The Big Ego Trip: Finding true significance in a culture
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MANY readers of this paper will have seen TV commercials
promoting women's beauty products, which end with the seductive
phrase "You're worth it!"
This is just one contemporary illustration of the very
self-focused world we inhabit. Glynn Harrison has written this
expert analysis of the self-esteem ideology that has gradually
penetrated much of our current thinking. He shows how this has
shaped a society in which we are constantly rating our
achievements, thinking of ourselves as "the greatest", or a
"brilliant/hopeless" person, always stirring up our inner feelings.
This culture of self-esteem leads directly to one of narcissism and
of confidently demanding one's rights.
The author is Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry at Bristol
University and he writes compellingly, in a contemporary style, of
how this culture has crept on us insidiously since the 1960s and
'70s. He refers to the work of significant therapists,
psychiatrists, and philosophers, quoting Freud, Carl Rogers, John
Bowlby, and others in UK and United States. He maintains even that
the world of arts and drama has seen a gradual shift in focus, "me"
moving increasingly to the centre. Church worship reflects this,
too, moving away from hymns about Victorian humility.
Humorously he describes the effect of rearing a daughter, for
instance, to be regarded as a "precious princess", her self-esteem
built up inappropriately, and resulting in her inability to cope
with subsequent failure, or negative experiences.
Consequently, Harrison concludes that self-esteem ideology
raises profound questions about nature and human destiny which
cannot be answered by experimental psychology. "Without a coherent
worldview, our journey has hit the buffers;" and "we need to
unravel the effects of this cultural epidemic of self-veneration."
Where better to look, he says, than to the Christian faith "resting
on the person and work of Jesus Christ - the 'Word' of God made
In the rest of the book he explores the biblical world-view
that, he believes, provides a way of managing both self and
feelings. We are encouraged to be self-compassionate, always
remembering that it is because God loved us so much that we became
his children by adoption and grace. This is what makes us
different, helping us put others' needs before ours, confidently
leaving all the judging to God, safe in the knowledge that this
transformative self-compassion is about self-denial,
self-discipline, and self-control.
This is a warm and humane book in which the author uses well his
gift for accurate observation. His rigorous evaluation of the ways
we have been brainwashed by our seductive culture is complemented
by his evident Christian faith. We must be grateful for this timely
contribution to our understanding of a serious threat to our
Christian inheritance, life, and practice.
The Revd Jenny Francis is a retired psychotherapist and a
priest in the diocese of Exeter.