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The empty version of self-esteem proved infectious
March 9, 2014 3:33 PM   Subscribe

"In 1986, Californian legislators created the State Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility... [Its] final report became a the foundational works of the self-esteem movement. It concluded that:
"Self-esteem is the likeliest candidate for a social vaccine, something that empowers us to live responsibly and that inoculates us against the lures of crime, violence, substance abuse, teen pregnancy, child abuse, chronic welfare dependency and educational failure. The lack of self-esteem is central to most personal and social ills plaguing our state and nation as we approach the end of the 20th century."
Is the relentless pursuit of self-esteem really all cracked up to be? The man who destroyed America's ego tells the story of social psychologist Roy Baumeister, and how his efforts have shed light on some of the core tenets of the self-esteem movement. (via)

self-esteem
noun
1. A realistic respect for or favorable impression of oneself.
2. An inordinately or exaggeratedly favorable impression of oneself.

"Narcissism, then, is a kind of addiction to self-esteem. So what would happen if you took an entire generation of young people and systematically and repeatedly masturbated their self-esteem mechanisms? Could it be true that the children raised in the school of Rogers, Branden, and Vasconcellos were growing up to be entitled, egomaniacal narcissists?"

Extra reading: sociometer theory
posted by tybeet (48 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite

 
Could it be true that the children raised in the school of Rogers, Branden, and Vasconcellos were growing up to be entitled, egomaniacal narcissists?

Very few things turn out to be as simple as "if we tell everybody to love themselves then we'll fix all the world's problems". But... look, every generation of professors has thought that their students didn't work as hard as their generation did, and back when he was in college, you didn't have to go to college to get a job that paid a living wage, which shockingly changes the demographics of the student population. Depression, anxiety, eating disorders? All still around, in quantity, and those don't exactly speak to crippling levels of overconfidence.

Twenty- and thirty-somethings in the US are not suffering from a lack of work ethic, we're suffering from a lack of available stable jobs and crippling debt. We have a bunch of people who know to check off "my life is valuable and meaningful" on a survey because we know we're supposed to feel that way, and now we're all narcissists. Yeah, I'm not saying that woo-woo positive thinking stuff is any better, but to call it one of the century's "most dangerous" ideas seems very much to be suggesting that our problems are the fault of this so-called narcissism, and not the economic troubles brought on by corporations and governments run by people in Baumeister's own generation.
posted by Sequence at 3:52 PM on March 9 [82 favorites]


I never realized that my lack of self-esteem was such a hot button issue. I'm sorry—I'll try to do better.
posted by 1970s Antihero at 4:01 PM on March 9 [20 favorites]


I'm getting suspicious of the number of annotations saying variations on "Tell the un-PC truth to all those shitty liberals!"
posted by fatbird at 4:04 PM on March 9 [16 favorites]


Statistically, everything in that quote has actually happened. Since 1986, crime is down, violent crime is way down, educational attainment is up, welfare dependency is down, teen pregnancy is down, alcoholism and most drug abuse are both down (marijuana use is up, though). One can't simply point at "self esteem" as the cause for all this but it's interesting to think about.
posted by BabeTheBlueOX at 4:04 PM on March 9 [34 favorites]


One can't simply point at "self esteem" as the cause for all this

Why not? It would be as well-supported as the 50000 articles a year saying everyone under 30 is a whiny, entitled narcissist because they got participation trophies in soccer.
posted by escabeche at 4:25 PM on March 9 [16 favorites]


Anybody can be cool, but awesome takes practice.

As seen on the Blue yesterday.

http://www.boredpanda.com/funny-book-titles-covers/?image_id=worst-book-covers-titles-52.jpg
posted by otto42 at 4:36 PM on March 9 [1 favorite]


This is a really confused article. It misrepresents what Rogers says for a start. It seems to be conflating high self-esteem and artificially-high self-esteem, as a way of saying the "self-esteem movement" (anyone?) is really dangerous. And his groundbreaking work was his revelation that sometimes people do bad things for reasons they think are justified? Really? He broke that ground?

