NYT Magazine's Lauren Slater on Self-Esteem
February 5, 2002 9:17 AM   Subscribe

NYT Magazine's Lauren Slater on Self-Esteem
Last year alone there were three withering studies of self-esteem released in the United States, all of which had the same central message: people with high self-esteem pose a greater threat to those around them than people with low self-esteem and feeling bad about yourself is not the cause of our country's biggest, most expensive social problems. The research is original and compelling and lays the groundwork for a new, important kind of narrative about what makes life worth living -- if we choose to listen, which might be hard. One of this country's most central tenets, after all, is the pursuit of happiness, which has been strangely joined to the pursuit of self-worth.

Great, long article on the change in perspective on self-esteem. Do you question yourself? How does your self-esteem impact yourself or others around you? Is high self-esteem importatnt to you? What if your high self-esteem could negatively affect others around you?
posted by gen (39 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Interesting article. In his blog, psychiatrist Eliot Gelwan posted his reactions to the article. In particular, I find the following comments interesting:

I have long written and taught that impulse dyscontrol and disinhibition, with both physiological ("nature") and psychodynamic ("nurture") aspects, are the neglected step-children in much psychopathology. Psychiatric and psychological schemas have in general failed to see them as primary problems in their own right, and failed to develop targeted treatment approaches to these problems.

In other words, lack of self-control is most often seen as a result of too little or too much self-esteem. According to Eliot, it's time we addressed it as a problem in its own right. Good point.
posted by tippiedog at 9:29 AM on February 5, 2002

I went to many shrinks as a kid because my mom thought that would cure my unwillingness to do homework. Anyway...much was made of my apparent lack of self-esteem and for most of my subsequent teenage years I spent a lot of time fretting over the status of my self-esteem i.e. one day I'd think it was high then low then whatever. I spent many years vigilantly trying to manipulate it or control it through illicit chemical means at first then through more constructive means later on. The point: flash forward ten years to today. I feel happy and I am successful in my career and marriage and now that I look back...I haven't thought one iota about my self-esteem in years! I think that if you are spending time thinking about the state of your psyche you are wasting your life away! Forget it and just live...you might find that most of your so-called psychological problems were just in your head and melt away once your mind is focused on something constructive and enjoyable.
posted by plaino at 9:41 AM on February 5, 2002

Why wouldn't the ideal be an accurate self-image? I'm not talking about a microscopic self-regard, only an ability to assess one's own skills and tendecies, judge what can change and probably won't, and make good decisions on that basis. Most of us know some basic ideas about ourselves (I'm not good with a lot of details or I don't have the physical gifts to be a professional athlete). But I find that the ideas that people with either low or high self-esteem have about themselves are often just ridiculous -- bordering on the delusional (No one would ever want to marry a piece of worthless trash like me versus, say, I'm very spiritual).
posted by argybarg at 9:42 AM on February 5, 2002

plaino, this cracks me up:

most of your so-called psychological problems were just in your head

Where else would they be?

Anyway, for people with serious psychological problems, forgetting it and just living is what they can't do. Some people do need help breaking out of that.
posted by argybarg at 9:45 AM on February 5, 2002

Interesting. My brother - with a Masters in psychology - made similar comments a few years ago to me. His comments were specifically in regard to those who had an inaccurate, over-inflated sense of self esteem and self-worth.

His comments were along the lines of "when reality does not meet up with their self-image they can become quite dangerous." I'm paraphrasing.

Good link.
posted by hadashi at 9:46 AM on February 5, 2002


If one's problem is that compulsive self-analysis is too time/energy demanding to allow room for career, family, friends, etc. then one needs to just stop and start living life. If one is schizophrenic, obviously more concrete intervention is required. In my experience, most people seeing psychologists or taking Prozac fall into the former category.
posted by plaino at 9:55 AM on February 5, 2002

1.) You'd be surprised what old news this is. Conservative publications have been giving their readers the contrarian view of high self-esteem for the past ten years. As long ago as the September 28, 1987, issue of Forbes Magazine, in fact.
2.) Plaino: I can't believe your parents thought your disinclination to do homework had something to do with your self-esteem. Did it ever occur to them that you didn't do homework because homework sucks? That no kid in his right mind wants to do homework? It's boggling what goes through parents minds.
posted by Faze at 9:55 AM on February 5, 2002

some people with favorable views of themselves were more likely to administer loud blasts of ear-piercing noise to a subject than those more tepid, timid folks who held back the horn. An earlier experiment found that men with high self-esteem were more willing to put down victims to whom they had administered electric shocks than were their low-level counterparts.

