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 senseof 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. Uncon! ditional 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.
Richard O'Connor is the author of two books, Undoing Depression: What Therapy Doesn't Teach You and Medication Can't Give You and Active Treatment of Depression. For fourteen years he was executive director of a private, nonprofit mental health clinic serving Litchfield County, Connecticut, overseeing the work of twenty mental health professionals in treating almost a thousand patients per year. He is a practicing psychotherapist, with offices in Canaan, Connecticut, and New York City. He currently is working on his third book -- about pain, anxiety, and depression. Visit his website at http://www.undoingdepression.com