Methinks someone was trying very hard to impress Daddy.
posted by billiebee at 4:42 PM on March 9 [4 favorites]


But as the paper archly observed in its conclusion, “Hitler had very high self-esteem and plenty of initiative, too, but those were hardly guarantees of ethical behavior.” Baumeister’s study was published in May 2003. “It was,” he says, “a shock to a lot of people.”

Yes. And they were shocked that a self-inflated narcissist who deliberately Godwinned his own academic paper while making one final backhanded ad hominem against his critics somehow managed to get published.

Seriously. Anyone who does this in a serious, academic paper should automatically lose their tenure.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 4:42 PM on March 9


Could it be true that the children raised in the school of Rogers, Branden, and Vasconcellos were growing up to be entitled, egomaniacal narcissists?

nope
posted by Ray Walston, Luck Dragon at 4:46 PM on March 9 [3 favorites]


As a man of science, he insists his views are influenced only by data; his determination to remain apart from ideology is so strong that he even refuses to vote. “I try not to have political views,” he says. “I try to get rid of all biases. I want to be open to all ideas. Caring just slows me down.”
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 4:58 PM on March 9


Are we discussing self-esteem or narcissism? How does one differentiate between those who self-report their esteem versus the actual level of it? Some people talk a good talk and some people play the modesty card to the hilt. Kids can parrot what parents tell them, but it is just a case of being a spokesperson to your parents' oversell. Interesting but uninformative.

And does self-esteem hold for us across the board? People who lie do assume they are smarter than the people they lie to, but then again, would they lie if they thought their actual accomplishments were good enough in the first place?

I suspect kids do misunderstand the meaning of the concept "I am special" -- assuming great things will just stick to them because they are made of a rare special sticky sauce, but a few years in the real world sort of debunks the notion and introduces the concept of work and random chance.

But social psych is philosophy in a lab coat and it was an interesting read all the same. Thank you!
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 5:06 PM on March 9 [1 favorite]


My undergraduate honours thesis was a multivariate analysis (factor analysis, multidimensional scaling, some regression and so on ) of several of the major self esteem inventories at the time with about 6000+ subjects worth of data collected from several different subject populations. Not a single one of the inventories actually had the psychometric properties that were claimed in their publications. Not one. None of the inventories had even the basic properties espoused by standard measurement theory. I pretty much concluded that the tests all had unearned high esteem. Which is consistent with the goals of the self-esteem movement!

It was pretty horrible to start out in graduate school with your faith in one of the major areas of research at the time completely shattered. So much so I eventually switched over to cognition and the relative conceptual safety of word-nerdery and semantic priming before washing out in my phd. Twenty years on I still have very little faith in the science of psychological measurement. It probably also doesn't help that it is also what the racists like to do.
posted by srboisvert at 5:11 PM on March 9 [18 favorites]


You are confident about what you know about yourself.

You are insecure about what you think about yourself.

Good self-esteem is based on what you know about yourself, and focusing on that. Bad self-esteem is based on things that you're unsure of. Therefore, teaching people that they have intrinsic value just because they are breathing is a pretty good thing. Inflating people's egos, not so much.

You *can* teach young people to respect themselves without blowing smoke up their asses.

But hey, we can also lump everything into a big pile and then argue about whether it should be labeled "good" or "bad".
posted by svenni at 5:13 PM on March 9 [3 favorites]


Baumeister's original study was a pretty exhaustive review of the empirical, objective evidence that was available. The actual study(can be found here). I haven't read it yet, so if anyone can find methodological problems or discuss it intelligently that would be great.

In any case, Baumeister's main point is that self-esteem is the result of doing good stuff in the real world, not the cause of it:

“Self-esteem,” they wrote, “is one’s subjective appraisal of how one is faring with regard to being a valuable, viable and sought-after member of the groups and relationships to which one belongs and aspires to belong.”

Which seems right to me.

on preview: AlexandraKitty, the difference is that narcissists have an unstable high self-esteem and that narcissism is predictive of violence whereas high self-esteem is not.
posted by mrbigmuscles at 5:14 PM on March 9 [1 favorite]


on preview: AlexandraKitty, the difference is that narcissists have an unstable high self-esteem and that narcissism is predictive of violence whereas high self-esteem is not.

