They say self-esteem is a vital ingredient for success in life. But what if everything we were taught about self-esteem is wrong?

“How many Advil do you have to take to die?” This is what Rebecca, a 12-year old, had searched on the internet shortly before she committed suicide. She jumped from a high platform at an abandoned concrete plant. She left behind a mother devastated by tragedy and guilt. Her mother started to gather clues about what happened to her daughter. Although we cannot know for sure what role the countless hate messages that she received on her phone played in Rebecca’s decision, they at least revealed that the girl was being attacked by bullies. “You are ugly!”, “Why are you still alive?”, “Can u die please?” These are just some of the messages. To the latter, Rebecca had replied, “Nope but I can live”. Sadly, her bravery did not last.

In the harassment equation, visceral hatred plays a central role.

Usually, in cases of teenage suicide, parents are the first to be blamed. But Rebecca’s mother was not one of those parents who is completely unfamiliar with their children’s lives. She knew that Rebecca was being bullied by several classmates at school, who abused her not only verbally, but also physically. She had been complaining to the school management for several months, and seeing that no effective measures were being taken, she transferred Rebecca to another school. She closed her Facebook page and took her phone, then changed her phone number. In December, the girl became so upset that she started cutting, so her mother decided to have her admitted and provide therapy sessions with a psychologist. Apparently, Rebecca was not a neglected child, but she was a child who felt despised. And the feeling of being rejected by her peers was so strong that it nullified even her self-preservation instinct.

In the harassment equation, visceral hatred plays a central role. This is true. However, this would not take place and, as such, neither would its consequences, if both those who fall victim to harassment and the abusers had a healthy self-image. That is because it would imply realizing that every human being is valuable, and that nothing one does can increase or significantly diminish the value of another. This would bring the understanding that taking someone down through words or violence is not proof of superiority, just as being the target of bullying is not proof of inferiority.

The revelation that preceded failure

Tragedies like Rebecca’s, more frequent than we would like to imagine, show the failure of educators to instil a proper self-image in children. Failure to do so is all the more surprising in the US, where cases of bullying are well documented and anti-bullying legislation has been in place for nearly 15 years, while both parents and teachers alike have taken on the mission of raising new generations with greater self-esteem—a mission-turned-social movement by sociologists.

The self-esteem movement began in the United States in the 1970s, with the publication of the book The Psychology of Self-Esteem by psychologist Nathaniel Brandon in 1969. The book revolutionized the thinking of American educators, like a mass realisation.

Its central idea, that “self-esteem becomes the key to success or failure” produced major changes in the way parents, grandparents, and teachers were advised to treat their little ones.

This change led to a renewal of legislation in the field of education in the US, in order to “implement self-esteem” through a task force that targets ways in which self-esteem can be enhanced. The first such task force was created in 1986, in California, with authorities announcing that the state of California must become “a state of esteem” because self-esteem “is a social vaccine” that “provides us a vision for developing our human capital to make America competitive again”.[1] All this was based on the idea that a citizen with high self-esteem will not only be productive, but will also have a lower need for public support and services.

Ineffective cure-all

Nearly half a century after Brandon’s book and 15,000 academic studies later, sociologists are not as convinced by the self-esteem movement as they used to be. Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman did a meta-analysis of the latest parenting studies in the book Nurture Shock[2] that deplored the failure of state-recommended methods for developing children’s self-esteem. In a review of this book,[3] journalist Kay Hymowitz highlights the authors’ conclusion: “That high self-esteem doesn’t improve grades, reduce anti-social behaviour, deter alcohol drinking or do much of anything good for children. In fact, telling kids how smart they are can be counterproductive. Many children who are convinced that they are little geniuses tend not to put much effort into their work,” points out the journalist.

A Neurobonkers analysis, on the website of the Big Think think tank,[4] reached the same conclusion: “Counterintuitively, it has been repeatedly demonstrated that praising people for their intelligence rather than their effort can actually make people perform drastically worse over time, avoid future challenges, and form negative attitudes to learning and towards themselves.”

