"If your answers, on the other hand, reveal some inner shame, then it is obvious: you were, or are, a teenage mother; you are prone to social deviance; and if you don't drink, it is because the illicit drugs are bountiful and robust."
These are the words of psychologist Lauren Slater in her 2002 New York Times article, "The Trouble of Self-Esteem," and they are a traditional narrative of low self-esteem. If you have low self-esteem, you're more likely to be a deviant and likely not a very successful member of society. It is a perception that we commonly hold as almost gospel.
But it's not actually that true.
Sure, it has entered into our consciousness and culture to like yourself a lot, has high self-confidence, and hold a positive opinion of your capabilities is essential to our health and well-being. We have a narrative that low self-esteem is correlated with high levels of crime, substance abuse, prostitution, rape, murder, and even terrorism. David Long found in "The Anatomy of Terrorism" that suicide bombers suffer from feelings of worthlessness and "their violent, fluorescent acts are desperate attempts to bring some inner flair to a flat mindscape."
It has become commonplace and unquestionable to hold the beliefs that "the less confidence you have, the worse you do; the more confidence you have, the better you do." But in 1986, Assemblyman John Vasconcellos of California did an experiment called the "California Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility" as an attempt to divert drug abuse and other social problems. But it didn't work.
Two researchers, Nicholas Emler of the London School of Economics and Roy Baumeister of the Case Western Reserve University, in the early 2000s, explored the unexpected idea that self-esteem isn't overrated and may actually be the culprit, not the cure for society's ills.
"People with low self-esteem seem to do just as well in life as people with high self-esteem. In fact, they may do better, because they often try harder," Emler said. Baumeister went even farther and said that high self-esteem "can maim and kill...some people with favorable views of themselves were more likely to administer loud blasts of ear-piercing noise to a subject than those more tepid, timid folks who hold back the horn." Another experiment found that people with high self-esteem were more likely to put down victims to whom they'd given electric shocks than low self-esteem counterparts.
In 2001, three high profile studies of self-esteem found that "people with high self-esteem pose a greater threat" than people with low self-esteem. To feel bad about ourselves isn't the cause of societal problems, but rather feeling good and confident about ourselves is more of a cause, and it's especially difficult given that self-esteem has entered so much of our social consciousness and self-perception. Rehabilitation programs focus on that self-esteem, and statements like "today I will accept myself for who I am" are commonplace to remind ourselves that high self-esteem is an important part of who we are.
According to Stephen Keane, a therapist in Massachusetts, the idea of self-esteem is especially flawed because it tells a lot of men, violent men, that change is not necessary, and that it's okay to "compensate for [our sense of inner shame] with fists." Instead, the solution, from Keane, is rooted in a "place where we can really honor and expand our natural human grace."
At the root of our valuing of self-esteem is our belief that humans are naturally good and graceful, and that the well-accomplished people in history like Benjamin Franklin and Joseph Pulitzer thought well of themselves to accomplish what they did. "People fervently believed that you were what you thought," Slater wrote. "You are what you think. What you think." It was only bolstered by Ralph Waldo Emerson's famous essay, "On Self-Reliance," which told us that an individual has a romantic notion that allows us to believe that we are always special.
Slater calls the self-esteem movement a "quasi-religion," and I can't help but agree that it is what we abide by. If we were to question the self-esteem movement, we would be "questioning who we are, nationally and individually." It would break down the framework of our deepest core of beliefs. It has become deeply ingrained into our culture. "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."
Our culture has inevitably come to embrace the self-esteem movement as the standard. Does self-esteem make us? Or do we make our self-esteem? Slater puts it best when she says "it is probably something in between, a synergistic loop-the-loop." Slater then cites an example of a patient who was a murderer, who believed the world revolved around him and had a high opinion of himself. According to the self-esteem movement, his behavior would be a result of hidden low self-esteem. But that would make very little sense because it would be similar to saying that Donald Trump's hurtful comments are because he has low self-esteem deep in his soul that he conceals. And I think few people would argue that. Emler takes the murderer example further in saying that "these men are racist or violent because they don't feel bad enough about themselves."
The fact of the matter is, according to the researchers, "pride really is dangerous, and too few of us know how to be humble." But we still look at self-esteem as something undeniably good, that is always good for us and good for society. Perhaps a bit of this is the advertisement and message sent by the psychotherapy industry, which "would take a huge hit were self-esteem to be re-examined." Psychology is based on our notion of self and enhancing it as our "primary purpose of treatment". And Slater herself is a psychologist, and the article is by no means telling us that mental health professionals are perpetuating a simplistic view of a myth. But she makes an admission in that "were the concept [of self-esteem] to falter, so would our pocketbooks."