Yes, but on first read, it seemed a bit muddled in the article, but perhaps on a second reading the differences were explained better than what I came away with...
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 5:24 PM on March 9


Lauren Slater on self-esteem in the nytimes.
posted by DarkForest at 5:26 PM on March 9


Leader John Vasconcellos, a California assemblyman, dismissed doubters as people who “only live in their heads,” insisting that “we all know in our gut that it’s true.”

reminds me of this immortal Colbert bit:

That's where the truth lies, right down here in the gut. Do you know you have more nerve endings in your gut than you have in your head? You can look it up. I know some of you are going to say "I did look it up, and that's not true." That's 'cause you looked it up in a book. Next time, look it up in your gut. I did. My gut tells me that's how our nervous system works.
posted by thelonius at 5:27 PM on March 9 [7 favorites]


“Self-esteem,” they wrote, “is one’s subjective appraisal of how one is faring with regard to being a valuable, viable and sought-after member of the groups and relationships to which one belongs and aspires to belong.”

This is where they mistake the concept of unconditional positive regard. It's not about giving people "freedom" in the sense that they can do whatever they like. What it means is that people are accepted for who they are, and not for how they are seen as "valuable, viable and sought-after member of the groups and relationships" to which they belong. So if what is "valued" in your group - family or society or whatever - is a certain form of masculinity, say, or belief, then how "sought-after" you are is dependent on how much you conform to that. And if you don't really feel it, it's a struggle to reconcile your inner and outer selves. Being allowed to connect with and be valued for your genuine self is to learn to trust it, which will allow for greater self-esteem in terms of being confident and happy to trust your own judgement. There's nothing dangerous about that.
posted by billiebee at 5:30 PM on March 9 [6 favorites]


Well, shit.

Doonesbury is once again relevant.

The storyline went for two weeks (minus the intervening Sunday strip), starting February 9, 1987 and concluding February 21, 1987.

Three years later, after the commission released its findings, the strip revisited the subject for a week-long series, starting February 19, 1990 and ending and ending February 24, 1990.

I believe the former series also contains the very first appearance of "Lord Hunk-ra," who would be a recurring presence in the strip for years after.
posted by The Confessor at 5:39 PM on March 9 [1 favorite]


Wow, a product of their own work... great article, thanks for posting!
posted by JoeXIII007 at 5:59 PM on March 9


This is where they mistake the concept of unconditional positive regard. It's not about giving people "freedom" in the sense that they can do whatever they like.

I didn't see where they said that, but maybe I misread it. Here's the whole segment on unconditional positive regard (which is in the conclusion section, IMO the least important section of any scientific paper):

In some ways, the grandfather of the self-esteem movement was Carl Rogers, who promoted the idea of “unconditional positive regard” as a way of helping children avoid the feeling that their parents might stop loving them if they failed to perform up to high standards. Sadly, over time unconditional positive regard has taken the form of suggesting that parents and teachers should never criticize children and indeed should praise children even for mediocre or trivial accomplishments, or just for being themselves. Always praising and never criticizing may feel good to everyone concerned, but the data we have reviewed do not show that such an approach will produce desirable outcomes.

So, telling someone that they are smart, accomplished, rewarding to be with, have good hygiene, etc. when those things aren't true (unconditional positive regard) is like pushing the gas needle towards "F" in an effort to refill your gas tank. To take this metaphor a little further, even IF you get the needle to stick on "F", i.e., you get the person to actually believe that they are smart, accomplished, etc. it STILL won't be true (the tank is still empty) AND it will never cause it to be true (your gas needle doesn't refill the tank). Plus, now their indicator gives a false reading, so they won't make any effort to improve themselves. and FINALLY, they will eventually run out of gas regardless of what they're told, i.e. they'll be fired for incompetence, or dumped because they're a bore, and it will be a surprise and that's doubly harmful.
posted by mrbigmuscles at 6:04 PM on March 9 [5 favorites]


So, telling someone that they are smart, accomplished, rewarding to be with, have good hygiene, etc. when those things aren't true (unconditional positive regard)

Again, that is not what UPR means. It's not lying to people, it's accepting them. It's not about pretending someone is "smart". It's about not bringing up children with the message "I'll only love you if you're smart. If you don't get As like your sister you are not as valuable." And what does society view as "smart"? It's about giving people the space to be the best person they can be, not the person we decide they should be. Because when you get told "you should be like X" and you really feel like Y, you tend to be not very happy.
posted by billiebee at 6:13 PM on March 9 [15 favorites]


Having attended elementary and middle school in the 80s and early 90s, I was essentially ground zero for the self-esteem movement. From my experience, the whole concept of self-esteem was kind of useless.

