Down With Self-Esteem
Recently I dropped in at my local library to see what they had on a subject, self-esteem, that now commands enormous attention in our everyday discourse. I thought I would find a few titles. There were 41, mostly quite recent. Then I went to the bookstore—really a megastore—across the street from my psychotherapy office. There I expected to find at most a shelf-ful. There were 49 shelves, each three feet long, holding altogether at least 1,000 separate titles. Almost all were less than five years old, and almost all offered practical help: how to protect your self-esteem, improve your self-esteem, repair your self-esteem; seven steps, ten steps, twelve steps to a better view of yourself; self-esteem through physical fitness or a more balanced diet; how women should deal with men who damage their self-esteem; how to guarantee the self-esteem of your children; how to recover self-esteem after losing your job, or your fiancée, or your spouse.
Obviously there is a great deal of distress in the land, and that is hardly a phenomenon to be dismissed. But I was looking for information about self-esteem—how to define it, what forms it takes, its origins, what sustains or damages it—and in all these books I found next to nothing. I could see that they were sometimes intelligent and sometimes not, sometimes useful and sometimes not. If they had anything in common, it was an air of utter certainty. What they lacked was knowledge.
And then I was reminded of another book I had read several years ago, when I was asked to review it for this magazine. Since the book was by Gloria Steinem, I thought I would learn from it what, if anything, was new in feminist doctrine. But it turned out that feminism was at most a secondary concern of Revolution From Within1; instead, the book was about self-esteem. It is in fact a paean to this commodity, a continuous accolade. According to Steinem, self-esteem is the source of all good, its absence a sure sign of failure and despair. The effects of self-esteem are to be seen locally, nationally, even globally. The very rise and fall of nations can be measured by self-esteem. To Steinem, as I wrote in my review,
Self-esteem is everywhere and everything, a universal elixir, the philosopher’s stone, a mantra, cause and effect, chicken and egg, alpha and omega, self-esteem über alles, self-esteem forever.
Indeed, Steinem’s own self-esteem is such that in this book she holds forth on any and all issues that cross her mind. I was especially taken aback by her criticisms of Harvard’s Edward O. Wilson, one of the great scientists of our time, whom she does not hesitate to correct on matters pertaining to his own specialty. Nor is this an isolated incident. She pronounces as well on psychoanalysis, about which she is profoundly ignorant, on economics, on political science, on sociology. Nothing—simply nothing—is outside the reach of her judgment.
In some sense, Gloria Steinem is herself clearly a tribute to the powers of self-esteem. After all, it has won her everything. A woman whose success in life has recently been certified by the appearance of a 400-page biography,2 she was even invited to be the keynote speaker at the last annual meeting of the American Psychological Association, there to deliver the predictable platitudes and to be fawned over by the celebrity-hungry officers of the association. But if I am right about Steinem’s pronounced intellectual limitations—and I am—then the link between self-esteem and achievement is rather more twisted and opaque than she and others have led us to believe.
In the common conception, the more self-esteem you have, the better you will feel, and the better you will perform at every challenge life sends your way. An infusion of self-esteem will produce heightened degrees of tenacity, endurance, drive, imagination, creativity, and all the other virtues needed for success. But what of those many instances in which a person feels much better about himself than he should? Gloria Steinem is one possibility; but what about my Uncle Jack?
My Uncle Jack thought the world of himself; he also suffered a steady string of business failures. To explain these, Jack had in place a remarkable system of denials, justifications, and rationalizations which lifted all blame and kept him optimistically primed for the next disastrous venture. Was my Uncle Jack’s self-esteem real, or only a mimicry of the real, Steinemian thing? And how do we tell? Suppose that Jack’s continuing failures had been followed by a smashing success which left him rich beyond the dreams of avarice. Would he have been just a fool who got lucky, or a true adept, who had been wise enough to keep the faith despite early setbacks?
And that is a relatively easy case. What about its opposite, the successful achiever who suffers from low self-esteem? A patient of mine, now no longer alive, sought my help for an increasingly severe depression which was leading him to contemplate suicide. He was then in his early fifties, a professor in the humanities. What made his story ominous was that he had made a very serious attempt at taking his life 25 years earlier, so serious that he had been left comatose for a month. As for his current depression, problems in love or attachment did not seem to be operative. Career, then? He told me he was well thought of, but that he was fooling people: his work was really not very good at all.
