A perceptive friend told me that, though she agrees with my often-expressed criticism of the self-esteem movement (see, for example, ), she believes I should acknowledge that all people need at least a measure of self-esteem and that some lack it.
I responded by quoting G. K. Chesterton’s observation, “A thinking man should always attack the strongest thing in his own time. For the strongest thing of the time is always too strong.” I added that I believe the need for the self-esteem movement is both dominant in our time and seriously mistaken. Having said that, I acknowledged that her comment was not only reasonable but also important, so I will address it here.
Let’s first note that language is a living thing and the meanings of words often change over time. For example, watchful once meant wakeful, rude meant uneducated, repulsive meant lacking sympathy, magnify meant extol, and dark meant ignorant. In each case, as more and more people used the word in a new way, the word first took on the new meaning and then, in some cases, lost the old one.
The word esteem went through such a process. In the fifteenth century it meant simply value or worth; later, it meant high regard. Having self-esteem thus meant having a highly favorable view of oneself. For a long time the term had a negative connotation, which led Ambrose Bierce to define it (tongue at least partly in cheek) as “erroneous appraisement.”
In the mid-20th century Humanistic Psychology argued that self-esteem is central to mental and emotional health and essential to all achievement. Over the next few decades this belief spawned a movement that redefined self-improvement as self-acceptance, a change that significantly impacted education and parenting. According to this thinking, the higher one’s self-esteem the better, and whatever lowers it, notably self-criticism or the criticism of others, is harmful.
As self-esteem theory became dominant in our culture, people began to subordinate other views to it, thus changing the meaning of other words related to self. A notable case is the word self-respect. For a couple of centuries it meant “proper regard for and care of the dignity of one’s person.” Note the word proper, meaning appropriate or justified.
Now, however, self-respect means “a feeling that one is behaving with honor and dignity.” The difference is subtle but unmistakable. The original meaning concerned taking care to maintain our dignity; the second suggests that the feeling that we are acting well is sufficient, whether or not we actually are actually doing so.
A similar example is the word self-confidence, which used to mean “a realistic or unrealistic trust in one’s abilities, qualities, and judgment,” but now means “a feeling of trust in one’s abilities, qualities, and judgment.”
(This subtle process hasn’t affected all self- words. For example, the meaning of self-importance has not changed from its tradition negative meaning of “an exaggerated sense of one’s own value or importance; self conceit; pompously conceited or haughty.”)
In light of the changes that have occurred concerning the term self-esteem, what is the best answer to the question, “Isn’t Self-Esteem a Good Thing?” I believe it is as follows:
Self-esteem is not a good thing because it conveys a false idea of human nature and therefore misleads people about their needs and impedes their efforts to confront life’s challenges effectively.
Like all of creation, human beings are subject to change. This is not just a biological truth, but an intellectual, emotional, and spiritual truth, as well. We react to the events in the world around us—sometimes intelligently, wisely, responsibly, and/or nobly, and sometimes not. Each day brings new situations and new challenges, and the quality of our responses can vary considerably.
The way we feel about ourselves should reflect that quality.
In other words, we should feel good about ourselves when we respond intelligently or admirably, and bad when we respond foolishly or dishonorably. The problem with the concept of self-esteem is that it would have us believe we are always and unconditionally wise and good, regardless of the way we are conducting our lives. That belief is delusional. Moreover, it robs us of the motivation to do better and be better, and thus breeds complacency.
But won’t the bad feelings about our failures and shortcomings cause us to lose confidence and lead, in time, to despair? Not if we maintain our dignity and self-respect. To say this is not to deny that some people suffer from a lack of confidence. It means only that the way to gain (or regain) confidence is not by esteeming ourselves—that is, pretending we are already wonderful—but instead by striving to become better.
Copyright © 2016 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved