Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Where Self-Esteem Movement Has Gone Wrong

The main claim of the self-esteem movement is that if you feel good about yourself you will be a good person, and if you feel badly about yourself you will be a bad person. This claim is completely wrong. What you are as a person has nothing to do with how you feel about yourself. What you are as a person is about what you feel about – and how you are treating - others. If I feel good about myself but think that you are a jerk, I will not be all that good to you however I feel about myself.

If good self-esteem made good people and bad self-esteem made bad people, then in all the cultures in the world where self-esteem was not encouraged nobody could be good. And of course there have been good people everywhere. A woman from World War II generation told me that self-esteem used to be called conceit. Very few people think that her generation made bad people. In fact it is one of the most respected generations in history.
In fact a case can be made that there should be an expected negative correlation between self-esteem and personal qualities. If someone has higher standards for himself, he will have more trouble meeting them than does someone who has lower standards for himself. The person with lower standards will have higher self-esteem; the person with higher standards will have better personal qualities.

I had a friend from India who told me that she had low self-esteem and that for that reason she was helping people. I told her that it may not have anything to do with self-esteem at all. I told her that it may be instead her education and her values. She found that insight useful. I do not know whether or not it did anything for or against her self-esteem, but it did things to allow her to see the rightfulness in her actions.
I take issue when good things are presented as bad things. Being willing to help the next person is one of the best traits that one can have, and it is completely wrong to mistake it as low self-esteem or any other kind of psychopathology. The same is the case with romantic love and any number of other things.

So no, self-esteem does not make good people, nor does lack of it make bad people. What matters is not what you feel about yourself, but what you actually are. Do not strive to feel good about yourself. Strive to be good for real. And then others will decide whether or not to esteem you.


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