The kids who already had "high self-esteem" were essentially told, "You're great and you should feel great!" And they already felt great, so they gave themselves hugs and got back to their healthy social lives. The kids (such as myself) with "low self-esteem" were told, "You're great, but you don't think you're great, so cheer up! You're really great!" And we were like, "... okay...." I mean, where do you go from there? I say this as someone who spent a few months of 7th and 8th grade in an inpatient facility for depression, saw numerous therapists, and at one point was even in a low self-esteem support group for kids my age.

You quickly learned that having "low self-esteem" was a great way to get attention from well-meaning adults. And if you're an unpopular kid who gets pushed around a lot, it can feel nice to get some positive attention for a change. Problem is, if you're in that situation, you don't need attention from a bunch of well-meaning adults peddling empty platitudes; what you need are actual social skills that will help you form a normal social life. People feel good about themselves because they have good lives. You can't just take someone with a sad life, tell them they're great, and then expect them to have a good life. To me, that's confusing cause with effect.

No, I don't think self esteem was "one of the century's most dangerous ideas". I think that's pretty hyperbolic. But I will say that, at least in my case, the self esteem movement did the opposite of what was intended. It rewarded self-pitying with increased attention from adults, none of whom were able to help me.

If anything, I would say the concept of self-esteem is just a massive over-simplification. Maybe this is where we have to forgive people in the past because they didn't know any better. But whether or not a kid (or adult) feels good about themselves depends on a lot of factors in their life. Goes back to Maslow and his famous hierarchy of needs. You can't just boil all that down into one concept, call it "self-esteem", and then point to people and say, "You're just sad because you don't have enough of this thing we invented! Go out and get more of this thing!"
posted by evil otto at 7:07 PM on March 9 [15 favorites]


You can't just boil all that down into one concept....and then point to people and say, "You're just sad because you don't have enough of this thing we invented! Go out and get more of this thing!"

Sure you can. We call it "money."
posted by escabeche at 7:22 PM on March 9 [16 favorites]


Bwahaha he is raising the alarm about how telling every child they are worth something is a "dangerous 20th century ideology" and concludes by Godwinning himself, apparently with absolutely no irony intended.
posted by Vulgar Euphemism at 7:46 PM on March 9 [1 favorite]


Goes back to Maslow and his famous hierarchy of needs. You can't just boil all that down into one concept, call it "self-esteem", and then point to people and say, "You're just sad because you don't have enough of this thing we invented! Go out and get more of this thing!"

Going back to Maslow: I think many, many people are deeply (and rightly) worried about their physical safety and security, and those anxieties trump whatever might be going on with their self-esteem.
posted by rue72 at 8:27 PM on March 9 [2 favorites]


Anybody who has a single bad word to say about Carl Rogers has disqualified themselves from having any opinions about anything worth listening to.

Hating on Carl Rogers is like hating on Mr. Rogers in that way.
posted by edheil at 8:50 PM on March 9 [2 favorites]


And then a bunch of Christians got mad because kids in school we're meditating with the phrase "I'm me and I'm enough." Because without God, you're not enough, and kids shouldn't be taught that. True story.
posted by vitabellosi at 8:59 PM on March 9 [1 favorite]


Is that my cue? I read from the worst of men, that if God can't judge you, then any liberal leader who can judge you is then God.
posted by sieve a bull at 9:19 PM on March 9


Strip away a person’s smile and you’ll find a grotesque, writhing animal-thing.