What’s wrong with self-esteem?

Hymowitz’s review ends fatalistically, lamenting that Nurture Shock does not come with any recommendations for parents and does not indicate any new direction for education legislation. Instead, the Neurobonkers analysis brings into question a crucial element for the topic under discussion: effort. Such an approach appears healthier than the almost mystical appeal to a strongly positive opinion of oneself, without any “anchor” in reality. Because, after all, it has been demonstrated for millennia that effort pays off, while using self-esteem as a cure-all is both a recent discovery, and a mistake.

More specifically, as researchers Kamins and Dweck said after an experiment conducted in 1999, children who are praised for intelligence, not for effort, feel much more helpless when they go through a failure, because they attribute their failure to a lack of intrinsic abilities, not a lack of adequate effort.

The result of the above study led one of the study’s authors, Carol Dweck, to state that there are two types of thinking: one that argues that intelligence is fixed and one that focuses on growth (intelligence is not fixed, but expandable by acquiring new skills). In the case of the first type of thinking, it has been observed that children praised for qualities that did not require effort (beauty, talent, native intelligence) come to believe that they cannot control their own development and that effort is the prerogative of those who are not good enough for the task they have to perform. In addition, people who view intelligence as an intrinsic quality fail to pay attention to the mistakes they make and learn from them. The thesis has also been proven through experiments that have shown that brain activity is reduced when such individuals are shown the mistakes they made in a test. Moreover, the idea that intelligence is fixed causes those who believe this to resort to all sorts of “reassurance” strategies in the event of failure, either blaming others, or even using deception. In contrast, people who believe that intelligence can be developed will focus on learning from their own mistakes.

Exceptional and unhappy

Most young people in today’s developed societies are more inclined to a model of fixed thinking, precisely because their parents, with the best intentions, raised them to believe that they have exceptional natural abilities, which will propel them to the heights of success just because that’s what naturally happens to gifted people. Members of Generation Y have “unrealistic expectations and a strong resistance toward accepting negative feedback,” says Paul Harvey, a professor at the University of New Hampshire, cited in a Huffington Post analysis.[5] In addition, they have “an inflated view” of themselves, which will turn against them, because “a great source of frustration for people with a strong sense of entitlement is unmet expectations.” In other words, the fact that they are taught to believe that they are the most beautiful, the smartest, and the most talented has not only made young people stay below their development potential (it made them “stupid,” according to BigThink), but also made them unhappy (as a result of their unrealized expectations).

The X-ray of failed self-esteem

The self-esteem movement has succumbed, in essence, to a poor definition. In its proper form, self-esteem is that appreciation of oneself that is anchored in the reality of individual equality, but which emphasizes personal effort, dedication, and perseverance. Effective self-esteem must be built on two pillars: first, all people are valuable from the start; and second, we should be appreciated not because we are more beautiful, intelligent, or talented than others, but because of what we do with our beauty, intelligence, and talent. These days, such an idea requires a high degree of maturity, but in the past it was the norm.

“Self-respect is something that our grandparents, whether or not they had it, knew all about”.

“They had instilled in them, young, a certain discipline, the sense that one lives by doing things one does not particularly want to do, by putting fears and doubts to one side, by weighing immediate comforts against the possibility of larger, even intangible, comforts.”[6] According to Joan Didion, the discipline that underlies genuine and lasting self-respect is the same that psychologist Roy Baumeister was talking about when he emphasized the dependence of self-esteem on self-control. Self-esteem is just as fragile as a soap bubble if it is not based on something solid and durable. Self-control is that something, Baumeister said, because it allows the individual to discipline himself to achieve goals and fulfil social and personal duties.

