Schools Get Dunce for Self-Esteem


Last year a California school banned the game of tag because it created a self-esteem issue. Someone had to be "it," and that someone was a victim. Schools might not teach anything and students might not have any fun, but no one would get their feelings hurt -- assuming we rule out all the disappointed kids willing to risk it and play the game anyway. A junior high school in Ohio posts a daily "Do not tease" list. According to principal Amanda Watters, the roster includes students "she has identified as suffering from low self-esteem due to their lack of intelligence, charm, physical grace, or affability." [1] Here's a suggestion: have the kids wear a "Do not tease me" sign, just in case someone misses the daily posting. Parents outraged over these decisions put the blame on self-esteem. It's quack science, get rid of it. Not so fast, says psychologist Nathaniel Branden, who's been writing and lecturing on self-esteem for over four decades. Self-esteem is real, Branden insists, and we need it desperately. But Branden's self-esteem differs radically from the kind government schools are promoting. "Self-esteem is an experience," he explains. More fully, it "is the disposition to experience oneself as being competent to cope with the basic challenges of life and of being worthy of happiness." [2] The higher our self-esteem, the more we tend to move toward life rather than away from it; the more we tend to treat facts with respect rather than denial, or operate self-responsibly rather than the opposite. As beings dependent on our minds, we need to trust the way we use them. That need for trust, he says, is the root of our need for self-esteem. How we use our minds is up to each of us. We always have a choice: To think or not to think. "We control the switch that turns consciousness brighter or dimmer," as he puts it. "We are not rational -- that is, reality-focused -- automatically." The root issue is our cognitive relationship to that which exists -- a.k.a. reality. "When we seek to align ourselves with reality as best we understand it, we nurture and support our self-esteem." If we seek escape from reality out of fear or desire, we undermine our self-esteem. In his book The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem, Branden discusses the six practices he's found to be essential to healthy self-esteem. Very briefly, these are: 1. Respect for facts. 2. Self-acceptance -- the ability to experience one's thoughts and feelings, and view one's actions, without necessarily condoning them. 3. Self-responsibility -- the realization we are the authors of our choices and actions. 4. Self-assertiveness -- the willingness to stand up for ourselves in appropriate ways. 5. Living purposefully -- pursuing short- and long-range goals, while monitoring action so we stay on track. 6. Personal integrity -- being the person we profess to be. We need to wake up to the fact that no one can give us self-esteem. The responsibility for sustaining it lies with each of us alone. If we fail to understand this principle, we tend to look for self-esteem where it can't be found, as many school teachers are doing. Branden cites a few of them: "Self-esteem comes primarily from one's peers," says one. "Children should not be graded for mastery of a subject because it may be hurtful to their self-esteem," say many others. And the clincher, the one most consistent with state authority: "Self-esteem is best nurtured by selfless (!) service to the community." As an antidote, sometimes called the "recovery movement," we hear a different message: Turn your problems over to God and He'll give you self-esteem. Taken literally, what would this entail? "We don't need to live consciously. We don't need to act self-responsibly. We don't need to have integrity. All we have to do is surrender responsibility to God and effortless self-esteem is guaranteed to us." Still another mistake is to measure our personal worth on the basis of our external achievements. "How much we will achieve in the world is not fully in our control," Branden notes. Achievements are things to value, but they are not substitutes for self-esteem. We can only control the actions of our consciousness. "Resourcefulness" -- an action of the mind -- becomes the generator of self-esteem. In 1996 three researchers published a study called "Relation of Threatened Egotism to Violence and Aggression: The Dark Side of High Self-Esteem." [3] The authors found that, although self-esteem is highly prized, it has some unfortunate synonyms, such as egotism, arrogance, conceitedness, narcissism, and a sense of superiority, all wrapped into a package called favorable self-evaluation. When a person of such "high" self-esteem perceives a threat, the reaction is sometimes violent. Thus, they observe, "the benefits of favorable self-opinions accrue primarily to the self, and they are if anything a burden and potential problem to everyone else." Given their statements, you have to wonder if these researchers were passed in Psychology 101 just to make them feel better. "One does not need to be a trained psychologist to know that some people with low self-esteem strive to compensate for their deficit by boasting, arrogance, and conceited behavior," Branden points out. "What educated person does not know about compensatory defense mechanisms? Self-esteem is not manifested in the neurosis we call narcissism -- or in megalomania." Does the scientist moved by intellectual self-trust and passion for discovery have the same self-esteem as the terrorist who gets his favorable self-evaluation from occasional acts of torture and murder? To believe they do, Branden insists, is "to empty the term of any usable meaning." In an interview, Roy F. Baumeister, one of the researchers, stated his position this way: "Ask yourself: If everybody were 50 percent more conceited, would the world be a better place?" Conceit and self-esteem are one and the same to Baumeister, apparently. Aside from a precise definition of self-esteem, Branden notes, the only things missing from Baumeister's study are consciousness and reality. We sometimes get a pleasant hit when someone pays us a compliment, and this can lead us into seeking approval from others to experience our self-esteem. But the high doesn't last long, and we always seem to be looking for more. If we face the situation consciously, we may discover that real self-approval comes from the six practices Branden discusses. If we persevere when persevering isn't easy, or face up to difficult truths, or take responsibility for our actions, or refuse to betray our convictions -- our self-esteem rises. On the other hand, we may notice our self-esteem fall when we do the opposite. Self-esteem is vital to our lives, but only if we understand what it really entails. Our kids won't learn it in school, but if they can survive their early years, they'll have Branden's books waiting for them when they get older. [1] Educators fight to protect self-esteem of goofy, loser kids,

[2] Nathaniel Branden, What Self-Esteem Is and Is Not [3] Psychological Review (1996, Vol. 103, 5-33). Cited in Branden, above.

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George F. Smith is the author of The Flight of The Barbarous Relic, a novel about a renegade Fed chairman.  Visit his website.