Oh, you say that like it's a BAD thing.
posted by louche mustachio at 9:21 PM on March 9 [5 favorites]


Self-esteem reminds me of patriotism somehow.
posted by save alive nothing that breatheth at 9:59 PM on March 9 [3 favorites]


Having attended elementary and middle school in the 80s and early 90s, I was essentially ground zero for the self-esteem movement. From my experience, the whole concept of self-esteem was kind of useless.

And a massive mind f*** for sensitive kids. Because their little antennae were all they way up, and they quickly figured out that if you were saying the same thing to all the kids, then it meant absolutely nothing. The adults started to sound like Charlie Brown's mom, and at the same time, you weren't really sure what reality really was.

I still give serious side eye to adults of a certain age and teacherly demeanor that give me a compliment or praise. I mumble "uhm thanks" and back away very slowly, making no sudden movements.
posted by susiswimmer at 10:02 PM on March 9 [7 favorites]


I thought Rogers' unconditional positive regard was a psychotherapy stance, not a method for winning friends and influencing (healthy) people. The gist being that psychotherapy patients often thought they were very messed up (hopeless and useless and helpless &c.) and accurate feedback that they were not nearly as messed up as they thought, but perhaps only very slightly more messed up than an average person, made the psychotherapy quicker and easier and more productive for the patient.

Not sure how you get straightaway from that to Branden's almost-everybody-is-better-off-with-more-self-esteem. Almost everybody I know would be better off with a little less self-esteem. People who are clinically depressed usually would be better off with some more. Maybe Nathaniel Branden's social group was a statistical outlier of depressed folks?

That a bunch of California bureaucrats concluded students needed self-esteem boosting is weird. What's up with that?
posted by bukvich at 10:57 PM on March 9 [2 favorites]


Not sure how you get straightaway from that to Branden's almost-everybody-is-better-off-with-more-self-esteem... Maybe Nathaniel Branden's social group was a statistical outlier of depressed folks?

Well, he hung out with Ayn Rand, right? (Who wasn't depressed, I don't think, but was an outlier.)

That a bunch of California bureaucrats concluded students needed self-esteem boosting is weird. What's up with that?

I don't know, that wasn't expected but wasn't surprising.
posted by cotton dress sock at 12:52 AM on March 10


Back in the 1950s, just over one in ten 14- to 16-year-olds agreed with the statement “I am an important person.”
. . .while 9 in 10 responded, "that question isn't specific enough to be answerable without more context."
By the late 1980s, that number had risen to 80 per cent. . .
. . . who had grown up in an environment where "everyone is important" appeared on classroom posters and kids' television programs. It no longer seemed like a bizarre way to phrase a question about social class and was immediately recognizable as a statement about self-worth.

Or, so it says here on the cushion of my pop-psychology armchair.
posted by eotvos at 1:06 AM on March 10 [1 favorite]


So kind of like evil otto, I was in the heart of the brand new "self-esteem" education system.

And in middle school, they started this new Personal Best program, where you received a t-shirt, and then whenever you achieved something at school, like good attendance or a good grade or helped out at something or whatever, you got a new decal to iron onto your t-shirt.

They bought one of those big iron-on machines that you see at shopping malls, bought piles of t-shirts (all in that light blue school colour), got hundreds of vinyl decals to iron on, all set up to promote self-esteem to all these kids.

Except they forgot something obvious - in order to get these decals on your precious shirt, you had to physically bring the shirt in and take it to the people who were doing the ironing. And if you didn't bother with that, then you didn't have any decals.

Then they had Personal Best Day, where everyone had to wear their Personal Best shirt. And then they organised all the students by the number of decals they had on their shirt.

You can guess how this went. Kids who didn't bother with the t-shirts stuck with kids who hadn't earned decals. Or, to put it really bluntly, an overly precocious nerd girl who didn't want to play the game was in the same group as the people who were bullying her.

Thanks, Personal Best. You really helped my self-esteem there.
posted by Katemonkey at 2:58 AM on March 10 [1 favorite]


And then they organised all the students by the number of decals they had on their shirt.