“If we do not respect ourselves, we are on the one hand forced to despise those who have so few resources as to consort with us, so little perception as to remain blind to our fatal weaknesses. On the other, we are peculiarly in thrall to everyone we see, curiously determined to live out—since our self-image is untenable—their false notions of us.” (Joan Didion)

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A verb essential to self-esteem: to do

Baumeister’s perspective converges at this point with the Christian perspective, which starts from the foundation that all people are equally loved by God, but not all start life with the same set of resources. The essential point of the Christian message is that although we are born with different initial resources, the measure of our self-esteem is what we do with those resources. In other words, an individual’s success or failure does not depend on their initial capital, but on how they manage it. This is the message that emerges, for example, from the famous parable of the talents that Jesus told His disciples.

According to the parable, a rich man distributed his fortune to some of his employees in order for them to manage it while he was out of the country, giving them one, two and five talents respectively. When he returned, he called the three subordinates and asked them for a report on what they had managed to do with what had been entrusted to them. Two of them had invested the initial capital and doubled it. But the one who had received only one talent had buried it and returned it to his boss, along with an insult: “‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you'” (Matthew 25:24-25). The reaction of the employer was one of deep dissatisfaction, severely sanctioning the “laziness” of the employee who did not even bother to deposit the talent with the bankers, so he could withdraw it with interest.

This parable is described as analogous to the Kingdom of Heaven, but it is also rich in pertinent insights into self-respect.

Every person lives life with a gift that God wants them to “manage.” They are free to invest it in whatever they see fit, while always keeping in mind that they will be evaluated according to what they have done with it. None of the employees went through a self-esteem development program: they were not encouraged to behave as if they had more than they had, to be more productive and to generate more profit. Moreover, although they had different profits, both the subordinate who doubled the five talents and the one who doubled the two talents received exactly the same appreciation from the master: “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!”

Here, we learn one of the basic characteristics of the biblical view of self-esteem: people are honoured for their efforts to develop what they have. On the opposite side, the employee who neglected to take even the smallest step towards development, under the pretext of fear of failure, did not receive an award for participation, was not patted on the shoulder and encouraged that next time will be better, but was admonished and sanctioned for inaction, fear of discomfort, and running from responsibility.

In the parable of the talents, personal responsibility occupies a central place, just as psychology discovered centuries later.

However, the “self-esteem theory” that the Bible constructs differs fundamentally from all the great psychological theories, because it pursues the good of people without focusing on people themselves. Secular psychology is limited by its anthropocentrism, which loses that fundamental sense of the things the Bible is based on.

All biblical recommendations regarding self-esteem must be looked at in the light of mankind’s purpose, which is not limited to personal happiness, but aims at their fulfilment in a climate of collective happiness. Therefore, while recognizing the relevant nature of self-love, the book of Christianity legitimizes it only insofar as this love does not become greater than the love for one’s neighbour, and the love for one’s neighbour is legitimate only insofar as it is not greater than one’s love for God.

Alina Kartman is a senior editor at Signs of the Times and ST Network.

Footnotes
[1]„John Vasconcellos quoted in «Retrospective: A state of esteem?», http://calwatchdog.com, July 29, 2010.”
[2]„A meta-analysis of the latest parenting studies by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman.”
[3]„Kay Hymowitz, What the Experts Are Saying Now, online.wsj.com, August 25, 2009.”
[4]„«Neurobonkers, How being called smart can actually make you stupid», http://bigthink.com, August 31, 2013.”
[5]„«Why Generation And Yuppies Are Unhappy», www.huffingtonpost.com, September 15, 2013.”
[6]Ibidem.

„John Vasconcellos quoted in «Retrospective: A state of esteem?», http://calwatchdog.com, July 29, 2010.”
„A meta-analysis of the latest parenting studies by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman.”
„Kay Hymowitz, What the Experts Are Saying Now, online.wsj.com, August 25, 2009.”
„«Neurobonkers, How being called smart can actually make you stupid», http://bigthink.com, August 31, 2013.”
„«Why Generation And Yuppies Are Unhappy», www.huffingtonpost.com, September 15, 2013.”