There is no simple way to talk about the modern self. In the ancient world the self was mostly lost to mythology. During the equally homogeneous period of the Middle Ages, the simpler-self was lost to religious salvation. In the 16th century Puritans sought to understand the inner self of others because they wanted to know the motives behind appearances. Initially they were more God-fearing than introspective, but this changed when they began equating self with work. This existential shift from the simpler salvation-self to the more complex secular-self gained momentum in the 19th century when the self was equated with personality, as revealed in published biographies of the day.
The Victorian emphasis on moral standards and propriety caused people to practice self-deception resulting in repression, which then produced problems in living and an age “when violence and murder became staples of popular culture,” as presented in Judith Flander’s book The Invention of Murder reviewed in the July 27, 2013 edition of the WSJ by Alexandra Mullen. Flanders writes that Victorians were preoccupied with death, crime, police, and crime detection as revealed in the adventures of Sherlock Holmes. This encouraged deeper introspection culminating in Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis, followed by competing schools of psychology. The shift from the “salvation-self” to the “secular-self” had consequences; not the least of which made knowledge of the self even more difficult and unreliable…in spite of the ancient wisdom that preaches know thyself!
I agree with those who see the self is an abstraction and overgeneralization that is scientifically meaningless because it can’t be measured. Nevertheless, we are socially conditioned to habitually take the measure of our worth and that of others employing the unsafe standard that equates self-worth with successes and failures in life. Conditional self-esteem builds on this connection and asserts “I’m as good as my last success or failure.” This thought-style embodies the fallacy of contingent worth which gets my patients and the rest of us in trouble with ourselves and others. Think about it! Has self-esteem become an obsolete habit? I’m reminded of T.S. Eliot’s belief that “genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood,” and with the power of poetry in mind, let’s consider the following lines from The Cocktail Party:
Most of the time we take ourselves for granted,
As we have to, and live on a little knowledge
About ourselves as we were. Who are you now?
You don’t know any more than I do.
But rather less, You are nothing but a set
Of obsolete responses. The one thing to do
Is to do nothing. Wait. (T. S. Eliot)
Perhaps more thoughtful is Eliot’s conclusion that “we are neither precisely what we were nor precisely what we will be.” This invokes Heraclitus, the ancient Greek philosopher who famously said “You never step in the same river twice.” It’s a metaphor for the being and becoming of self, which means knowledge of the self doesn’t come easy; nor does my effort to write about it.
Tribal cultures, the world’s great religions and civilizations, have given us the concept and practice of conditional self-esteem. It served homogeneous and simpler societies in the past, but fails to serve the modern world with its many moving parts, globalization, rapid social change, and lifetime learning just to keep a job. I fully expect the day will come when enlightened self-interest demands that we rethink conditional self-esteem and urges us to adopt the safer standard of unconditional self-acceptance which involves directing values and valuations away from self towards behaviors, performances, and achievements…while affirming the safer standard of “I’m worthwhile because I am I, I am alive, and I exist!” This is metapsychology and a mental health mantra. It originates in the practice of our cognitive psychology, and is important to the building of tomorrow’s preventive psychology today.
While there is more than one path to knowledge of the self, I find the psychology of conditional self-esteem and unconditional self-acceptance offer important clues to knowledge of the self. I’ll dig into the “axiology” of these belief systems another time. They are useful in clinical practice. I first discovered, thought about, and debated them during my clinical post-doctoral internship under Dr. Albert Ellis. At the time, I was among the first four interns to complete training under Dr. Ellis when he was busy developing a new clinical psychology destined to successfully challenge psychoanalysis at his Manhattan Institute. I was also a young professor of psychology, fresh out of UT Austin, seeking to build a private practice on Manhattan’s Upper East Side where I lived. I needed a state license to practice and this required a prescribed number of hours of supervision and personal psychotherapy beyond my status of Associate Professor of psychology, Associate Editor of the Handbook of General Psychology, Past President of an international medical society, and Editor-in-Chief of IAPM publications.
