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Cure for the ‘me’ obsession

18 July 2014

Jenny Francis reads a psychiatrist who prescribes the gospel

The Big Ego Trip: Finding true significance in a culture of self-esteem
Glynn Harrison
IVP £9.99
Church Times Bookshop £9 (Use code CT641 )

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 flesh"?

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.

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