Historically, the concept of self-esteem has no clear intellectual origins; no major theorist has made it a central concept. Many psychologists have emphasized the self, in various ways, but the usual focus has been on self-actualization, or fulfillment of one’s total potential. As a result, it is difficult to trace the source of this emphasis on self-esteem. Apparently, this widespread preoccupation is a distillation of the general concern with the self — found in many psychological theories. Self-esteem seems to be the common denominator pervading the writings of such varied theorists as Carl Rogers, Abraham Maslow, “ego-strength” psychologists, and various recent moral educators. In any case, the concern with self-esteem hovers everywhere in America today. It is, however, most reliably found in the world of education — from professors of education to principals, teachers, school boards, and television programs concerned with preschool children.
Self worth, a feeling of respect and confidence in one’s being, has merit, as we shall see. But an ego-centered, “let me feel good” self-esteem can ignore our failures and need for God.
What is wrong with the concept of self-esteem? Lots — and it is fundamental in nature. There have been thousands of psychological studies on self-esteem. Often the term self-esteem is muddled in confusion as it becomes a label for such various aspects as self-image, self-acceptance, self worth, self-trust, or self-love. The bottom line is that no agreed-upon definition or agreed-upon measure of self-esteem exists, and whatever it is, no reliable evidence supports self-esteem scores meaning much at all anyway. There is no evidence that high self-esteem reliably causes anything — indeed lots of people with little of it have achieved a great deal in one dimension or another.
For instance, Gloria Steinem, who has written a number of books and been a major leader of the feminist movement, recently revealed in a book-long statement that she suffers from low self-esteem. And many people with high self-esteem are happy just being rich, beautiful, or socially connected. Some other people whose high self-esteem has been noted are inner-city drug dealers, who generally feel quite good about themselves: after all, they have succeeded in making a lot of money in a hostile and competitive environment.
A 1989 study of mathematical skills compared students in eight different countries. American students ranked lowest in mathematical competence and Korean students ranked highest. But the researchers also asked students to rate how good they were at mathematics. The Americans ranked highest in self-judged mathematical ability, while the Koreans ranked lowest. Mathematical self-esteem had an inverse relation to mathematical accomplishment! This is certainly an example of a “feel-good” psychology, keeping students from an accurate perception of reality. The self-esteem theory predicts that only those who feel good about themselves will do well — which is supposedly why all students need self-esteem — but in fact feeling good about yourself may simply make you over-confident, narcissistic, and unable to work hard.
I am not implying that high self-esteem is always negatively related to accomplishment. Rather, the research mentioned above shows that measures of self-esteem have no reliable relationship to behavior, either positive or negative. In part, this is simply because life is too complicated for so simple a notion to be of much use. But we should expect this failure in advance. We all know, and know of, people who are motivated by insecurities and self-doubts. These are often both the heroes and the villains of history. The prevalence of certain men of small stature in the history of fanatical military leadership is well-documented: Julius Caesar, Napoleon, Hitler, and Stalin were all small men determined to prove they were “big.” Many great athletes and others have had to overcome grave physical disabilities and a lack of self-esteem. Many superior achievements appear to have their origin in what psychologist Alfred Adler called “inferiority completes.”
The point is not that feeling bad about ourselves is good, but rather that only two things can truly change how we feel about ourselves: real accomplishment and developing “basic trust.” First, real accomplishment in the real world affects our attitudes. A child who learns to read, who can do mathematics, who can play the piano or baseball, will have a genuine sense of accomplishment and an appropriate sense of self-esteem. Schools that fail to teach reading, writing, and arithmetic corrupt the proper understanding of self-esteem. Educators who say, “Don’t grade them, don’t label them. You have to make them feel good about themselves,” cause the problems. It makes no sense for students to be full of self-esteem if they have learned nothing. Reality will soon puncture their illusions, and they will have to face two disturbing facts: that they are ignorant, and that the adults responsible for teaching them have lied to them. In the real world praise has to be the reward for something worthwhile: praise must be connected to reality.
