Letting the Steam Out of Self-Esteem

Americans are overly focused on their sense of self-worth.

By Theodore Dalrymple, published on September 1, 1995 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Distressed about your self-image? Of course, no one wants to make you feel worse, but have you ever considered the possibility that your very own behavior might--just might--be causing you to have a low opinion of yourself?

Twenty years ago, when I first became a doctor, no one ever complained of a lack of self-esteem, or of hating him- or herself. Now scarcely a week goes by without a patient making just such a complaint and presenting it to me as if it were my job to rectify matters. And whenever anyone says to me, "I don't like myself, doctor," my heart sinks and I feel an urge to reply, "Well, that makes two of us." Of course, I say nothing of the kind. Instead I offer bland reassurances that I scarcely recognize as my own as they leave my mouth.

Last week a young man came to me in distress about his self-image. His mother agreed that he had a low opinion of himself. It was this low opinion, the pair of them said, that had led him to beat up his girlfriend, who was pregnant at the time and subsequently had a miscarriage.

"It couldn't be the other way around, could it?" I asked.

"What do you mean?" the young man asked me.

"That your behavior caused you to have a poor opinion of yourself?"

This possibility was firmly rejected. The idea that low self-esteem could ever be justified was too revolutionary to be entertained, even for a moment.

Does recognition of the need for self-esteem represent a true advance in human understanding, or is it, on the contrary, evidence of a widespread and shallow narcissism? Is it an explanation of our failings or an excuse for them?

People who complain of low self-esteem often do so in the same way that people who fear they are suffering from Alzheimer's disease complain of a failing memory. A faculty of mind is alleged not to be functioning properly. And just as a working memory is a precondition of most human activities, so is self-esteem deemed to be necessary. For without it, the will is paralyzed, and one cannot make the most of one's abilities.

But is a lack of self-esteem, either congenital or acquired, a deficit like memory loss, to be cured, if possible, by doctors and psychologists, by pills and psychotherapy? I am not referring to the temporary loss of self-esteem that occurs in severe forms of depression, in which a person of usually blameless conduct expresses unrealistic feelings of guilt and unworthiness. I mean the lack of self-esteem that is permanent and is allegedly responsible for all manner of ills.

A lack of self-esteem is not necessarily pathological, nor is its presence necessarily desirable. Indeed, when self-esteem is not accompanied by any accomplishment or personal quality, it is a serious failing. I recall a 24-year-old prisoner who told me with great pride that he was the father of nine children by six women, not one of whom did he help in any way whatsoever, financial or emotional. His prowess in procreation was the source, or one of the sources, of his evident self-satisfaction; and he said that he intended, as soon as he was able, to demonstrate his prowess once more, regardless of the consequences to others. His self-esteem would be boosted accordingly.

It might be said, of course, that his apparent self-esteem was only a mask for a deeper-seated lack of it; in psychology, much is the opposite of what it seems.

Thus, his macho swagger and his boastfulness were, in fact, a psychological defense mechanism against profound uncertainty and insecurity. After all, the fathering of so many children at so young an age is not much of an achievement when viewed in any light but that of disappointed self-love.

But if excessive self-confidence and self-esteem are to be taken to indicate their opposite at a deeper level, are we also to take expressions of a lack of self-confidence and self-esteem as evidence of a deep-seated megalomania and self importance? Some biographers of famous men think so. Charles Darwin's modesty, diffidence, and social reclusiveness, for example, are now thought by many to have been a clever disguise for his almost psychopathic ruthlessness and determination to succeed. His painfully elaborate politeness was the means by which he exploited others and put them off their guard.

Certainly it requires a degree of self-importance even to complain of a lack of self-esteem. It is not a complaint one is likely to hear among Zairean goatherds, for example. And those people who do complain of it are often seeking reassurance that, despite their failures, which as often as not are brought about by their unwise conduct, they remain worthwhile people.

The idea that everyone should have self-esteem in the same way that everyone should be able to repeat a seven-digit number, or should know the time of day and date, is a corollary of the psychological doctrine of the Real Me.

Now the Real Me has very little connection with the merely Apparent Me--the me that loses its temper, exceeds the speed limit, gets drunk, has affairs, makes a mess of work, can't express itself properly, is never grateful, and generally behaves in a less than optimum fashion. This is only the Apparent Me, a less real and substantial being altogether than the Real Me. Unfortunately, people insist on judging by the Apparent Me.

Now if I lack self-esteem, I, too, judge myself by the Apparent, rather than the Real, Me. I am harsh on myself because I could have done better on my exams if the Apparent Me had not gone to quite so many parties (the Real Me wanted to stay in and study, of course). I decry myself because the Apparent Me said something very nasty, while the Real Me was all for restraint and politeness.

"That's not me, I don't do things like that," innumerable wife-and girlfriend-beaters have told me, with every sign of believing what they say, even though they may have been violent to a long succession of women over many years.

Self-esteem supposedly allows us to get in touch with the Real Me, which exists in all of us and is unaffected by our actual conduct. Rousseau taught us that man is born good, and only circumstance makes him bad. Therefore, each of us is entitled to self-esteem merely by virtue of drawing breath, for each of us is fundamentally good.

This is not only nonsense, it is dangerous and pernicious nonsense. The Nazi criminals tried at Nuremberg, in whom there existed no fundament of goodness, were invincible in their self-esteem. After the deaths of untold millions, they still believed they had a right to a pre-eminent role in society based on their special qualities. Their grotesquely inflated self-esteem prevented them from understanding the evil that they had perpetrated.

The idea that we should sail through life feeling good about ourselves, whatever we do, is therefore morally monstrous. Most of us live lives of good and bad, success and failure. The demand that we should have some fundamental baseline of self-satisfaction would render our lives meaningless. If we were entirely free of anxiety about our own worth, there would be little to make us strive to do better, to avoid error and crime, and to achieve more than we had already achieved.

A nagging uncertainty about our own worth is like guilt; it is a necessary spur to do better next time. Clearly, a life burdened by guilt over trifling matters is not at all desirable; but neither is a life entirely free of guilt a healthy thing. In other words, the degree to which we should feel this emotion depends upon what we have done and what we continue to do. We cannot sensibly ask to be absolved of all guilt, now and forever, or to have an appropriate baseline of guilt, irrespective of our past and future actions. Not, that is, unless we wish to be psychopaths.

Similarly, there can be no baseline of self-esteem--not, that is, unless we wish to be unbridled egotists. Yet all over the world, therapists of one kind or another are trying to fill the heads of their patients with self-esteem in the way that bartenders fill glasses. These therapists are like the old French quack Emile Coue, who told his patients to repeat endlessly, "Every day, in every way, I'm getting better and better." It no doubt worked for some of Coue's patients for a time, but was not much use against serious ailments. And in my experience, most patients who claim not to like themselves can give many valid reasons why, reasons that are not to be wished away by reassurance.

There is no shortcut to a good life. Uttering superstitious mantras about one's worth will, at best, gain one entrance to a fool's paradise. A necessary condition of living a good life is that questions of self-worth should rarely arise. And when they do, they should lead swiftly to increased effort rather than to further introspection.