The vehemence with which he said this troubled me, and moved me to look up references to him in the literature of his field. Not only was he mentioned therein—he was extolled. This sad, self-deprecating, self-loathing man was a titanic figure, someone who decades earlier had produced a work which was instantly acclaimed a classic, and who had retained that high reputation ever since.
Starting from this telltale clue, I was able to decipher the circumstances of his earlier, near-fatal suicide attempt. It had taken place when he was still an assistant professor, and had received a call that his dean wanted to see him. On the way there, he found himself becoming anxious, then panicky; suddenly the sky turned black (to use his words) and he was overcome by a nameless terror. Entering the dean’s suite of offices, he began shouting and cursing, and threatening to kill himself. He was calmed down and sent home. There he immediately went to the medicine cabinet and swallowed the bottle of sleeping pills he had purchased a few days earlier.
A commonsense interpretation of this incident would hold that he was afraid: the dean was going to give him bad news, he would not be kept on, he was a failure. But in fact he had known beforehand that this would not be the case. His recently published dissertation had been a hit, and the dean was eager to keep him from being snatched away. His own chairman had informed him that the dean would be calling, and what the good news would be: promotion to tenure, at a considerable boost in salary. It was, in fact, that good news—the culmination of all his dreary years in the library—which sent him over the edge, into a near-psychotic episode.
How shall we understand it? As ever, Freud has been there before us, specifically in his paper “Those Wrecked by Success.” There, citing the compelling literary examples of Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth and Rebecca West in Ibsen’s great drama, Rosmersholm, he discusses individuals who fall apart upon the realization of their fondest dreams. One might object that Freud’s cases are aberrations—but in truth, though atypical, they are not so rare as all that. The general category here is moral masochism, a term that encompasses all those who so arrange their lives as to assure frustration and defeat.
Moral masochism does not usually produce catastrophe, as in Freud’s examples or in the case I have given. More often it shows itself silently. For people afflicted by it, nothing—no success—seems to go right. They ask the wrong teachers for recommendations. They find the wrong person to marry, several times in a row. They time things wrong. They strike while the iron is cold. They hit a beautiful shot to the green, then miss a ten-inch putt. They exhibit what may appear to be bad judgment but what is in fact excellent judgment, perfectly designed to accomplish their disappointment, to turn success into failure.
Another case stands out in my memory, that of one of the most brilliant graduate students it has been my pleasure to teach. He went through our difficult program without any trouble, but then, when it came time to choose a thesis topic and an adviser, he made the worst possible move, choosing a crabby, rigid, empiricist who simply hated cleverness. When I heard what my student had done, I dragged him into my office and asked whether he had gone out of his mind. He was imperturbable. It was going to be just fine, he said, adding politely that I should mind my own business.
Things turned out exactly as I had anticipated. His adviser loaded on one mindless statistical test after another. His dissertation ballooned until he ran out of funding and had to leave the graduate program to take a lackluster job. By the time he returned to complete his degree some years later, he had lost much of his keen brilliance.
One is tempted to view this lamentable outcome in terms of a wrong choice, or of bad advice. Had my student chosen differently, things would have turned out better. But this is to overlook the remarkable energy, however silent and insidious, invested by him in snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
In short, the nexus between self-esteem and success is rather more complicated than Gloria Steinem and all the others suggest. How do we rate, and how ought we to handle, the socially popular but mediocre youngster, whose self-judgment accurately reflects that reality; the youngster who is average in most respects, and quite content to remain so; the youngster who is a star, and is seen as such by everyone, yet is disappointed in himself? A great many questions of definition have not yet been raised, let alone answered. And even more troublesome are questions of substance, the questions that arise when you lift your gaze from the treatises and look out upon the world of actual experience.
We have, for one thing, undoubtedly exaggerated the role played by schools in establishing children’s feelings of self-worth. As a general rule, children are not quite so vulnerable as the new literature would lead us to think, and when they are vulnerable, it is usually because of conditions and circumstances which predate the school setting. Moreover, children have techniques for protecting themselves in that setting—when, for example, a teacher is felt to be unfair, or overly strict, or otherwise bent on reducing their self-esteem.