For what it's worth, public ranking of students according to arbitrary linear measures is one of the things the "self-esteem" method is supposed to be against.
posted by escabeche at 5:59 AM on March 10 [1 favorite]


My standard diagnosis of certain blowhard media commentators is that they suffer from high self-esteem.
posted by Flexagon at 7:01 AM on March 10


Oh hello MRA talking points, I am surprised but not shocked to see you in this essay.
posted by postcommunism at 7:59 AM on March 10 [2 favorites]


What bugs me about arguments like this comes down to the word 'unearned.' No matter what the immediate complaint is, whether it's that children will become lazy or complacent or afraid of failure (or now, violent), it always comes back to this fear of and anger at "unearned, undeserved" self-esteem. Who on earth starts spinning catastrophes at the idea that a child might think too highly of themselves? If the problem is untested self-confidence, doesn't that problem solve itself rather quickly and painfully upon entering adulthood?
Five-year-olds in a Texas nursery were made to wear T-shirts that said ‘I’m loveable and capable’ and to recite the mantra daily.
On the one had, that sounds absurd. On the other, isn't it pretty well accepted that it's developmentally valuable for 5 year olds to believe they are secure in parental affection and that they have some tiny 5 year old agency? Or is that baseline emotional security also unearned self esteem?

I've read really good criticisms of self esteem as it is conceived and attempted within American institutions, mostly here on the blue. For example, that indiscriminate positive reinforcement will actually create a sense of peril or insecurity because it is disconnected from realistic appraisal, driving students to avoid failure at all costs as they internalize that the approval of those with power over them is contingent on grading rituals more than personal ability or intrinsic worth. That was a big "oh duh, that makes a lot of sense" moment.

The OP even touches on that, right before it veers back into moralizing:
The problem seemed to be that high self-esteem is a mixed category. Some who have it are presumably healthily and accurately confident in themselves. Their sociometers are functioning well. “If you went up to Einstein and told him he was stupid,” says Baumeister, “he’s not going to get mad.” Narcissism, though, is different: It’s the desire to feel you’re superior. “Narcissists believe they deserve to be treated better than other people,” he says. They also lack the moral values of people with genuine high self-esteem.

Narcissism, then, is a kind of addiction to self-esteem. So what would happen if you took an entire generation of young people and systematically and repeatedly masturbated their self-esteem mechanisms? Could it be true that the children raised in the school of Rogers, Branden, and Vasconcellos were growing up to be entitled, egomaniacal narcissists?
I dunno, maybe? I assume there's loads more evidence then the couple studies presented, at least one of which seems to measure not how "I am an important person" has been internalized by schoolchildren, but how it has been increasingly presented as the right answer on a test? I'm not being sarcastic, I assume there is more evidence, but the essay isn't really interested in incoming narcissism so much as in deriding -- again, unearned -- self esteem. Narcissism just happens to be a vector for that, standing in where work ethic usually does. (Actually, I think the essay itself may be giving Baumeister juuust enough rope to hang himself, but say 'the essay' for simplicity.)

> And then a bunch of Christians got mad because kids in school we're meditating with the phrase "I'm me and I'm enough." Because without God, you're not enough, and kids shouldn't be taught that.

The least charitable reading of arguments like the OP always leads me roughly here; that the real objection, no matter how much it's couched as concern for the kids, is about maintaining a never articulated but strongly felt version of original sin; that our default assumption should not be one of some minimum worth and/or dignity, but of a total worthlessness which some can, by dint of pleasing a gatekeeping authority, "earn" their way out of.

Which yeah, may have a lot of precedent as a social structure. But in a well-fed society, why protect it?
posted by postcommunism at 9:48 AM on March 10 [7 favorites]


Too much of self-esteem is actually "other-esteem" -- but schools constantly believe that they can talk kids into believing things. If kids really had self-esteem (which, I believe, comes from having a sense of agency and having a say in one's own governance) a lot of them would walk out of school and never look back., because it's a compulsory setting in which children have very little say.
posted by vitabellosi at 11:08 AM on March 10 [2 favorites]


I'm surprised nobody has mentioned the distinction between self-esteem and self-efficacy, or global self-esteem vs. specific self-esteem, which I understand to make a similar distinction.

People can hold a certain belief about their inherent self-worth as a human being, which is separate from beliefs about their ability to live up to standards within specific domains (e.g., academic self-efficacy).

