of mindlessly praising everyone and everything at all times must be abolished.
Almost all friendly (“offriendsive”) conversation and even civil dialogue soon stopped. Small talk became the only acceptable form of polite conversation, which often made many social interactions boring and painful. Cloistered groupthink became the norm due to fear. Everyone became afraid of making a social faux pas. Any social faux pas was no longer just embarrassing, but became criminalized. Every “self” began viewing every other “self” as either a threat or accomplice to one’s fundamental life project – the ongoing and relentless esteeming of oneself. Everyone began to measure each other suspiciously based entirely on how affirming they were (or weren’t) to one’s idea of oneself. Even mild disagreement became an attack on one’s very brittle and hypersensitive self. And since we often respond to attacks on our “selves” with hostility, everyone started becoming increasingly hostile to each other.
So, what started out as a movement for unconditional affirmation of everyone turned into a formula for universal friction and hostility. Left unchecked, it eventually risks eventually turning into something close to genocide.
Of course, we might realize all this and find a better way.
There is a way out of all this. And it’s a much better road.
For example, we might start seeing flaws of the self-esteem movement for what they are – and keep the good parts while tossing the rest.
We might also take a fresh look at the best of what religion/spiritual/philosophical traditions have to offer, and potentially decide that tossing that entire structure overboard (by way of glibly assuming that they’re all irrational, premodern superstitions) is a catastrophic mistake.
We might come to understand that many religious and spiritual traditions contain implicit models of human nature that can actually be quite advanced, sophisticated, and well worth exploring, and develop from that essential framework.
The result, if all goes well, might become a more advanced model of human nature that brings out the best in human potential instead of the worst, and which – if we’re really lucky – might even lead to a kind of Spiritual Renaissance, or an age of greater and more intense happiness than we’ve known before.
Or not. We could also go the way of mindless affirmation of everything, which paradoxically seems to lead to relentless friction and hostility.
It’s up to us, it seems.
So, which direction will we choose?
Time will tell.
That, in a nutshell, is one theory of how the self-esteem movement came to take over the world.
(If anyone disagrees with it, that’s OK. Our self-esteem doesn’t depend entirely on every detail of this map being entirely accurate. It’s a complex topic. Just don’t say anything bad about the toupee.)