The Myth of Self-Esteem
“Never criticise” is the mantra that we are all told these days when it comes to working with young people.
I don't know if it is still the case, but for a while teachers were told not to use red pens, nor to put an 'X' at incorrect answers, because it crushes the spirit. Instead of getting an ‘F’ for ‘fail’, you now get a ‘U’ for ‘ungraded’—as if that will make you feel better! Instead tell them they can do anything, be anything they want to be. All this because we want to wrap people in cotton wool, and shield them from the reality that there are some things they aren’t good at—in case we harm their self esteem.
Of course there is some truth in it—some have only known the harshest of voices and the sternest of criticism from those who should have been encouraging and loving.
But as often happens, we have swung to the opposite extreme, swallowing the whole sickly nonsense of self-esteem. We tell ourselves that it is more productive to shower ourselves and others with praise.
Yet psychologists have realised that it simply doesn’t work. Instead it produces people who only think that they are good at something, but are unable to take even the mildest criticism. The Dean of Education at Stanford University keeps a box of Kleenex in her office for students who, for the first time in their lives, receive tough feedback and can’t deal with it.
And worse than that, all the efforts to increase self-esteem have created an epidemic of narcissism--so points out Will Storr in his book ‘Selfie: How the West became Self-obsessed’. He quotes two American psycologists investigating the impact of the self-esteem movement that came out of California in the 1980s and 90s:
“The irony was intense. ‘Narcissism causes almost all of the things that Americans hoped high self-esteem would prevent,’ wrote Twenge and Campbell, ‘including aggression, materialism, lack of caring for others, and shallow values. In trying to build a society that celebrates high self-esteem, self-expression, and “loving yourself,” Americans have inadvertently created more narcissists.’”
The conclusions of an in-depth analysis on self-esteem included the following: high self-esteem does not of itself earn children higher grades; it does not make people better at their jobs; humility, rather than self-regard, is a better predictor of who will make a successful leader.
Roy Baumeister, Professor of Psychology at Florida State University, writes “After all these years, I’m sorry to say, my recommendation is this: forget about self-esteem and concentrate more on self-control and self-discipline.”
Interesting. That’s exactly what God says in his word.
“This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word.” declares the LORD. Isaiah 66:2
Then Jesus said to them all: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” Luke 9:23
In my line of work I sometimes hear the refrain, “I have no self-esteem”, and, whilst I understand what is being said and have great sympathy where it is merited, it has often made me wonder. After all, we are only reconstituted earth, which lives in rebellion against its creator—what have we to be esteemed about?
True esteem comes only when we realise our worthlessness, and guiltiness before God, and come to him seeking forgiveness. And then, when he forgives us and brings us into his family, we realise that we are more loved than we could ever have imagined. More honoured. More delighted in. And that is where our esteem comes from. It isn’t to be found in ourselves—that is a modern-day version of the emperor’s new clothes.
Esteem is only worthwhile when it is realistic. And it is from God alone that we get a true sense of who we are.
“As for man, his days are like grass, he flourishes like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more. But from everlasting to everlasting the Lord’s love is with those who fear him.” - Psalm 103:15-18