Self-Esteem: Who Needs It?

Smiley Face, Happy, Baloon AP

High self-esteem is our therapeutic panacea. Turns out, too much self-worth is a dangerous thing. And a little self-doubt helps too. In his latest Against the Grain commentary, CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer worries about the “you’re special” philosophy.


Don't you love it when you find shreds of scientific evidence to bolster your own pet prejudices? I sure do.

I have long been grossed out by the cult of self-esteem, our national obsession with coddling feelings of self-worth in our self-improving selves.

Just as obnoxious is our insistence on blaming every social deviation on low self-esteem. "Yes, Archie is an axe-murderer, but he has such low self-esteem." "Of course Tiffany is a glue-sniffing kleptomaniac, but who wouldn't be with her self-esteem issues?" “If Nixon felt better about himself he never would have let Watergate happen.”

My personal gag instinct has now been reinforced by reams of genuine psychological studies indicating that high self-esteem (whatever that may be) is not the fount of nirvana and low self-esteem is not the root of all evil.

New, serious studies have found that rapists and robbers are as likely to think highly of themselves as dentists and dockworkers. (We are quite pleased with ourselves, aren’t we Dr. Lechter?)

Further, new research by Dr. Brad Bushman and Dr. Roy Baumeister finds that such unesteemed cadres as neo-Nazi's, street thugs and bullies actually have very high regard for their beloved selves; too high, in fact, that’s the problem.

Over at the London School of Economics, in a land less enchanted with the love of Me, Dr. Nicholas Emler's research found no clear link between low self-esteem and behaviors we automatically associate with low self-esteem - juvenile delinquency, teen smoking, drug use or racism.

"There is absolutely no evidence that low self-esteem is particularly harmful," Emler said, and I esteem his position very highly.

This sort of research poses a mammoth empirical threat to the bedrock truism of modern psychobabble, and certainly to the huge and obnoxious self-improvement industry.

Self-improvement has deep, uniquely American roots. In a way, it is the American story, from the adages of Benjamin Franklin, to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “On Self-Reliance” to Jay Gatsby’s invention of himself.

The idea of “pursuit of happiness” began life in America as part of our rebel cry and a fairly clear political notion having to do with freedom from being interfered with.

It has morphed into a pursuit of self-realization, self-actualization, self-fulfillment, and self-esteem that is the personal ideal, and one that is, of course, unattainable.

Long before Christopher Lasch diagnosed our “culture of narcissism” in 1979, America’s self-o-centric ways irritated high-minded critics and foreigners. That didn’t stop venture capital from flooding to entrepreneurs of self-hood and turning self-stuff into big business.

The industry even has a sort of trade association, The National Association for Self-Esteem. “The purpose of our organization,” according to its Web site, "is to fully integrate self-esteem into the fabric of American society so that every individual, no matter what their age or background, experiences personal worth and happiness.” A modest goal.

We want our corporate chiselers and our pedophile priests to feel good about their Selves.

That’s why there’s www.self-esteemcards.com where you can buy the self-worth-challenged special e-mailable soup for the soul. That’s why searching the phrase self-esteem on amazon.com delivers 2,967 hits. That’s why plastic surgeons advertise the psychiatric benefits of breast implants and liposuction as medical nourishment for self-esteem.

As aesthetically and morally grating as the commercialized search for self is among grown-ups, it’s far worse when it comes to kids. The self-esteem lobby has infiltrated pedagogy and parenting in a huge way.

Stacks of books tell parents to tell their kids that they’re special. Teachers too. The kids might not be taught to spell “special” but special they are. We’re all special.

The new research on self-esteem suggests that all this isn’t just silliness. Unchallenged self-esteem therapies used in real life to attack problems like teen pregnancy, juvenile crime and alcohol abuse are probably sapping time and energy from far more productive responses.

The unself-esteem academic crowd suggests that it may be a far better thing to focus on teaching young selves to actually do certain things, rather than simply continue to drone the “I’m special” mantra.

I’ll go way out on a limb here and say that it’s better to teach a growing Self skills like discipline, control, tenacity, charity, manners, sportsmanship and math than it is to teach a Self to chant, “I’m special and I love myself every day and in every way.”

The anti-self researchers also suggest that so much attention to one’s very own self can be a recipe for one very unhappy, frustrated self.

Often it's those things that take us outside of our own Selves and into communities or other people’s needs that are most therapeutic – religion, volunteer work, mentoring, teaching, coaching, cheering on your team.

But one thing is for sure: I feel really good about this piece.

Dick Meyer, a veteran political and investigative producer for CBS News, is Editorial Director of CBSNews.com based in Washington.

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Against the Grain

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