Self-esteem – not all that it claims to be.

At the risk of rocking the boat, I want to examine the very popular self-esteem movement. In principle the idea of healthy self-esteem is fine, but something disturbing has happened over recent years and it deserves our candid attention. Here are three typical examples, each making claims which need to be seriously re-worked. What needs to change?









Let’s begin by winding the clock back. Until the end of the Nineteenth Century the term ‘self-esteem’ didn’t even exist. There was the occasional philosopher or thinker who saw the correlation between a sense of our personal merit and confidence and assurance as we occupied ourselves in various projects and enterprises. It was William James who introduced it to the vocabulary of modern psychology in 1890. His timing was premature and the idea languished for over sixty years while the major nations of the world sorted themselves out over two world wars. It was a period of history when the face of humanity was at it’s ugliest. Furthermore, people simply did not have time nor inclination for introspective reflection on their self-worth and conflicting feelings while survival and recovery were paramount. It wasn’t until the 1950’s when the USA began to find its feet once more and an enormous economic boom and period of extended prosperity changed the way we think. One of the key players in this paradigm shift was a man who had a much better sense of timing than James with a message that held great appeal to both the public and the professional – Carl Rogers.

Two important things were also occuring at the same time. Firstly, the science of psychology was coming of age. Between Freud, Jung and the Behaviourists, the disciplines of psychology and psycho-therapy had been a hit and miss mix of conflicting theories, none of which could be placed on an emperical platform. There was no consensus as to how human behaviour and thought processes could be measured. The absence of experimental prediction and replication meant the psychology was seen at best a pseudo science, much in the way astrology and alternative medicine are regarded today. It required measurable facts and figures to earn its stripes as a true science. The second thing missing was subject matter to measure. In other words, people. People who would be willing to commit themselves to the scientific process and allow their thoughts and actions to be calibrated in some form of manageable data. More to the point, people who felt the need to benefit from the practice of the new science.  Ideally, a whole nation of people who would eventually subscribe to idea of therapy. After all, science was rapidly ascending the the status of a modern deity and people began to trust it and looked to it for answers.

This required a philosophical shift in the way the nation thought. The old belief systems did not gel with the new personal wealth, security, prosperity and independence, and the overwhelming sense of freedom and self-determination that pervaded America in the 50’s. Rogers came up with the perfect solution which paved the way for exalting the ‘science’ of psychology and altered the way that people regarded themselves. For thousands of years Judeo-Christian thought regarded the human estate as dark. We were “shapen in iniquity” and in “sin did my mother conceive me”. Such depravity may have spawned two horrific global wars, but this was the nation that turned the tide and was ushering in a new era of peace and prosperity. “We are going to be good from now on”. It needed ideas to match, so when Rogers suggested that people are innately decent and all are filled with enormous potential and worth, the idea went down a treat. It was just the message America was waiting to hear and the impetus that professional psychology needed. Children, especially should be raised in an environment of “unconditional positive regard”, freed from the inhibitions and restraints that could prevent them from attaining their full potential. Rogers was a product of his era, but also was instrumental in shaping the future of America and much of the Western world. And not without good reason as so much of what he says has tremendous appeal and seems to make good sense.

Interestingly, I spent about six months of my childhood schooling in America just as this influence was gaining momentum. Enough time to get the feel of things. I grew up in Malaya and was definitely a product of the ‘old school’ where children were children, seen but not heard. We were obedient, never talked back or expressed our opinions and learned to respect adults. SmorningsideIt seemed that I had walked into an Alice in Wonderland world where everyone had to be nice to each other. They could say and do what they liked, yet were unruly and running mildly amok. Strangely, it seem that somehow at a deeper level, they were angry with each other. I can put my finger on it now, but back then all I knew was that I was desperately unhappy and confused. It was undoubtedly the most miserable time in my life. Within the space of a week we left LA and I found myself sitting on a hard bench in this dour stone building in Edinburgh, Scotland (right). It was yet another remarkable cultural transition. The classrooms could be bitterly cold, I had to learn to write using scratchy pen nibs dipped in inkwells, get used to the cane and develop my fisty cuff skills. Yet these were the happiest years of my childhood. So, what made the difference? In one word – boundaries. Children need to know where they stand and lack the emotional maturity, life-experience and wisdom to know how to establish their own boundaries. Letting them off the leash before they are ready can be a serious problem.

