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Why boosts to self-esteem don’t cure all ills

29 August 2014

Encouraging people to believe that they are special can be counter-productive, argues Glynn Harrison

"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 navel."

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 educational establishment.

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 good.

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 end.

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 most".

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.

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