"I'M SPECIAL!" "I'm a lovable person." "I'm powerful; I'm
strong." Every day, millions of people kick-start their morning
with self-affirming statements such as these.
Half a century ago, if somebody complained about feeling down, a
friend would probably offer this advice: "Don't get stuck in your
own problems. Maybe you need to stop thinking about yourself so
much. You'll never get anywhere by contemplating your own
Today, a friend would be more likely to intone: "You need to
believe in yourself. Forget about other people's expectations. Be
yourself. Learn to like yourself."
THESE trends bear witness to the success of a movement that is
dedicated to the belief that the key to human flourishing lies in
boosting your self-esteem. What started out 60 years ago as a
simple idea loaded with good intentions - to help people crushed by
criticism to stop beating themselves up in negativity - has grown
to become an all-purpose panacea.
Children have been targeted as those with potentially the most
to gain. With bold pledges that building a child's self-esteem
averts drug-misuse and teenage pregnancy, cultivates social
responsibility and delivers impressive educational outcomes,
self-esteem ideology has made remarkable inroads into the
As a result, competition is often discouraged, and learning to
fail well has become a forgotten art. Now, everybody is "special"
(not just to those who love them), and all must have prizes.
Parents have tried to inoculate their children against low
self-esteem as well: "Danger, Princess on Board!" "What have we
here: a little Mozart in the making?" The reli-gious establishment
has not been immune, either: once I saw a church website
trumpeting, "You're incredible: we're here to celebrate you!" In
the upside-down world of self-esteem, it is not the sin of pride
that we take into the confessional: it is the transgression of "not
liking myself enough".
SEVERAL factors converged to ensure the movement's success. First,
self-esteem ideologists made bold promises about its supposed
benefits. It is certainly true that negative self-evaluation is
linked with a range of adversities, such as poor mental health,
educational under-performance, and gang behaviour. But correlation
does not equal causation.
Even if low self-esteem could be isolated as a robust causal
factor, we cannot simply conclude that boosting ourselves will be
the solution. If that were the case, then we would have stumbled
across the Holy Grail of human happiness and well-being.
Second, the movement promised us significance. Since the
beginning of time, human beings have puzzled over where we figure
in the grand scheme of things, and what we are worth. Self-esteem
ideology gripped our imaginations because it engaged with this, and
it told us it could fix it.
Third, with the arrival of the sexual revolution and
individualism of the 1960s, the movement forged a powerful alliance
with the emerging spirit of the age. The new spirit of selfism -
letting it all hang out, being yourself - was effectively baptised
with the blessing of psychological science. Now you could have it
all, and psychology proved it.
After surfing the sexual revolu-tion of the 1960s, self-esteem
ideology thrived in the new humanisms of the 1970s (Tom Wolfe's "Me
Decade") and then mutated into the materialistic orgies of the
1980s (Gordon Gecko's "Greed is good").
Eventually, the primacy of self-admiration became the default
cultural mode: if we want to love one another, first we have to
learn to love ourselves. Didn't Jesus even say something about
loving your neighbour as yourself? We overdosed on self-admiration,
and the movement reshaped secular and Christian cultures alike.
DESPITE the popularity of interventions to promote self-esteem,
evaluations by a number of academics of their effectiveness have
repeatedly turned up negative findings. There is little robust
evidence that simplistic boosterism (as I prefer to call it)
produces the benefits it promises. More worryingly, researchers
have begun to uncover evidence that it may do more harm than
For example, in research carried out at the University of
Waterloo in Ontario (published in Psychological Science in
2009), subjects were taught to repeat, and then to focus
positively, on a range of commonly used upbeat statements such as
"I'm a lovable person." Later, when the researchers compared the
emotional responses of subjects, they found that participants with
low self-esteem at the start of the study actually felt worse by
The authors concluded that repeating positive self-statements
might marginally benefit some people (those who already had good
mental health), but "backfire for the very people who need them
Other researchers (such as J. Crocker and L. E. Park in
Psychological Bulletin in 2004) suggest that the pursuit
of self-esteem leads to a treadmill of self-monitoring, and
accentuates comparison of the self with others. Thus we tend to
flourish when the reviews are good, but get snagged in
disappointment or denial when they are bad. The result appears to
be more depression and self-absorption, difficulty with showing
empathy with others, and the erosion of confidence.
The recent death of the actor Robin Williams, which casts a
harsh spotlight on high suicide rates among men generally, is a
stark reminder that the intoxicating taste of success and celebrity
affords no protection from depression. Instead of delivering a
quick fix, boosterism simply sidetracks you into the psychological
cul-de-sac of yet more self-absorption.
Boosterism's patina of science cannot be allowed to sidestep the
larger philosophical questions that stand behind it. The
self-esteem movement has spun the fantasy that feelings of worth
can somehow be uncoupled from questions of meaning and purpose.
Despite the veneer of psychology, however, the ideology's core
philosophical problem stubbornly persists: the self cannot be
deemed "worthy" simply because it asserts itself to be so.
IN CONTRAST to the bland assurances of boosterism, the Christian
gospel insists that we deal in reality. Launching his ministry with
a courageous call to repentance, Jesus insisted on telling us that
we are not as good as we think we are.
Refusing to conspire with our ego-absorptions, he showed that
when the pursuit of self-worth and self-fulfilment become the
organising principles of mental life, we not only fall short of the
glory of God: we fall short of being fully human, too.
The Gospel-writers say that, before we can know how much we are
worth, we must know how much we are loved. In the first chapter of
John's Gospel, we discover that the God who speaks in the person of
Jesus Christ also speaks our identity to us.
For those who accept his call to repentance and forgiveness, the
God who spoke them into being now speaks of them, and esteems them,
as his image-bearing children. And this - our identity in Christ as
God's children - lays the founda-tion for personal growth, and
becomes the linchpin of change.
Old habits of staking our identity on our achievements die
reluctantly, of course. Many of us face a long, hard journey,
battling entrenched shame and self-condemnation, and a stubborn
desire to prove our worth.
Yet, as we grow in the imaginative task of inhabiting our
grace-drenched "right" (as the apostle puts it) to become children
of God, slowly, erratically, we come to know the true extent of our
worth. The answer to putting ourselves down is not to boost
ourselves up. It is to embrace who we are, God's children, and then
to live imaginatively and assertively out of that reality.
Dr Glynn Harrison is Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry in the
University of Bristol. His book The Big Ego Trip is
published by IVP.