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Published in Print: October 20, 1999, as The Excesses of Self-Esteem


The Excesses of Self-Esteem

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Many gang members and violent youths have very high levels of a ‘dark’ type of self- esteem.

We Americans have a well-developed propensity for taking a positive, useful concept and turning it, through overuse and misuse, into a negative. Such is the case with "self-esteem." No one would argue that possessing reasonable levels of qualities such as self-confidence, self- respect, and a sense of personal worth is not a fundamentally good and healthy thing. From a Freudian perspective, we might even view self-esteem ideally as part of the thermostatic "ego" helping to maintain a balance between the primal drives of the "id" and the puritanical strictures of the "super ego." In fact, as the psychologist Nathaniel Branden points out in his Six Pillars of Self-Esteem, healthy self-esteem includes qualities such as responsibility, rationality, and integrity.

But the more popular and widely accepted notion of self-esteem is unencumbered by such qualities. Today's prevailing definition is simply "to feel good about who you are and to like yourself." This leaves little room for self-doubt, criticism from others, or humility. It is epitomized by a "me first," hedonistic mentality. And as some research evidence has shown (see Relation of Threatened Egotism to Violence and Aggression: The Dark Side of High Self- Esteem, 1996), many gang members and violent youths have very high levels of this type of "self- esteem."

Such a definition also rejects the moderation of "reasonable levels" of self-esteem and instead subscribes to the belief that if something is good in moderation it will be even better in excess. Nurtured amid the self-indulgence of the Dr. Spock-reared flower children of the 1960s, this egocentric, "you can never have too much" version of self-esteem also includes the perception that it is extremely fragile.

Among the many well-meant but silly practices in our schools, our universities, and our child-rearing practices, there is a common fixation on this sense of the fragility of self-esteem. Rationales for ill-conceived school policies and practices ranging from social promotion and invented spelling to ebonics (the approval of ethnocentric street slang as appropriate for the classroom), are based, at least in part, on the misguided belief that it is an educator's duty to protect and nurture students' self-esteem. At colleges, much of the "political correctness" that permeates policy and curriculum originates in the reluctance to say no, for fear of possibly hurting the feelings of those who want their particular perspective or priority legitimized by the university's imprimatur, regardless of intellectual integrity or educational merit. And in modern child-rearing practices, the biblical admonition to "spare the rod and spoil the child" has been changed from a warning into a prescription for parenting. Thus, in many families, spanking a child is tantamount to physical abuse, and scolding is seen as its emotional counterpart. Both are considered destructive to the child's self-esteem. Small wonder that in such families discipline is often nonexistent.

Viewing self-esteem as extremely fragile has resulted, too, in the fashionable use of "I messages." The "I message" is an interpersonal-communication practice promulgated by self-esteem gurus and some marriage and family counselors that suggests you should never tell your spouse or your child that he or she is being selfish, mean, rude, lazy, or fill-in-the-blank. Why? Because if you tell someone that he is selfish, mean, rude, or lazy it may damage his self-esteem. Instead, according to the I-message advocates, when you are involved in such situations, you should simply state (dispassionately, if possible) that the behavior of the involved party has caused you "distress."

Thus, your "I message" to your offspring would be: "When you cursed in Sunday school, I was embarrassed"; to your spouse: "When you flirted with that woman at the party, I felt hurt." Some prospective classroom teachers are taught to use "I messages" rather than simply telling a student that his or her behavior is unacceptable. Some "self- esteem experts" even go so far as to suggest that teachers should avoid praising individual students because such praise might damage the self-esteem of the students who weren't praised!

It should come as no surprise that many of today's children are not merely confused about what is right and wrong, but also have no conception that any real difference exists between the two. When we use the "I message" technique with such children (or with like-minded adults) and try to explain how their behavior has affected us, most of them will merely shrug and reply, "So what?" The more loquacious may even add, "That's your problem."

The Syracuse University professor John Covaleskie is one who argues against this type of silliness. In Discipline and Morality: Beyond Rules and Consequences, he calls for a school discipline system based on ethical foundations rather than on rewards. We must somehow help restore in our children the ability to feel shame or to be bothered by conscience, Mr. Covaleskie suggests. But he is careful to differentiate between public shaming or humiliation and the individual's intrinsic ability to feel shame. A child, he says, cannot truly experience pride in praiseworthy behavior if he isn't also capable of feeling a sense of personal shame when his behavior is less than praiseworthy. And so, in this educator's view, we must try to teach children that there are certain behaviors that are wrong (and thus shameful) not just because there are rules against them, but because they are simply wrong.

Regardless of the enduring difficulty of trying to teach our children that there is right and worthy behavior and there is wrong and shameful behavior, we must try to do just that. Among the first things we must do is dismantle and discard the self-centered, "me first" definition of self-esteem. We must reject the notion that our children's sense of self-worth is so fragile that they cannot be criticized or punished for even the most egregious behavior. We must repudiate the nonsense that comes from self- anointed gurus and experts and regain confidence in our own wisdom and common sense. Many parents and teachers are already doing their best to move in these directions.

Given the magnitude of forces that contribute to the "feel good" definition of self-esteem--everything from the president's behavioral lapses, to the amorality of the dollar-driven entertainment industry, to the tired clichés of the moral relativists who complain that "there are no absolutes"--this may be a daunting challenge. But there is no alternative to action unless we are willing to surrender our children to the aimlessness and anomie of self-absorption. And we have far too much evidence that continued self-absorption holds great danger for our children and our society.

Dennis L. Evans is the director of credential programs in the department of education at the University of California, Irvine.

Vol. 19, Issue 8, Page 47

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