The introduction of Roger’s optimistic view of human nature in the 60’s saw a rapid evolution towards the integration of the Self-esteem movement which was even officially embedded into the school system of America as the Human Potential Movement. It became the accepted model for just about all therapy and rehabilitation, whether professional or via self-help. It 16canberrazoosynchronised perfectly with the lightning fast changes in technology, communications and travel giving people a new-found freedom to be themselves and express themselves. The rebellion and revolution of the 60’s was no passing phenomenon but the cementing of a neo-narcissism where a person’s freedom, personal rights and need for self-expression spawned the ridiculously materialistic and self-absorbed Me Generation. The “feel good” mantra of the human potential movement became a tiger out of its cage.

In spite of the wonderful promises and appeal of the concept, all is not well in the land. The movement anticipated dramatic improvement in relationships, reduction of crime, an era of personal achievement and prosperity, elimination of bullying and abuse – in short an era of humanity on the ascent. Never have we seen a generation of people with more confidence and assertiveness who suffer more with depression  Instead we have witnessed a blow-out of crime (especially gun-related mass killings), increase in poverty, schools becoming guarded fortresses where lack of discipline is rife, out of control drug abuse, youth suicide and depression – and that is only the tip of the iceberg of a society which is become more self-absorbed and disillusioned in its pursuit of instant-gratification.


GenMeIn her recent book, Generation Me, Jean Twenge examines the question as to why “today’s young Americans are more confident, assertive, entitled – and more miserable than ever before.” An with any research there are gaps in her conclusions, but much of what she says will be very recognisable to those who have been around to observe the emergence of Generation Me. I have often wondered what would happen to our society if our mobile phones were to be rendered permanently useless overnight, revealing the extent to which we have become dependent on smart devices. Check out this short video clip I took recently in a train in Hong Kong.

What has happened? Any idea, theory or belief that is built on a faulty assumption or suspect methodology is doomed to failure. This one is no exception. The dream has dissolved and has lost most of credibility in the world of professional psychology. Yet it will not die because it is so appealing and seductive. Here are two core assumptions which will be considered in the next post

1. The methodology of self estimation. Self esteem is a measure not a feeling – a self estimate. It is impossible to objectively measure our emotional self. Any form of estimation is subjective and is a poor scientific tool which is nevertheless widely employed in questionnaires, surveys, IQ tests and the like.

The primary aim of the movement has been to bring people to the point where they feel good about themselves. There is a real catch 22 here. Think about those endless self-tests that pop up in Facebook which will tell you how intelligent you are, how socially adept you are, how emotionally strong you are . . you know the ones I mean. How many times have the results revealed that you are stupid, angry, mean, selfish, dumb and horrible? Not once, I guarantee. That is not how you want to be estimated and certainly not the way you estimate yourself. No, according these little exercises in pop psychology we are all smart, witty, balanced, wonderful, sexy individuals. That’s what we want to hear, which pretty well sums up the methodology of the self-esteem movement. It overflows with warm fuzzy messages.

2. The building of self-esteem as a technique. The underlying assumption is that successfully building self-esteem during a child’s developing years will result in improved academic performance and improved relationships. It was regarded as some form of social vaccine which would counter violence, crime, drug abuse, school underachievement, bullying, teenage pregnancy and related social dysfunctions. Much of what followed was an artificial building of self-esteem.

After extensive scrutiny and systematic research it was observed that violent, anti-social people actually liked and valued themselves too much and measured very high in self-esteem. Furthermore, results indicated that the self-esteem building activities being used by parents and teachers were fuelling the epidemic of depression and narcissism. Subsequent research has turned the self-esteem movement on its head and questions the whole process of artificially boosting self esteem through technique. Repeatedly telling a child they are wonderful, special, and brilliant doesn’t actually transform them into little wonder people. And there are enough examples of well adjusted, successful people who cope with life perfectly well who don’t really rate well on the self-esteem scales. Have we been paying homage to a synthetic construct which has diverted our attention from the processes which add true value to the individual?

To be continued.


Next: The only way to value-add