Facts, Feelings, and the Quest for Self-Esteem

Margaret Mead once said, “Always remember that you are absolutely unique. Just like everyone else.” Her almost prophetic words distill for us the cultural shift that has transpired right before our eyes—everyone receives a trophy, everyone is special, everyone has a personal brand to promote.

Labeled as the national wonder drug, self-esteem permeates every crack and crevice of our society. For example, NBC broadcasts a public service message stating, “You may not realize it, but everyone is born with their one true love—themselves. If you like you, everyone else will too.” Books with titles such as The Girl’s Guide to Loving Yourself: A Book About Falling in Love with the One Person Who Matters Most. . .You, or for the more studious adolescent, The Self-Esteem Workbook for Teens, add fuel to the fire of self-admiration.

Inspirational speaker and bestselling author Wayne Dyer tells us that “the best thing about Jesus was that he had a mom that believed he was the son of God. Imagine how much better the world would be if all of our moms thought that way.” The truth is that more and more moms do think that way and are ushering us into a world filled with narcissists donning their “Too Cool 4 You” and “I’m a Princess” tee-shirts. We are now living with the dangerous side-effects of a wonder drug gone awry.


A Contemporary Framework

So where did the idea of self-esteem as a great panacea come from? I would argue Genesis 3, but to bring the idea into its contemporary framework, David Hume would provide a good starting point. Hume wrote a treatise on human nature and posited, “nothing can be more laudable than to have a value for ourselves, where we really have qualities that are valuable.” He believed self-esteem to be useful and that “a due degree of pride, which makes us sensible of our own merit” provides us with confidence and assurance in everything we do.

But William James brought self-esteem into the world of psychology. James, the father of modern psychology, gave definition to the word and laid the foundation for future debate in locating self-esteem in the arena of feeling and doing. Interestingly, James’s work remained buried under two world wars and economic depression for 75 years. People bent on survival had little time or inclination to naval gaze on their feelings and personal accomplishments.


Fertile Soil

The wealth and consumerism of the 1960s brought with it a wave of social change, providing fertile soil for James’s ideas to take root. Nathaniel Branden, a psychotherapist and devotee of Ayn Rand, grabbed the mantel and flooded the market with countless self-esteem books. Although Branden’s influence moved the idea forward, the real spark that lit the fire proved to be politicians from California. Low self-esteem became the bogeyman behind crime, teenage pregnancy, drug abuse and educational underachievement.

Using these social ills as a backdrop, politicians advanced self-esteem to a position of political urgency, a needed social vaccine that would not only cure the above mentioned societal maladies but also balance state budgets. And like every previous and subsequent political cause, coffers opened wide.

A task force began the work of studying the correlation between self-esteem and personal and social responsibility. But after three years, the findings failed to corroborate the enthusiasm held by its adherents. Rather than question the thesis—these were politicians after all— the task force simply continued the search for more evidence. In 1995, the search came to an end, and the task force was replaced by the National Association for Self-Esteem. [You can visit their website and take a tour. Their stated purpose is to “fully integrate Self Esteem into the fabric of American society so that every individual, no matter what their age or background, experiences personal worth and happiness.]

A notable adherent of the cause, Professor Roy Baumeister, conducted extensive research on the claims of the self-esteem movement during the 1990s. The results dashed Baumeister’s bubble as he found that the premise of low self-esteem as a problem and its cure as a solution to social ills was completely false. He later lamented that these conclusions were one of the biggest disappointments of his career.

In 2001, another professor of psychology, Nicholas Emler, conducted studies that supported the findings of Baumeister. Elmer concluded that low self-esteem did not present a risk to educational achievement, nor did it lead to violence, bullying, delinquency, racism, drug addiction, or alcohol abuse. What his research actually indicated was that anti-social, violent men do not struggle with liking or valuing themselves, but to the contrary, they value themselves too much. Elmer’s work led him to believe that high self-esteem presented a greater threat to society than low self-esteem.

