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Re: what is Self Esteem? / Janice

Posted by Mark H. on April 21, 2000, at 2:54:05

In reply to Re: Now that you brought it up…what is Self Esteem? , posted by KarenB on April 20, 2000, at 23:33:59

Hi Janice,

Good question! While Kelly's answer is excellent and well balanced, I tend to agree more with those who would replace the concept of "self-esteem" (i. e., to have esteem for oneself, to "highly value" and "hold oneself in high regard") with the more useful concept of "accurate self knowledge."

People who got rich in the 1980s through arbitraging may have lots of self esteem, but their actions will still cost our children and grandchildren billions of dollars in taxes to cover the S&L failures they created on their way to personal wealth. A skillful serial killer or sexual psychopath may have high self esteem and take great pride in his ability to avoid capture. I don't think that was what their grade-school teachers had in mind, however.

Holding yourself in high regard is an abhorent concept in all spiritual paths. So why do we institutionalize self esteem in this country as though it were a cure-all for every social and personal ill? If you're confused by the concept of self esteem, I think that's a very positive sign.

Alternatively, "accurate self-knowledge" isn't about puffing yourself up or putting yourself down. It lets you off of the see-saw that the concept of self esteem seems to engender.

If you do something generous, kind, virtuous, positive, skillful, intelligent, thoughtful or productive, for instance, then being aware of it is a form of accurate self knowledge. Hopefully, reminding yourself of your good deeds will reinforce them in a positive way.

But the worst thing that could happen would be to let awareness of your good deeds increase your "self-esteem." Eventually, that becomes what T. S. Eliot in Murder in the Cathedral disdained in the lines, "The last temptation is the greatest treason / to do the right thing for the wrong reason." The real treason of pride is not a treason to others but to yourself.

Every major religion in the world speaks against pride, hubris, clinging to self. Yet we still put bumper-stickers on our station wagons that read, "Proud Parent of an Honor Student at Vacaville Middle School," as though our children's worth and lovability had anything to do with their grade point average. Just once I'd like to see a bumper sticker that said, "Humbly grateful that my kid is reasonably healthy and hasn't killed anybody this year."

Likewise, if you do something stupid, thoughtless, unkind, dishonest or unvirtuous, then being aware of that too is is a form of accurate self knowledge. You don't have to go into a big slump, discount the good you've done, or catastrophize the situation and imagine that you are now and forever an unredeemably awful person. Nor do you have to deny your mistakes and pretend they don't exist in order to maintain your "self esteem."

Awareness of your faults, mistakes and misdeeds can and should bring about appropriate regret and a commitment to do better, but it should *not* involve your "self-esteem" or lead to guilt and self-punishment. There's an important difference between "feeling guilty" and "feeling regret but making a commitment to change." Guilt is just the flip-side of pride, another indulgence and glorification of the self.

In application, the concept of self esteem cuts both ways. To the extent that teachers and counselors intend the concept to help children or adults have more accurate self knowledge and make more reasonable, balanced and *appropriately* positive self assessments, it can and is used as a tool for good.

However, in practice it is also used to write people off for their failures. "Why do fewer minority children make it to college? It's their lack of self esteem." "She's in an abusive marriage (or she dresses like that) because she has no self esteem." Etc., etc., ad nauseum. Very few people wake up to this nonsense and ask, "What's this self esteem stuff anyway? Is anyone discussing values here or are we only concerned with how we 'feel' about ourselves??"

I want to make it clear that I don't think everyone who uses the term or concept does so in a hollow, slogan-ish, or dismissive way. I am advocating use of different language so that we stop presuming we're all talking about the same thing when in fact most of us have very little understanding of what self esteem means.

Thanks for asking, Janice.

With warm regards,

Mark H.




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