Self-Esteem: In A Culture Where Winning Is Everything and Losing Is Shameful

11_0098_Layer 4

Psychologist Harold Stevens at the University of Michigan discovered that American students far outrank those in Japan, Taiwan, and China in at least one area: self-confidence about their abilities in mathematics. Unfortunately, the students’ self confidence was not grounded in reality; in actual performance, American students were far behind their Asian counterparts.

“True self-esteem requires an accurate appraisal of one’s own abilities in comparison to those of others… a phony self-esteem is vulnerable to puncture by life’s experience.”

Psychologist Harold Stevens at the University of Michigan discovered that American students far outrank those in Japan, Taiwan, and China in at least one area: self-confidence about their abilities in mathematics. Unfortunately, the students’ self confidence was not grounded in reality; in actual performance, American students were far behind their Asian counterparts.

A few years ago Newsweek used Stevens’s study to poke holes in the self-esteem “movement,” a movement which is almost as difficult to describe as its central concept. The National Council for Self-Esteem itself has not been able to arrive at a single definition. Nevertheless, California has appointed a state commission to promote self esteem. Many other states, especially education departments, have latched on to the concept as a possible strong tonic for today’s youth.

Indeed, a poor opinion of the self seems to be part of the problem for a great many troubled youth, no matter how their troubles are manifested. If you take kids who abuse drugs, kids who get into gangs, kids who become pregnant, kids who underachieve, kids who overachieve, kids with eating disorders, and kids with just about any emotional or behavior problem you care to mention, and give them a standard psychological test, you will find that most of them will test very low in self-esteem or self concept. Does this mean that self-esteem is a kind of underlying factor like cholesterol? If we can just raise self-esteem, might we not prevent a great many social problems, as by a public health campaign to lower cholesterol we prevent many health problems?

Well, maybe. One problem is that it’s not so easy to raise self-esteem. The Newsweek article is full of silly-sounding educational, cultural, and recreational programs that reward kids with everything from gold stars on up for what are really minor or insignificant achievements. Calvin, of “Calvin and Hobbes” fame, suggested to his teacher that she stop giving him all those failing grades because failure was bad for his self-esteem. Today’s parents are cautioned not to be critical of their children under any circumstances; the message is that unconditional love and acceptance build self-esteem. But the flaw in this logic is obvious. True self-esteem requires an accurate appraisal of one’s own abilities in comparison to those of others. One may be terrific at math but weak in grammar. With a healthy sense of self, you can accept your weaknesses without feeling like an all-around loser. There are real differences in abilities, which are rewarded differentially by life. Unconditional acceptance seeks to deny those differences and build a phony self-esteem, vulnerable to puncture by life’s experience. As Newsweek quotes Stevens, “The Japanese are trying to be proud, and we’re trying to be happy.”

But paradoxically, there is something real about self-esteem. There are many men and women who have achieved great success by all reasonable standards, yet remain dissatisfied and unhappy with themselves. There are poor people, discriminated against and denied opportunity for success, who somehow maintain a healthy sense of their own identity and – if we could quantify it – probably experience more subjective happiness in their lifetime than the successful man who can’t meet his own expectations. Some people seem to be able to incorporate into themselves a self-rewarding system that lets them feel good when they’ve tried hard and done the best they can; others seem to be born without that ability. It’s like the oil system in a car’s engine. Self-esteem is the oil that keeps the whole engine running efficiently. Some people seem to have a leak in the oil system, meaning there’s a constant drive for achievement or success to offset the leak in self-esteem; others seem to have burned out the engine altogether and have given up the battle, turning to drugs, depression, and self-pity.

So what are parents and educators to do? My experience with adult patients suggests to me that a realistic assessment of the child’s abilities, which remains in tune with the child’s needs for nurturance and support as abilities change over time, is crucial. Parental love should be unconditional; but that doesn’t mean that a good parent approves or rewards indiscriminately. We should approve behavior we want to see more of, ignore or punish that we want to see less of. And we should show approval through time, effort, attention, nurturing – not things that are easy to give, like money or gold stars. As the child matures and develops, our standards may rise. But we must be careful that our standards for our children are based on an honest assessment of the child’s constantly-changing capacities, not on our own wishes or our community’s norms. We must be careful to recognize and reward honest effort, to model for our children our own effort to meet a reasonable set of internalized standards, to help children understand that everyone – even siblings – has different strengths and weaknesses,and that comparison is difficult, if not unfair.

It seems to me this is a very tall order for parents and educators in a society which places so much emphasis on competition. Perhaps that’s why the self-esteem movement seems so inherently silly; it’s ignoring the fact that it contradicts basic elements in our culture which make us feel like winning is everything and losing is shameful. Perhaps if the movement were to directly confront these unhealthy attitudes, it might have more of a future.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *