Last weekend there was a great article in the Guardian entitled “The great self esteem con” in which writer Will Storr tells the story of Californian politician John Vasconcellos and his misguided and deceitful attempt to improve society through raising levels of self esteem.
The idea of self esteem being “low” or “high” is dangerous because it implies there is a global scale on which we can all measure ourselves. There isn’t. The energy which propels you along the scale of self esteem is the same regardless of which direction it sends you. If you have low self esteem and feel shameful you are expressing contempt for yourself. If you have overly high self esteem and feel entitled and grandiose, you are expressing contempt toward others. So neither high nor low is good. Only healthy self esteem is good because it marks an absence of contempt. So, how do you get there?
The importance of personal responsibility
In order for self esteem to be healthy you have to strike a balance in holding yourself to account. Set reasonable and achievable standards, place importance on endeavour as well as results, and expect progress and growth, without regarding that your value as a human being is wholly dependent upon it.
Healthy self esteem requires personal responsibility. It is not enough to say “I’m OK” while punching someone in the face or stealing apples from a shop. It is not acceptable to say “I’m worth it” while lying or editing the facts to mislead and make yourself look good. These are not the actions of healthy self esteem. They are an abdication, a dereliction, and, at a fundamental level, an illustration of inability to be who you are and accept yourself as such.
Symptom v cause
Perhaps the most damaging notion we can have of self esteem is the simplistic idea that improving it makes everything better. Vasconcellos suggested that raising self esteem levels would trigger improvements in violence, crime, alcohol and drug abuse, welfare dependency, teenage pregnancy, academic failure, child and spousal abuse. Self esteem is certainly a feature of these issues but it is not the only one. It is often a symptom but not a cause. Furthermore, it is often an invisible problem. There are many times I have worked with a client who experiences crippling levels of self loathing, but is not yet able to see it. We have to know and accept the person we are before we are able to sustainably change, and those parts of us we don’t like, that we fear, are integral. To try and jettison them is futile. Hope and change comes from accepting the darkness with the light because that is what it is to be human.
Self esteem is not the key to achievement
When we conflate the idea of high self esteem with high achievement we confuse two fundamentally different paths. They run parallel but not together. In this sense the OFSTED findings, mentioned in the article, on prioritising emotional wellbeing ahead of results at Barrowford school is an observation which might be accurate but should not be relevant to unacceptable levels of teaching. As parents we expect that both our children’s academic needs and their emotional needs are prioritised. In school they are of equal import and neither should be sacrificed for the other.
Self esteem does not help you win more often, instead it helps to mitigate the more visceral desires to compete. Healthy self esteem means it matters less how you compare yourself with others, and this is the greatest triumph of self love.
Healthy self esteem is much more than a route to success. It is the success. Contentment creates success but cannot truly come from it.
So self esteem is a lens, a filter, through which we view the world. When something goes wrong, if my filter is one of shame, I will immediately look for the role I played in messing it up. If my filter is one of grandiosity I will be focused on finding someone to blame. The challenge we have is to remove the filters so that we feel no better or worse than anyone, that nothing can ever add to our value or take it away, and so we recognise that to be human is to be fallible.
Perhaps it is in the constant need to get better, perform at a greater level and remove any indication of defect that we put most pressure on our self worth. If we could release ourselves from that relentless path our ability to stop measuring might improve, and self esteem, miraculously, would find its own balance.