Okay, who ran these tests?
posted by apostasy at 9:56 AM on February 5, 2002

People with overinflated self-esteem can be fun to toy with, however. I've made some really enjoyable lifetime enemies this way.
posted by aramaic at 9:56 AM on February 5, 2002

When I read the article and took the little "self-esteem test" at the beginning, I was struck by how my answers to those questions would vary greatly from day to day or even hour to hour. It seems pretty silly to pin one's success as a person on something that's so unstable and variable. I also thought it was interesting that Slater contextualized the self-esteem model as a predominantly American or Western one. Makes me question the efficacy of psychotherapy-type treatment outside of the Western world where the understanding of self may be vastly different.
posted by mariko at 9:59 AM on February 5, 2002

I don't know - this article brings up so many fundamental, hidden assumptions about reality that it's...well, certainly thought-provoking.

Good link, but let's not raise this article's self-esteem too high.
posted by solistrato at 10:00 AM on February 5, 2002

I'm currently reading Another Planet. It's amazing how an obsession with students' self-esteem has devastated our public school systems.
posted by tippiedog at 10:02 AM on February 5, 2002

I, too, thought this was a good article. I think the points it makes are worth considering on the general topic of mental health. But self-esteem isn't necessarily the key issue in a number of serious mental health problems, including schizophrenia and clinical depression. I think existing pharmacology and psychotherapy still have a lot to offer in those situations.

When I previewed this I saw plaino's comment above. I disagree with plaino's "Prozac" comment, except to the extent it's overprescribed as a panacea. But (speaking from personal experience) I can tell you that clinical depression can occur regardless of the level of "self-esteem."
posted by pardonyou? at 10:03 AM on February 5, 2002


My mom thought (still thinks) psychology is the answer to everything. The shrinks told her it was my self-esteem. They all said it would take many years of weekly (@$100 a pop) sessions to 'cure' me. Talk about emotional extortion: "Your son will be emotionally crippled for the rest of his life unless you pay me $5K/yr for the next five years" The same racket is still going on, only it's probably $250 an hour or something ridiculous like that.
posted by plaino at 10:05 AM on February 5, 2002

For the record: What the article addresses isn't clinical psychology, but social psychology. The research that the article addresses comes from a school of economics prof and a social psychologist from Case Western Reserve.
posted by raysmj at 10:11 AM on February 5, 2002


Well, there is a peculiar problem involved in treating narcissists via psychotherapy; they tend to enjoy the therapy so much they never want to leave it and never get better. A good therapist can break that spell, though.

I disagree with your contention that most emotional problems are just forms of narcissism -- that the patient should just get off his butt and get a hobby and stop thinking about it so much.

Think of it this way. Generally speaking, healthy people exercise. Would it be appropriate to tell a person with severe inflammatory bowel disease or respiratory problems or a heart infection that they should just get off their butts and exercise -- because that's what healthy people do?

You treat the disorder, restore the patient to equilibrium, then encourage her to take up the habits that will sustain health. Therapy often works the same way.
posted by argybarg at 10:12 AM on February 5, 2002

plaino: Good therapists can still be found for $80-$100/hr. Bad therapists (and there are many) can be found for as much money as you wish to pay.
posted by argybarg at 10:13 AM on February 5, 2002

i despise myself. i blame a low self of steam.
posted by quonsar at 10:14 AM on February 5, 2002

mariko raises a great point, Question the methods, not just the results, or how the results are used/misused.

Anyone who took psych 101 knows how bad some "studies" can be.
posted by Blake at 10:16 AM on February 5, 2002

quonsar, help is available if you need it.
posted by argybarg at 10:18 AM on February 5, 2002

Here is an interesting article about Prozac and drugs with similar modes of action. If you want to know even more, here's more than you could possibly ever want to know

Anyway, pardonyou?, Prozac is overprescribed as you said and I am not an extremeist. Some people probably should be on it, but, since it is well known that it is an inhibitor of seritonin reuptake, then only people with a documented problem with overuptake of seritonin should be using it. This makes sense doesn't it?
posted by plaino at 10:21 AM on February 5, 2002

I did an undergraduate psychology thesis examining the psychometric properties of several of the popular self-esteem inventories motivated in a large part by the absurd notion that low self-esteem was behind the LA riots. My analysis revealed that all the measures failed to live up to even the most simple standards for good testing never mind their purported causal power.

