Theodore Dalrymple M.D.

Psychiatric Disorder


The Horrors of Self-Esteem

Why self-esteem is a bad idea.

Posted Apr 28, 2015

The shallowest and least attractive of modern psychological concepts is probably that of self-esteem. It is not so very different from conceit, though it tends to be worse in one respect: people who claim it are inclined to demand of others that they take them at their own estimate, for fear of smashing them like eggshells. Self-esteem is now virtually a right, and if the signatories of the Declaration of Independence were signing it today they might well include self-esteem as one of Mankind’s inalienable rights. To say of a person that he esteems himself used to be regarded as something of a criticism, if not an outright insult. Among other things, it implied that he was a great deal too concerned with himself. Self-esteem is for the self-absorbed: and even to question whether or not one esteems oneself is to be halfway down the slippery slope.

There are of course metaphysical difficulties with the whole notion as well: for who is being esteemed and who is doing the esteeming? One cannot really love oneself, one can only love things about oneself, and that, it seems to me, is not an admirable thing to do. Self-esteem is supposed to be unconditional; how one actually behaves is irrelevant to it. It can survive any quantity of contrary evidence. One of the many things I noticed about young criminals is that many of them were pretty pleased with themselves. And presumably if one can have too little self-esteem one can have too much of it. In other words, the right amount to have (if one should have any at all, which I deny) is irreducibly a moral judgment. A total lack of self-esteem might well be completely justified. My experience is that, in their heart of hearts, many people do not really believe in self-esteem, except as a kind of whistling in the dark.

When I told patients who complained of lack of self-esteem (admittedly on a selected basis) that at least they had got one thing right, they did not grow angry or upset, but laughed instead as if they had known all along that their complaint was a charade. Of course they had things to complain of – we all do, and they had more than most – but the notion of lack of self-esteem actually discouraged them from examining those things honestly. It is worth comparing self-esteem with self-respect, a different matter altogether. The first is a self-regarding, unearned and fundamentally narcissistic quality, and the second is a social quality that imposes a discipline because it cannot be unconditional. Self-respect may make you acquiesce in the desires of others, or oppose them when they are wrong, but it is never a tepid bath of self-regard in bath salts dissolved into a gratifyingly expansive lather of foam.

Perhaps I can illustrate the difference between self-esteem and self-respect in the seemingly superficial matter of mode of dress. In this matter I have changed my mind over the years: I used to believe in the virtues of slobbery, but I no longer do. This is because the slob is in effect saying to you, and to everyone else, I am not going to make an effort just for you. You must take me as I am, and not think the worse of me for that. Slobbery is not absent-minded, as when, for example, a learned professor, absorbed in the textual problems of Aeschylus or some such abstruse matter, puts on socks of different pairs. On the contrary, slobbery is militant. It demands simultaneously that you notice it and take no notice of it. It is self-esteem in the sartorial field. Note, however, that while the slob demands something of you, he demands nothing of himself. It takes no effort to be a slob: to be a slob is to indulge in unconditional self-regard.

Lest anyone suggest that slobbery is the consequence of poverty, let me remark that I have lived in very poor countries in Africa and have been moved by the efforts of very poor people to turn themselves out as well as they can. A rich slob is thus not expressing any solidarity with the poorest people in the world, but administering a slap in their face, as if they had all the wrong values. And if you want to see schoolchildren beautifully turned-out, go to a poor country. Of course, dressing for the sake of others can go too far and become outright vanity. But dressing at least reasonably well is a sign of self-respect rather than of self-esteem. If you walk any street in the western world, you can see that there is far too much self-esteem about, demanding that you concur in people’s estimates of themselves.