I think at least some of the disagreement can be resolved if we make this distinction, since a person's global self-worth can be nurtured unconditionally, while their "specific self-esteems" can be evaluated conditionally. By the same token, you might say that the problem with "entitlement" stems from unrealistic "specific self-esteems," as individuals (e.g., students) come to believe that they are more capable or deserving in specific domains (e.g., the classroom) than they are according to objective or (agreed-upon) subjective standards. You might say that one of the issues with Baumeister's conceptualization is that global self-esteem is treated as if it's an aggregate of specific self-esteems (i.e., that it's ultimately conditional).
posted by tybeet at 11:14 AM on March 10 [4 favorites]


Esteem cleaner
posted by mmrtnt at 12:35 PM on March 10


I think the original idea was probably something completely sensible, correctly nuanced and non-controversial, like "people with healthy self-esteem seem to be less inclined toward crime and violence" ("healthy esteem" here meaning something like "accurate and realistic perception of themselves and their own strengths and weaknesses, without excesses of self-loathing or self-love") but in the abstract extreme-seeking churn that is American culture, "healthy" got confused with its occasional synonym "ample" or "plentiful," and so in the simplified version that influenced the popular culture, it came to be all about giving kids "more" self-esteem, which doesn't really even make a lot of sense when you consider what self-esteem actually is.

It seems to me it doesn't really make sense to speak of self-esteem as a thing that one possesses in quantity or not in the first place. It's the quality of people's self-esteem that matters, isn't it? But we don't do qualitative thinking well anymore IMO. We're all about quantifying things these days, whether they are things it makes sense to quantify or not. Maybe that's where the self-esteem movement actually went off the rails: in viewing self-esteem as a need to be filled, like a kind of commodity you either do or don't "have," rather than understanding it more correctly as an inevitable feature of human identity that can develop in a variety of healthy and unhealthy ways.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:14 PM on March 10 [3 favorites]


isn't it pretty well accepted that it's developmentally valuable for 5 year olds to believe they are secure in parental affection and that they have some tiny 5 year old agency? Or is that baseline emotional security also unearned self esteem?

Oh come on! What have those 5-year-olds done for me lately?
posted by rue72 at 1:35 PM on March 10


That anyone could look at women aged 20-40 and insist they think too highly of themselves almost has to have some ulterior motive. Regardless of how they rank their "self esteem," almost every woman I know in this age range is insecure about her appearance, her weight, and her career/educational status (see: imposter syndrome). Many are insecure about their relationships, health, the amount of kids they do or don't have, how well they're handling motherhood, etc. Even my friends who totally have their shit together feel like they're doing it all wrong.

So yeah, I am super suspicious of anyone who thinks I should feel worse (or "more realistic") about my value and abilities. Women could be achieving 99% of their potential and society would still try to make them feel like they're worthless garbage to sell them things and control their behavior. We shouldn't have to vigorously defend and justify every tiny sliver of satisfaction we have with ourselves, and we shouldn't be branded "entitled, egomaniacal narcissists" when we don't.
posted by almostmanda at 6:00 AM on March 11 [3 favorites]


So yeah, I am super suspicious of anyone who thinks I should feel worse (or "more realistic") about my value and abilities.

Oh yeah, the anti-self-esteem movement seems to be comprised chiefly of a bunch of resentful, self-loathing thugs who think there's some inherent value in "putting people in their place." But really, starting from a more nuanced, less pop-culture commoditized, "more-is-better" conception of self-esteem in the first place makes it harder for those kinds of hateful viewpoints to get traction with their idiotic, bumper-sticker-slogan-grade reasoning in the first place. Framing a potential solution to a problem in an overly simplistic way can all-too-easily have the effect of allowing comparably overly-simplistic objections to the solution to come across as sensible, intelligent criticisms.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:40 AM on March 11


but of a total worthlessness which some can, by dint of pleasing a gatekeeping authority, "earn" their way out of.

Sounds about right, and even worse, the authorities are inherently worthless too and in practice variously nonexistent (God), corrupt (institutions) or at best contingent and precarious (wealth).

I want a politics that faces the Angst head-on.
posted by save alive nothing that breatheth at 6:42 PM on March 11


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