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.
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