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Impracticality of the concept

'Today, almost everyone seems to be talking about self-esteem, and the danger is that the idea may become trivialized'.
Nathaniel Branden, 1997

a. Philosophical complexity 

As Nathaniel Branden penned this quote long after the self-esteem movement took off in American schools, his sentiments appear somewhat disingenuous. The problem with self-esteem is not that it 'may become trivialized? - it has become trivialized. What's more we believe that such trivialization was almost inevitable. Why?'

In the same article Branden defines self-esteem as follows: 

Self-esteem is the disposition to experience oneself as being competent to cope with the basic challenges of life and of being worthy of happiness. It is confidence in the efficacy of our mind in our ability to think. By extension, it is confidence in our ability to learn, make appropriate choices and decisions, and respond effectively to change. It is also the experience that success, achievement, fulfilment - happiness - are right and natural for us. The survival-value of such confidence is obvious; so is the danger when it is missing. 

In his book The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem, Branden sets out the necessary conditions for -nurturing and sustaining healthy self-esteem:

1. The practice of living consciously: This is about understanding our inner and outer worlds. It is about paying attention to facts and being open to new information. 
2. The practice of self-acceptance: This is about owing our own thoughts and taking responsibility for them.
3. The practice of self-responsibility: This is about accepting that we are ?the author? of our own lives.
4. The practice of self-assertiveness: This is about being honest and authentic with ourselves and others.
5. The practice of living purposefully: This is about setting goals and monitoring our progress towards them.
6. The practice of personal integrity: This is about living in 'congruence' with our values and what we say. 

Branden also points out what this definition of self-esteem means in the real world:

  • It requires high levels of consciousness.
  • It is not about external achievements at all. 'The root of our self-esteem is not our achievement per se but those internally generated practices that make it possible to achieve. How much we will achieve in the world is not fully in our control,' writes Branden.
  • It has nothing to do with how we are seen by others. In fact Branden dismisses as 'foolish' or 'pathetic' people who try to prop up their egos through conspicuous consumption, designer labels etc. He is contemptuous of the idea that self-esteem can be boosted via praise and so very critical of what has been done in American schools under the banner of boosting self-esteem..

Branden's views are very well-known in the USA but not so in Europe. He was a follower of the controversial philosopher Ayn Rand, known for her Objectivist theory. It is a philosophy which leads to extreme libertarian free-market views. Together they wrote a book called The Virtue of Selfishness in which they expounded the view that the state should have no role in welfare and argued against the benefits of altruism. Later Branden relented and said that the state should intervene in terms of major disasters or epidemics. While such views may find acceptance in America, such views are antithetical to most Europeans, even those with right-wing views. 

Branden's views on what constitutes self-esteem are driven by philosophy and the importance of consciousness. He is also an extreme individualist. His work completely dismisses the ideas of social psychology (ie the idea that we are social beings who fundamentally care about the views of others or where we are in a hierarchy). 

We believe that Branden's definition of self-esteem, and its supporting pillars, are totally impractical for a number of reasons.

1. It is overly philosophical and intellectual. The vast majority of people are not interested in or drawn to such complex ideas.
2. Few people, including educators, live their life in the way Branden recommends. Who is, therefore, going to coach and educate young people in this way of being? 
3. It does not give due weight to social interaction and to the fact that human beings are essentially social, rather than individualistic, rational animals. 
4. The idea that somehow Branden's complex notions on how to build self-esteem can make a dent in young people?s current obsession with celebrity, and materialistic success, appears fanciful, if not incredible. 
5. By linking psychological concepts closely with political views it automatically turns off people who hold differing political views. 

b. The inclination to use personal experience or be caring

The impracticality of the concept of self-esteem exists even if we leave Branden's overly complex, philosophical concept of self-esteem to one side and concentrate on just about any concept of self-esteem.  As Professor Martin Seligman outlines in The Optimistic Child, there are usually two elements to self-esteem: doing well and feeling good. Most individuals are aware that there is (albeit a temporary) boost to self-esteem from praise, success and being treated well by others. They are also aware that failure and criticism lead (again perhaps temporary)to loss of self-esteem. This innate knowing of what contributes to self-esteem are both on the 'feeling good side'. So, unless I have some notions of psychology, if you ask me to help a child build his/her self-esteem the most natural thing for me to do is hand out praise, restrict criticism and reduce the bad feelings which come from failure. If you tell me that self-esteem is really important - so important that just about every modern social problem is attributable to self-esteem - then I am likely to give out even bigger dollops or praise and even excise the word 'criticism' from my vocabulary. This tendency is likely to be strongest in women as they often pay more attention to feelings than men and often have more invested in being 'caring'. As women play a dominant role in child-rearing both at home and school then it is even more likely that 'the feeling good' side of self-esteem will be over-played. 

What has been described above is exactly the conditions that have been ripe for the rise of self-esteem in homes and schools throughout the USA and, to some extent, in Europe. And, as we shall see in the next few sections, the consequences are deeply worrying. 

Copyright: Carol Craig, Centre for Confidence, 2006

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