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Angela Tilby: High self-esteem has its dangers

26 March 2021


I WAS taken by surprise last week by an opinion piece in The Times by James Marriott, the paper’s deputy books editor, which questioned the value of high self-esteem. I was surprised, because Mr Marriott belongs to the generation who have been told over and over again that holding a good opinion of yourself is the key to human success and happiness. It goes along with the contemporary emphasis on self-care and “being kind” to oneself. Mr Marriott describes belief in the importance of high self-esteem as an outcome of “the quasi-theological idea that human beings are innately good”.

Holding high self-esteem as a virtue necessary for health and happiness is fairly common both in medical-speak and church-speak today. I have heard quite a few sermons in which the gospel is framed in terms of valuing ourselves, with a faint reference to our creation in God’s image.

But the true origins of the self-esteem gospel lie in the human-potential movement: part of 1960s American counter-culture. The key figure here is Carl Rogers, the father of person-centred psychology. Rogers believed that the root of much emotional disturbance was self-contempt. What troubled people most needed was an experience of what he called “unconditional positive regard”. Rogers compared this to Christian love, or agape.

I see what Rogers was getting at. He reminds me of a famous sermon by Paul Tillich, which presented the gospel message as “Simply accept the fact that you are accepted.” And, perhaps after centuries of Christian pessimism about the worth of human persons, this was an emphasis appropriate for its time.

But today, perhaps, it has been heard too well, and Mr Marriott is right in his suspicions. He speaks from experience, having struggled all his life with feelings of inadequacy, and yet finding success by listening, in his case, to his own envy. Instead of ignoring the envy and sinking into a warm bath of self-esteem, he let it prod him into struggling for success.

A belief in high self-esteem can lead people to deny their faults and ignore what can be learnt from others’ criticism. I certainly came across the negative effects of high self-esteem when I was involved in ministerial training. Some students (thankfully, not many) found it almost impossible to hear anything that remotely questioned their view of themselves as gifted and special.

Valuing high self-esteem plays into the solipsistic individualism of our age, and can make us anti-social, blind to the way in which others see us, indifferent even to the call to do “good works”, because why should we, when we see our very existence as a blessing to others? More dangerously, it could make us a prey to those swirling ideologies where “others” with different beliefs from our own are the enemy. Culturally, the human-potential movement has been a mixed blessing.

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