There is an even more fundamental way in which most people come to genuine self-esteem — actually, to feelings of self-worth and what psychologists call “basic trust.” Such feelings come through receiving love; first of all, our mother’s love. But this foundational experience of love and self-confidence cannot be faked. When teachers attempt to create this deep and motivating emotion by pretending they “love” all their students and by praising them indiscriminately, they misunderstand the nature of this kind of love. Parental love simply cannot be manufactured by a teacher in a few minutes of interaction a day for each of thirty or more students. The child not only knows that such love is “fake,” but that real teachers are supposed to teach, and that this involves not just support but discipline, demands, and reprimands. Good teachers show their love by caring enough to use discipline. Thus, the best, most admired teachers in our high schools today often are the athletic coaches. They still teach, but they expect performance, and they rarely worry about self-esteem.
Similar problems arise for those who try to build their own flagging self-esteem by speaking lovingly to their “inner child” — or other insecure inner selves. Such attempts are doomed to failure for two reasons: first, if we are insecure about our self-worth, how can we believe our own praise? And second, like the child, we know the need for self-discipline and accomplishment.
Self-esteem should be understood as a response, not a cause. It is primarily an emotional response to what we and what others have done to us. Though it is a desirable feeling or internal state, like happiness it does not cause much. Also, like happiness, and like love, self-esteem is almost impossible to get by trying to get it. Try to get self-esteem and you will fail. But do good to others and accomplish something for yourself, and you will have all you need.
The subject is vital for Christians, partly because so many are so concerned about it and partly because the recovery of self-esteem has been touted as tantamount to a new reformation. We must note, however, that self-esteem is a deeply secular concept — not one with which Christians should be particularly involved. Nor need they be. Christians should have a tremendous sense of self-worth: God made us in His image, He loves us, He sent His Son to save each of us; our destiny is to be with Him forever. Each of us is of such value that the angels rejoice over every repentant sinner. But on the other hand, we have nothing on our own to be proud of, we were given life along with all our talents, and we are all poor sinners. There is certainly no theological reason to believe that the rich or the successful or the high in self-esteem are more favored by God and more likely to reach heaven, indeed there is far more evidence to the contrary: “Blessed are the meek.”
In addition, self-esteem is based on the very American notion that each of us is responsible for our own happiness. Thus, within a Christian framework, self-esteem has a subtle, pathological aspect: we may take the “pursuit of happiness” as a far more intense personal goal than the pursuit of holiness. Today self-esteem has become very important because it is thought to be essential to happiness: unless you love yourself, you will not be happy. But to assume that we must love ourselves, that God will not love us as much as we need to be loved, is a form of practical atheism. We say we believe in God, but we don’t trust Him. Instead, many Christians live by the very unbiblical “God loves those who love themselves.”
Another problem is that Christians have begun to excuse evil or destructive behavior on the grounds of “low self-esteem.” But self-esteem, whether high or low, does not determine our actions. We are accountable for them and we are responsible for trying to do good and avoid evil. Low self-esteem does not make someone an alcoholic, nor does it enable a person finally to admit his or her addiction and do something about it. Both of these decisions are up to each of us regardless of one’s level of self-esteem.
Finally, the whole focus on ourselves feeds unrealistic self-love, which psychologists often call “narcissism.” One would have thought America had enough trouble with narcissism in the seventies with the “Me Generation,” and in the eighties with the Yuppies. But today’s search for self-esteem is just the newest expression of America’s old egomania. And giving schoolchildren happy faces on all their homework just because it was handed in or giving them trophies for just being on the team is flattery of the kind found for decades in our commercial slogans: “You deserve a break today”; “You are the boss”; and “Have it your way.” Such self-love is an extreme expression of an individualistic psychology long supported by consumerism. Now it is reinforced by educators who gratify the vanity of even our youngest children with repetitive mantras like “You are the most important person in the whole world.”
This narcissistic emphasis in our society, and especially in education and religion, is a disguised form of self-worship. If accepted, America would have 250 million “most important persons in the whole world,” 250 million golden selves. If such idolatry were not socially so dangerous, it would be embarrassing, even pathetic.