Self-esteem is a very poorly defined construct latched onto by pop psychologists looking for a guest spot on Oprah. While there is something to be said for the practicality of its proposed replacement - self discipline - I fear it will become more Chicken Soup for psychotheraputically addicted souls out there..
posted by srboisvert at 10:21 AM on February 5, 2002

Plaino, do you by any chance mean "serotonin"? I'm not one for the random spelling flame, but if you're being all expert and such, you should at least know how to spell the damn stuff.

"Self-esteem" used to be a synonym for "arrogance," until the late 1890s; maybe it will be again!

The irony for those of us who know Lauren Slater IRL is that she is one of the most narcissistic people on earth. Check out her entire writing career, which is All About Her.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:32 AM on February 5, 2002

If I had really high self esteem, I think I'd just sit on the couch and watch tv all day. It's my awareness of my shortcomings that motivates me to work hard, improve, get out and do things.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 10:33 AM on February 5, 2002

Would it be appropriate to tell a person with severe inflammatory bowel disease or respiratory problems or a heart infection that they should just get off their butts and exercise -- because that's what healthy people do?

Obviously, an organic (or systemic) disease state needs physical intervention as I stated earlier in this thread. The first link in my previous post discusses the abuse of the term 'chemical imbalance' as a way of lumping psychological disorders in with organic conditions and excusing the 'sufferer' from taking any responsibility for their recovery. Your examples have well defined treatments that address the mechanism of disease and offer potential for cure. Prozac often just masks the problem without treating it and, in general, anti-depressents are used without knowledge of how their mechanism of action is relevant to a particular patient's condition.
posted by plaino at 10:34 AM on February 5, 2002

s - e - r - o - t - o - n - i - n

got it.
posted by plaino at 10:38 AM on February 5, 2002

plaino: "Prozac often just masks the problem without treating it and, in general, anti-depressents are used without knowledge of how their mechanism of action is relevant to a particular patient's condition."

Agreed (in part), but I don't think that leads to the conclusion that they shouldn't be used. In other words, I would argue that in many situations "masking the problem" can be of great value, particularly as a first step.
posted by pardonyou? at 10:42 AM on February 5, 2002

Low self-esteem is my anti-drug.
posted by Dirjy at 11:00 AM on February 5, 2002

I have been skeptical of the idea that high self-esteem was anywhere near as important as everyone seemed to make it out to be all my life. I remember sitting with friends after school and joking about the stupid brainwashed teachers and their ideas that we should all just feel good and that would solve everything. Despite that preexisting tendency to agree with someone speaking out against the importance our culture has puts on high self esteem, I would be hard pressed to take anything of value from the linked article.

One of the points against self-esteem is that some people with favorable views of themselves were more likely to administer loud blasts of ear-piercing noise? All I can say is duh, if you'll forgive the expression. A person with more confidence will be more willing to believe they are right, and thus more willing to affect the world around them, including administering blasts of sound, but also in positive ways. High self esteem is value-neutral the way I see it, the effects of a person having high self esteem will be dependant on the individual. The article uses several examples of racism to show the dark side of self esteem, and far be it from me to suggest that all racists have a hidden self-loathing, but again, it is fairly obvious that a person with stupid ideas about race will be more dangerous if they have high self-esteem and the confidence to act on their ideas. That is not an argument against self-esteem, it’s an argument against stupid ideas about race.

I definitely agree that we need to get rid of the idea that self-esteem will solve all problems, but to say that it is the root of all problems is just as bad and just as idiotic.
posted by Nothing at 11:03 AM on February 5, 2002


About Prozac, agreed. I think it is overprescribed. I realize I was being unclear with my analogy. I wasn't comparing treatable medical disorders to psychological disorders with a purported chemical basis. I believe there are personality disorders that not only can be cleared up by talk therapy but must be cleared up by talk therapy (or something like it).

That is, there are problems for which the appropriate response is neither Prozac or a pep talk and a command to "go do something useful."

I recognize that your life improved after you stopped going to therapy. I would urge you not to generalize from your own life. It sounds like you had a bad therapist -- probably a fundamentalist Freudian. Over the past thirty years or so, the measurable results of some kinds of therapy have improved dramatically (family systems therapy especially). Also, the emphasis has changed from the Freudian interminable therapy to what's known as "brief therapy": go right to the problem, find the lever to turn, turn it, teach the patient to turn that lever himself if things worsen again.

