The late, curmudgeonly comedian, George Carlin, once gave a humorous skit on what he thought of the “me” generation and its absurdities. According to Carlin, in today’s world everybody has to be “special” but if you think about it if everyone is special, the word, “special,” no longer has any meaning. Some experts believe the profession of psychology itself, here in the United States has, ironically, contributed to this trivialization of “specialness” by unwittingly fostering a sense of entitlement and a malaise of self-esteem issues it supposedly has been designed to treat. According to the psychologist, Philip Cushman, the affluence of post-World War II America created a burgeoning market of psychotherapists promoting self-help books and services that promised to cure all that ails us in our emotional lives by helping people build self-esteem. This enterprise, paradoxically, has created instead for consumers of psychological services a greater sense of insecurity because it has either neglected to heed the superficial and narcissistic way the self is conceptualized in our consumerist society which fails to support healthy self-esteem or, worse, exploited this condition for their benefit.
Building on Cushman’s critique, it isn’t the emphasis given to self-esteem per se as an important aspect of mental health that is the problem but rather how the self and its epiphenomenon, self-esteem, are understood. The well-known cognitive therapist and former president of the American Psychological Association, Martin Seligman, has admonished parents of children of the so-called “me” generation not to shelter their children from the experiences of failure, disappointment, and averageness that parents mistakenly might believe are the bane of developing self-esteem. To expect oneself always to be special or the best, to win all the time sets children up for disappointment later in life and the complications that growing up with a sense of entitlement eventually creates. The key to building healthy self-esteem instead depends on the ability to take risks and, when matters don’t end well, those disappointments aren’t taken to heart as signs of what is deficient in oneself. Self-esteem is predicated on positive expectations of oneself which in turn relies on achievements which cannot be accomplished without the ability to take risks.
Where Does Self-esteem Come From?
As with most matters psychological, our earliest influences are often the most crucial. A healthy self is fostered within a secure and emotionally supportive environment that balances sufficient attention and unconditional love with expectations and responsibilities that encourage a child to grow beyond the safe confines of its home and all that concerns oneself alone. Perhaps how self-esteem develops may be better explained by walking this backward: In order to have self-esteem or positive expectations of oneself one must succeed in life but in order to succeed one must take risks and assume responsibility, and in order to do these things one must accept oneself implicitly so that failure and disappointment don’t crush one’s spirit. For many, unfortunately, one or more of these elements is missing. When it is, low self-confidence, learned helplessness and resignation, and resentment and blaming others or life in general are likely to ensue, all cardinal signs of low self-esteem.
The Building Blocks of Self-esteem
William James, one of the founders of modern psychology in the United States, suggested that self-esteem is the function of a simple ratio between what he called sympathy and stoicism. "Sympathy" is the degree to which one grows beyond oneself through one's accomplishments, generosity, and capacity to empathize with others. "Stoicism" is the degree to which one is able to relinquish one's pretensions or to realize what one doesn't need in order to be happy and successful. Self-esteem, therefore, is a function of (1) Accomplishments. In order to achieve one must be able to take risks and, once again, in order to take risks one must not personalize failures and disappointments, in other words, to accept oneself as less than perfect, (2) Growing in dimension as a person with empathy and generosity of spirit as opposed to selfishness, jealousy, and envy toward others, and (3) The ability to let go of things one doesn’t need such as unrealistic expectations of oneself, others, and life. Although the Dalai Lama emphasizes in his book, How to See Yourself As You Really Are, that self-knowledge is the key to happiness in life, in order to know oneself one must first be able to accept oneself, a building block of self-esteem. Self-acceptance depends on one’s ability to accept disappointments and relinquish unrealistic self-expectations.
It might seem a bit of a paradox to have unhealthy self-esteem but it does exist. When one or more of the aforementioned building blocks are missing, self-esteem is predicated on a shaky foundation, and what presents as healthy self-esteem belies elements of low self-esteem underneath. For example, those who maintain unrealistic expectations of themselves might seem confident or highly accomplished when deep inside they suffer from the anguish of never feeling good enough. Others who are arrogant and self-centered in nature, such as narcissists and sociopaths, may appear supremely self-confident but deep inside may suffer from a lack of depth and inadequacy about which they are likely to be unaware and adept at hiding from others. When not all the building blocks of self-esteem are working together, psychological problems are likely to develop, such as depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and problems of intimacy, and often these can be outgrowths of a personality disorder associated with problems of self-esteem.
How to Build Self-esteem
Here are some tips on how you can build self-esteem:
Robert Hamm Ph.D