Looking back upon my own boyhood, I can remember quite clearly how often our grade-school teachers would try to shame us. At least once a week we would be told that we were the most disobedient, disrespectful class they had ever encountered. For fifteen minutes we would be browbeaten into submission, and then life would resume. I do not for a moment suggest that such experiences were unimportant to us; to the contrary, we were the children of immigrants who had bet everything on their children’s being “good in school.” But this was an imperative which stood alone, and was not indivisibly connected with our sense of total well-being. Or so I remember it.
As for my high-school days, they could not have been more demanding. I attended what would now be called a fast-track school, the kind of place where one had to take an admissions exam (which, needless to say, most failed). Once admitted, we were informed rather gleefully by the headmaster that it was the school’s intention to fail two students out of every three admitted; and so it rather gleefully proceeded to do.
I have never been in an environment with so many intimidating peers—not in college, not in graduate school, not in a university department, not in a think tank. I am not referring to their cultivation, or learning, or imagination; just their intelligence, their sheer brain power. In this school we learned rather quickly that no matter how good we thought we were, there were others who were better, and this perception was reinforced by teachers who would lecture us on the great traditions of the school and the many famous statesmen and scholars it had trained, to whom we were not likely to live up.
All in all, I cannot imagine an environment better designed to erode self-confidence and hence to reduce achievement. But did it? Or did it goad us to try harder, to prove our teachers wrong? So far as I can tell it did neither. The students who had chosen this ordeal should have been obsessed with grades. In truth, many were obsessed, but rarely with grades. We soon learned our level—that is, what we could achieve given our talent, the standards set by our fellow students, and, above all, the amount of effort we were willing to expend. Once that level was known, we adjusted our self-satisfaction to it.
In my own case, I learned that without excessive effort I could do well enough in the verbal fields—English, languages, and history—but that in mathematics and science I would never do more than scrape by unless I extended myself, which I did not want to do. With the energy thus saved, I put my talents elsewhere, trying to start a new literary magazine (it lasted just one issue) and writing a musical comedy which for some reason never made it to Broadway. In others of my fellow students the widest variety of passions held reign, from an immersion in the esoterica of contemporary art to the search for a formula to beat the horses. What was important most of the time, in most instances, was not the search for glory but the activity itself. Once the path was chosen, self-esteem in the usual sense did not play much of a role.
After obtaining my doctorate, my first serious job was at Bennington College, a small school then enrolling only women, and known for an emphasis on the arts unusual at that time in institutions of higher learning. (We are speaking now of the early to mid-50’s.) As a result of this fact, the college operated in a buyer’s market; it was able to recruit some extraordinarily gifted young teachers who could earn enough money to survive while practicing their discipline. A recent article on Bennington and its current travails in the New York Times Magazine refers to this period as the college’s golden age, and so it was.
Although some among the faculty were already on the threshold of distinction and national recognition, at the time I knew them it was not at all clear who would and who would not rise to eminence, or indeed if any would. In reading biographies of the famous, we know what the outcome will be, and, aware that all obstacles in the path will somehow be overcome, we tend to make light of them. It is a very different matter when a career is seen as it unfolds, in médias res, with the protagonist hoping for the best yet utterly uncertain about what direction to take, or even what line best suits his gifts.
Bennington in those years was a seedbed of one of the great revolutions in our century’s art, the rise of abstract expressionism. That movement is now so familiar, indeed so conventional, that it is hard to remember the violent emotions that greeted its birth—excitement at one extreme, more commonly derision. Researchers who find self-esteem hidden in every crevice of behavior will tell you that those who helped found the movement manifested that quality by definition; otherwise, they would have chosen a less perilous path. But this is utterly circular, and also highly romanticized. In fact the vanguard artists did not on the whole show many signs of high self-regard.
To the contrary, many of them were alcoholics; some, like the painter Jackson Pollock, destroyed themselves directly through drink; others died very young as a result of drinking too much for their bodies to absorb, as in the case of my Bennington friend, the writer Shirley Jackson; others simply killed themselves outright. What the votaries of self-esteem never seem to remember is the extraordinarily high correlation between artistic achievement (literary achievement in particular) and severe depression and suicide. That correlation has held for several centuries at least.