People don't go into therapy to have their self-esteem lowered and sense of self weakened. The real question is, according to Slater, "how would we get our clients to pay to be, if not insulted, at least uncomfortably challenged?" As a practice, that should be the goal of psychotherapy, but too often the business model of psychotherapy follows a false and inflated notion that markets self-esteem. Isn't it appealing to feel more confident and good about yourself? But mental health isn't always comfortable. For psychologists like Slater, "because we want to protect our patients and our pocketbooks, we don't always say this. The drug companies that underwrite us never say this."
And not all the blame is on the business, but on our culture and society as well. I don't a single person who would seek out a treatment that markets itself for making us feel lower self-esteem.
There are many therapies that actually seek to reduce beliefs of self-esteem. In Japan, one form of psychotherapy, Morita, holds a belief that "neurotic suffering comes, quite literally, from extreme self-awareness." David Reynolds wrote to Slater that "the most miserable people I know have been self-focused...cure is...by taking constructive action in one's life which helps one to live a full and meaningful existence and not be ruled by one's emotional state." Morita therapy has its pros and limitations, but it prioritizes action over reflection, and therapy sessions often involve gardening, planting, and waiting for flowers to bloom.
I have a natural distaste and aversion for this type of belief system and therapy as if I can just go on a run or watch TV as my own form of therapy instead of paying copious amounts of money to take action. And Morita therapy comes not without its risks: "to detach from feelings carries with it the risk of detaching from their significant signals, which carry important information about how to act: reach out, recoil." Although we shouldn't be governed by our emotions, we certainly should listen to what they're telling us.
Think about the word "shrink" that we use to describe our psychotherapists and mental health professionals, and Slater extrapolates the term further as a signal that we "perhaps unconsciously we know we sometimes need to be taken down a peg."
Instead of self-esteem, maybe we should reach for self-control. And there is also a very natural and societal aversion to that term because of its restrictive connotations on freedom, but discipline comes from the word "disciple", which means to comprehend. "Ultimately, self-control need not be seen as a constriction; restored to its original meaning, it might be experienced as the kind of practiced prowess an athlete or an artist demonstrates." Some therapeutic programs do teach self-control, but they are not the most marketable, and especially not the most marketable to attract "the bulk of therapy consumers, the upper middle class."
One program, called Emerge, was run by a psychologist named David Adams in Massachusetts. Most of his clients were abusive men, most of which were mandated by courts. One of his clients was a batterer whose violence against his wife wasn't getting any better. Adams asked him "why do you think you hit your wife?" and the batterer responded that, "my therapist told me it's because I don't feel good about myself inside." Emerge and Adams by extension don't believe that abuse has anything to do with how good someone feels about themselves, and aims just to teach people to evaluate their behaviors and treat people with empathy and respect.
And the lesson we take away from Emerge is that we could reconfigure treatment by deciding that the self isn't defined by how good it feels but "how well it does, in work and love." Freud once noted that a successful person is someone who has had meaningful work and love, and that has nothing to do with our sense of selves. He once said, in the ending of Studies in Hysteria, that "much will be gained if we succeed in transforming your hysterical misery into common unhappiness," so the godfather of psychotherapy never stated its goal to be doing away with discomfort, but handling and managing it in a healthy way.
And this certainly falls in line with Christian teachings on love and joy, that the mark of how strong our faith is is how much we love God and love our neighbor, that we love God the more we love our neighbor and vice versa. It is a line of teaching that completely rejects the notion that we can't love others if we don't love ourselves first, but rather that loving ourselves isn't all that important in the first place, and that we should love others because we have had love poured into us.
Freud made a case for a "part of the mind that watched the mind, that takes the global view in an effort at honesty." We know this to be the superego in psychology, which is defined as a self-critical conscience that appraises our minds and ourselves. "For we must first know both where we flail and stumble, and where we are strong before we can make disciplined alterations." And it is through self-appraisal, not self-esteem, that we make better decisions and amend our mistakes, as well as recognize where we've done well. Self-appraisal might not be as sexy as self-esteem, but it works in refining ourselves, more and more, in the image of our God or who we want to be.