Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Letting the Steam Out of Self-Esteem

On the other hand, there are people with chronic low self-esteem because of constant criticisms from their parents during childhood. As in most things, balance is needed.


Americans are overly focused on their sense of self-worth.
By Theodore Dalrymple, published on September 01, 1995 - last reviewed on July 22, 2009

Distressed about your self-image? Of course, no one wants to make you feel worse, but have you ever considered the possibility that your very own behavior might--just might--be causing you to have a low opinion of yourself?

Twenty years ago, when I first became a doctor, no one ever complained of a lack of self-esteem, or of hating him- or herself. Now scarcely a week goes by without a patient making just such a complaint and presenting it to me as if it were my job to rectify matters. And whenever anyone says to me, "I don't like myself, doctor," my heart sinks and I feel an urge to reply, "Well, that makes two of us." Of course, I say nothing of the kind. Instead I offer bland reassurances that I scarcely recognize as my own as they leave my mouth.

Last week a young man came to me in distress about his self-image. His mother agreed that he had a low opinion of himself. It was this low opinion, the pair of them said, that had led him to beat up his girlfriend, who was pregnant at the time and subsequently had a miscarriage.

"It couldn't be the other way around, could it?" I asked.

"What do you mean?" the young man asked me.

"That your behavior caused you to have a poor opinion of yourself?"

This possibility was firmly rejected. The idea that low self-esteem could ever be justified was too revolutionary to be entertained, even for a moment.

Does recognition of the need for self-esteem represent a true advance in human understanding, or is it, on the contrary, evidence of a widespread and shallow narcissism? Is it an explanation of our failings or an excuse for them?


A lack of self-esteem is not necessarily pathological, nor is its presence necessarily desirable. Indeed, when self-esteem is not accompanied by any accomplishment or personal quality, it is a serious failing. I recall a 24-year-old prisoner who told me with great pride that he was the father of nine children by six women, not one of whom did he help in any way whatsoever, financial or emotional. His prowess in procreation was the source, or one of the sources, of his evident self-satisfaction; and he said that he intended, as soon as he was able, to demonstrate his prowess once more, regardless of the consequences to others. His self-esteem would be boosted accordingly.


Certainly it requires a degree of self-importance even to complain of a lack of self-esteem. It is not a complaint one is likely to hear among Zairean goatherds, for example.




The Nazi criminals tried at Nuremberg, in whom there existed no fundament of goodness, were invincible in their self-esteem. After the deaths of untold millions, they still believed they had a right to a pre-eminent role in society based on their special qualities. Their grotesquely inflated self-esteem prevented them from understanding the evil that they had perpetrated.

The idea that we should sail through life feeling good about ourselves, whatever we do, is therefore morally monstrous. Most of us live lives of good and bad, success and failure. The demand that we should have some fundamental baseline of self-satisfaction would render our lives meaningless. If we were entirely free of anxiety about our own worth, there would be little to make us strive to do better, to avoid error and crime, and to achieve more than we had already achieved.

A nagging uncertainty about our own worth is like guilt; it is a necessary spur to do better next time. Clearly, a life burdened by guilt over trifling matters is not at all desirable; but neither is a life entirely free of guilt a healthy thing. In other words, the degree to which we should feel this emotion depends upon what we have done and what we continue to do. We cannot sensibly ask to be absolved of all guilt, now and forever, or to have an appropriate baseline of guilt, irrespective of our past and future actions. Not, that is, unless we wish to be psychopaths.

Similarly, there can be no baseline of self-esteem--not, that is, unless we wish to be unbridled egotists.


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