Three more significant voices entered the fray following Elmer. Professor Martin Seligman challenged the self-esteem building exercises conducted in public schools, believing they fuel the epidemic of depression in our country. Psychology professor Jennifer Crocker (University of Michigan) put forward empirical research that indicated a considerable cost to individuals who pursued self-esteem, resulting in a loss of well-being. And Professor Jean Twenge of San Diego, after spending years researching this subject, concluded that our obsession with self-esteem is encouraging narcissism, undermining skills, and fueling depression.

That brings us up to the present. With the self-esteem movement demolished by these studies, where do we now stand? Have we seen the error of our ways and changed course? Not so much. As one therapist stated the case, there are pills for depression and shyness, but “I have yet to see an advertisement for a drug of deflation.”


A Garden Parable

As I look out my kitchen window, I see what used to be a delightful little lettuce garden. Now it’s a rectangular mass of vines. I remember the battle beginning around the edges. I would pull at the surface leaves only to find resistance from massive root systems below the surface. Over time, the vines won. I just couldn’t keep up with the labyrinth of roots below the soil.

My garden is like a parable of the self-esteem myth. On the surface, we can look at the research and see the dangers. But when we start tinkering around with the surface weeds, we find the concept so deeply rooted in our culture that extrication is well-nigh impossible. Lauren Slater, a therapist, goes so far as to say that “the pursuit of self-worth has become the dominant paradigm.”

Self-esteem, as a construct, as a quasi religion, is woven into a tradition that both defines and confines us as Americans. If we were to deconstruct self-esteem, to question its value, we would be, in a sense, questioning who we are, nationally and individually. We would be threatening our self-esteem. This is probably why we cannot really assimilate research like Baumeister’s or Emler’s.

What About the Children?

In January of 2006, a Google search for the term “Elementary School Mission Statements for Self-Esteem” produced a return of 308,000 web pages. I did the same search while writing this entry and landed 441,000 web pages. It appears we prefer Miracle Grow to Roundup.

There was a time when self-esteem messages were reserved for those who came from troubled backgrounds, such as children of alcoholics. But like so many things that begin with good intentions, the genie escaped the bottle. If a little self-esteem proved effective for some, why not for all?

From these humble beginnings to today, a lot has changed. Now we read self-esteem authors whose pronouncements sound militant—“Loving yourself means knowing how great you are and not letting any person, any place, or any thing ever get in the way of that.” (Diane Mastromarino, The Girl’s Guide to Loving Yourself.) One can read things like this on Pinterest and Instagram all the time—the poison is ubiquitous.


Closing the Circle

So what’s the great draw of the self-esteem movement? We can close the circle where we began, with David Hume. Hume recognized that self-pride and self-admiration feel good. Even critics of the movement admit that self-esteem leaves us with a “delicious feeling.” It is the spirit of the age and we inhale it at every turn.

The seduction of the serpent—you can be like God—permeates the experience, demonstrating the relentless urge of the human heart to rebel against the majesty and authority of God. As our culture drifts further and further from its Christian moorings, self-love will toss more and more people adrift on the turbulent sea of their feelings, especially feelings about themselves—devoid of emotional connections.

The only antidote to self-esteem and self-exaltation is Christ esteem and Christ exaltation. This is true not only for men and women but also for our children. Since the fall, our loves are disordered and divorced from God. We naturally turn inward and esteem ourselves more highly than anyone else, considering ourselves worthy of praise and glory. Only by God’s grace are we saved from the abyss of self and brought into the body of Christ, where we discover the reason for our existence—to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.

Dear reader, swim against the tide of our culture. Teach your children from infancy that life is meant to be lived for God, not for themselves. Teach them that our lives have been purchased at great cost—by the blood of Christ, and in whatever we do, we are to bring glory to Him.

Our children’s lives are on a trajectory from the moment they are born. Take every opportunity to point to them to Christ, the One who is truly worthy of all praise and glory, and the only source of true and lasting joy in this world and the next.


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