At the Ellis Institute I refined my clinical skills and developed an interest in thought-styles and the values enabling them. This became the focus of my research calculated to satisfy the publish-or-perish pressures of academia. I continued to think about a science of values and its clinical relevance when I became Senior Staff Psychologist, and Chief of Behavioral Medicine, at the Outpatient Clinic of the Brooklyn VA Hospital.
It was my mentor Dr. Ellis who first suggested I look into philosopher Robert S. Hartman’s contributions to the study of values. I was to pay special attention to the clinical relevance of his work. I did so, and went on to contribute to the development of a science of values and valuations that had never existed before. Since morals are normative values, I’m also referring to a honest-to-goodness moral science and its clinical relevance. This resulted in work advancing a values-based cognitive psychology which I would come to call axiological psychology. I will discuss this axiological (i.e., value science) perspective on The Self in a future Blog, but for now I will focus on the psychology of self-worth (i.e., the value of a human being) in hopes of capturing a glimpse of The Elusive Self.
The Psychology of Self-Esteem vs. Self-Acceptance: Harvesting Clues to Self
Dr. Ellis rejected the psychological concept of conditional self-esteem as a bad concept and bad for individual and collective mental health. He accepted the psychological concept of unconditional self-acceptance as favoring mental health. During supervision and lectures he occasionally referred to his book entitled “Is Objectivism a Religion?” in which he discussed these existential concepts. Dr. Ellis later published an article entitled Psychotherapy and the Value of a Human Being which appeared as a chapter in Values and Valuations, a book honoring the career of philosopher Robert S. Hartman.
Dr. Ellis regarded Ayn Rand’s objectivism as a “pernicious” understanding of The Self. He had in mind Rand’s dogmatic assertion that “self-esteem is the conviction one is competent to live and worthy of living,” and that “unbreached rationality is the only valid measure of virtue, and the only basis for authentic self-esteem.” He rejected equating self-worth with rationality, and rejected the belief that rationality is always under “volitional control.” He believed objectivism to be a “new religion” for “old capitalism,” and especially “capitalism without socialism;” but never “socialism with or without capitalism.” Dr. Ellis regarded Rand’s philosophy as a tragically flawed repackaging of the fallacy of contingent worth that asserts “I’m as good as my last success or failure,” a thought style that endangers mental health.
At times we were amused when Dr. Ellis’ sheepishly mentioned how the psychology of conditional self-esteem creates “heavens” one minute, only to plunge one into “hells" the next…because we’re fallible human beings who can’t “keep the ball rolling.” So why give ourselves a report-card based on successes and failures? Sadly, this practice of contingent worth is common. Most manage a compromised existence with this belief system, although most could do better without it. Others become patients in psychotherapy, group therapy, couples counseling, vocational counseling and so forth.
Clinical experience tells me everyone would be better off without the psychology of self-esteem and better off with the psychology of self-acceptance. This safer approach to experiencing the sense of an adequate, competent self lies in the cultivation of unconditional self-acceptance, which is to say “I’m ok because I am alive, I am I, and I exist!” Repeating this “mental health mantra” will help you make this existential correction come alive within you! The goal is to believe you possess infinite value merely because "I am I, I exist, and only my behavior is subject to human valuation." However, we had better take responsibility for our behavior for obvious reasons.
I find discussing the psychology of quick-acting and developing conditional self-esteem and slow-developing unconditional self-acceptance is easy with patients struggling to overcome performance anxieties and even self-hate. I find that actors, athletes, public speakers, pursuing self-actualization, benefit from this existential correction. I’ve seen their “games” improve in my practice. However, as a scientist, I find the subject difficult to write about. I’m never satisfied with what I’ve written, and this attempt is no exception. In a future Blog, I will pull more clues from my study of values. The ideal of unconditional self-acceptance is something to work on. It is not a gift. It must be earned. Mulling over this powerful new idea to live by is a good start. I wish you the rewards of earned degrees of self-acceptance…which is the unconditional love you deserve because "You are alive, You are You, You exist, and You have infinite value beyond the reach of any human valuation."
© Dr. Leon Pomeroy, Ph.D.