One of the “diagnoses” that crops up most regularly in the field of counselling and psychotherapy is low self-esteem, a concept used as a kind of all-purpose explanation for the most diverse problems. It’s not only the professionals who have a propensity to diagnose a lack of self-esteem: the clients themselves often embrace it, seeing a replenishment of this dwindling commodity as the only sure way to make progress in their lives.
But for some time now we have been hearing from several quarters that the supposed epidemic of low self-esteem is a myth, and that the spreading excess of it should be a more pressing concern. Surveys of American college students, it appears, have shown that the increase in self-esteem has not been matched by improved performance. There seems to be a discrepancy between people’s positive views of themselves and actual outcomes.
High self-esteem does seem to correlate with increased initiative, says psychologist Roy Baumeister. But that is not necessarily a good thing, as it can lead to rash actions and ignoring sensible advice.
At worst, high self-esteem can turn into narcissism. Jean Twenge, one of the main researchers in the field, goes as far as talking of an epidemic of narcissism, in which people who hold themselves in excessively high regard are more likely to lack empathy and experience relationship problems.
And high self-esteem can be displayed by people who do seriously objectionable things. As Steven Pinker puts it: “Self-esteem can be measured, and surveys show that it is the psychopaths, street toughs, bullies, abusive husbands, serial rapists, and hate-crime perpetrators who are off the scale.”
It seems we can definitely have too much self-esteem. Of course, excessive self-criticism is not great for us either. But pumping up self-esteem is not the only alternative. We could encourage self-acceptance, as the Rational-Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT) founder Albert Ellis advocated. And Baumeister advises that the one quality correlating with improved personal outcomes is self-control. Old myths die hard, but this research deserves to be taken seriously.
Christianity sends out a complicated, if not entirely mixed, message about self-esteem. On the one hand, Genesis tells us we are all made “in the image of God”, whom Luke says numbers every hair on our heads. “Ye are of more value than many sparrows,” he says, which is only somewhat reassuring. On the other, Paul tells us “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” and so it is “by grace are ye saved”, not by our works. It seems we are born with the face of God and the heart of demons.
The “Jesus loves you” school of preaching is more popular these days than the “you are all miserable sinners” approach, in line with the rise in the wider culture of the value placed on self-esteem. But, atheist though I am, I wonder if those fiery cajolers weren’t on to something.
What I think many religions have got right is that we are, in a sense, terminally inadequate. Even the best fall short, which is why there is a whole industry devoted to knocking so-called saints off their pedestals. And it is important that we recognise this: it is impossible to do better if you are under the illusion you’re already the best.
The trouble is that we seem to have become a rather sensitive bunch, who can’t take a bit of criticism without getting upset. But here again Christianity provides a model: God may know how rotten we are, but he loves us all the same.
Fortunately, I don’t think we need to be religious to heed the lesson: we can love ourselves and others without imagining we are better than we truly are. Knowing we’re not good enough does not require self-loathing.
Of course, it is possible to use the fact that “no one is perfect” as an excuse for being more imperfect than we need be. But knowing that is true provides an opportunity for a kind of secular grace. We are saved from our all-too-human inadequacies by mutual kindness, forgiveness and understanding. And we are saved from our all-too-human arrogance by remembering that we need all three.
The Shrink & The Sage live together in southwest England