In other words, I'm happy you grew out of your need for therapy. Some people have different outcomes.
posted by argybarg at 11:45 AM on February 5, 2002

A recurring theme I have noticed with people having problems seemingly related to self esteem is the inability to concentrate on the present, and unrealistic expectations. Anyone see the movie 'They Live'? It really helps to be wearing these sunglasses.
posted by Mack Twain at 12:56 PM on February 5, 2002

Question: do they normally use drugs to treat personality disorders like borderline, sociopathy, narcissistic, etc? I thought those were mostly treated with cognitive or something like talk therapy. What is Prozac prescribed for besides depression?
posted by Charmian at 1:17 PM on February 5, 2002

whatever's bothering you, charmian. prozac can be prescribed by any doctor, really; your family doctor included. if i liked, i could have prozac, paxil and zoloft prescriptions in a couple of days. for those fuming over it, i think it's unfair to lump the prescription abuses of prozac with psychiatry itself.
posted by moz at 1:27 PM on February 5, 2002

It's interesting that somebody think self-esteem can be measured ; if you self-esteem is < then x , then take drug y so self-esteem+y>x . Funny.

That's saying self-esteem is proportional to the level of something that can be objectively measured ; like it's related to some chemical in brain or blood. I don't think anybody succesfully found a direct correlation that leave no doubts.

And what is self-esteem again :) ?

posted by elpapacito at 1:42 PM on February 5, 2002

The thread's dying, but let me stand up for the SSRI's. I don't take prozac, but I do take a somewhat similar drug called Celexa. I consider it to be one of the greatest things to ever happen to me. And lest you conclude that I'm just one of those people who demanded that their complacent doctor write them a scrip because they felt a little "down," I can assure you that before this happened to me I scoffed at the whole psychiatric industry, and firmly believed people should just "snap out of it." After trying for about a year to "snap out of it," with great reluctance I saw a psychiatrist, and with greater reluctance started taking Celexa. Then I got even more depressed when it didn't work immediately (even though they tell you to wait about six weeks). I was sure it wasn't going to work for me, then lo and behold, after about six weeks, I suddenly found myself just enjoying everyday life to an extent I hadn't experienced in a long time. My depression wasn't one of those "cry all day, can't get out of bed" things. It was just a total flat affect; nothing was enjoyable or moved me in any way. I would compare it to eating chocalate ice cream, but just tasting ice. I've been on Celexa since October 1998, and except for a four-month period in 2000 when I went off (and experienced a gradual return of depression), I feel like I've been able to live a normal life. Finally, because many people I talk to misunderstand, taking an SSRI does not, in any way, make you feel different on a moment-to-moment basis. There's never any sense of a "high" or an artificial feeling. It's only when you look at it over long periods of time that you can see results.

Don't know how or if this fits in to the thread, but I like to think that if I'd seen something like this message that I might have gotten help sooner.
posted by pardonyou? at 1:52 PM on February 5, 2002

moz hit on a troubling thing. It is quite easy to get prozac or whatever the wonder-pill-of-the-month is without much diagnostic rigor.

In fact, this highlights a more general problem centered around drug companies advertising prescription medication directly to consumers (on TV for example). People will self-diagnose then go to the doc and ask for (or demand) drug X. If that doctor resists, 'vote-with-your-insurance-company's-dollar' and go to another doc until you find one gullible/greedy/unethical enough to give you a script you don't really need. Unfortuneately, drug companies count on this taking place and they pour millions of dollars into ad campaigns to perpetuate it. Sick.
posted by plaino at 1:56 PM on February 5, 2002

I thought I had an interesting comment, then I realized it wasn't very good at all. I just suck at making comments. I wish I was as good as all of you guys.
posted by Salmonberry at 3:22 PM on February 5, 2002

if you need an ssri great..(an aside-celexa made me seasick-i quit it after two weeks of feeling green)...but i see great hordes of people all around me taking this stuff like candy...and it isn't candy.

PLEASE BE CAREFUL and be evaluated by a QUALIFIED clinician -one who will notice if all of a sudden you take a turn for the manic.......
posted by bunnyfire at 4:12 PM on February 5, 2002

Antidepressants kept me from killing people. Really. I was definitely not a good person, and had some really unfortunate habits that put me in touch with some really disagreeable people, two of whom I seriously considered murdering.

But didn't.

And, now that I don't wake up every morning wishing I was dead, I've dropped most of the unfortunate habits, and am no longer plotting the violent deaths of the disagreeable people.

...so don't knock the drugs, because the life they saved may have been yours.
posted by aramaic at 8:25 PM on February 5, 2002

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