So what, in the end, do we know about self-esteem? As huge as is the outpouring of books designed to laud and to enhance this elusive quality, the amount of serious research or theoretical writing on the subject is surprisingly small. Until just a few years ago, most textbooks in developmental psychology did not even list self-esteem in the index.
As for actual findings, few of them come as a surprise. The most important is that, like almost all other traits of personality, self-esteem starts early and stays late. Those who think either well or poorly of themselves as young children will continue to do so into adulthood, and, within limits, under almost any circumstances. Although some of our greatest dramas and works of fiction are built around acts of personal transformation, they are dramas precisely because they are improbable—out of the ordinary. In the typical course of events we find continuity: Johnny, a troublesome child at four, is troublesome at nine, and by the time he reaches adolescence he is a handful, perhaps even beyond reach.
Self-esteem, then, is very deeply rooted, and once in place it is hard—not impossible, but hard—to dislodge or overcome. I put this so strongly precisely because the self-esteem literature, particularly in the field of education, does not. Rather, rejecting the notion that character is destiny, it prefers in its utopian way to believe in the infinite openness of personality. In this literature, self-esteem is not inherent but circumstantial, and can be raised or lowered by a teacher’s behavior. It is also extraordinarily delicate, and easily bruised.
I have already indicated my skepticism with regard to this last assertion, which has become bedrock to the entire education industry. As Charles Sykes spells out in gruesome detail in his recent book, Dumbing Down Our Kids3 the need to preserve a student’s good opinion of himself is now assumed by educators to take clear priority over achieving academic excellence; the latter, indeed, is seen as a weapon aimed at the former, and the teacher’s primary task is to blunt that weapon. For—the reasoning goes—if the work is too hard, the child will be discouraged and will be unable to learn. As Sykes takes pains to point out, there is no evidence at all to support this idea; it is a fiction, born of ideology.
But what a powerful fiction it is. In How Schools Shortchange Girls, one of the most widely cited recent works in education, girls are said to do more poorly in school because their teachers prefer boys, calling on them more often and in general taking them more seriously, thus damaging girls’ self-esteem.4 Even on its face this is an odd claim. The teachers in question are by a wide majority female; why would they demean their own sex? But that aside, the fact is that girls do better in school than boys. As Diane Ravitch has documented, boys are much more likely to be held back, and are much more often placed in special-education classes during high school. A larger percentage of girls go on to college, and women receive more than half of the bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Women will very soon overtake men in law and medicine, as they have already done in other professional fields. There are many more statistics along the same lines, none of which will have the slightest effect on the purveyors of self-esteem as the be-all and end-all of educational philosophy.
To anyone genuinely concerned about the next cohort of Americans, the real question today is not what we can do to improve self-esteem—to which the answer is: very little—but whether we can survive an ideology so hostile to achievement. The decline in competence over the last two generations in our country is by now a commonplace; so, too, are the dismal findings from international comparisons of academic quality. We are very far from recuperating from these losses, the greatest of which are to be found among our most talented students who function at levels well below their capacity.
I teach a senior-level course in adolescent psychology, and on an exam last semester I asked my students to comment on the state of American high schools, drawing on their own experience. Without a single exception, I received in return a litany of complaints. My students complained about how much time was wasted in high school, how few challenges were presented to them, how much energy was devoted to trivial subject matter; they even complained about the paucity of homework. A number reported that only their parents’ pressure and encouragement induced them to go beyond what the school offered.
As a group, these students are among the very finest at my university. By today’s academic standards they have done quite well. But their true capacities have not been tested, and they know it. This is hardly good news for their self-esteem—or for ours—and it is very bad news indeed for our future.
1 My review of it appeared in the May 1992 COMMENTARY.
2 The Education of a Woman: The Life and Times of Gloria Steinem by Carolyn Heilbrun (Doubleday, 1995).
3 St. Martin's, 341 pp., $23.95.
4 For a fuller discussion of this book, see Rita Kramer's “Are Girls Shortchanged in School?” in the June 1992 COMMENTARY.