The Hollowness of American Self-Esteem

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“woman touching white textile” by Claudia Soraya on Unsplash

We are, as a culture, too preoccupied with the concept of self-esteem. Keep in mind that classically American self-esteem is attached to fake-it-till-you-make-it positive thinking. And while it’s certainly ideal to feel that oneself is resilient and competent, at its core, the modern conception of self-esteem plays out as a whole lot of talk to oneself and not a great deal of listening.

Self-esteem necessarily requires confidence in all our choices, even if sometimes they are impulsive or we inherently know they are unwise. It can strengthen our assuredness when it may not be appropriate to do so and can weaken our ability to criticize ourselves in a way that is rational and constructive.

In third grade, I remember being introduced to some sort of class curriculum on this very concept — self-esteem. Even then, it struck me as odd that the public school system considered this a responsibility they were burdened with dishing out. In retrospect, I must ask myself, why was this so? Why was it so important to teach nine-year-olds to practice habitually telling themselves they were good, even great? What were they trying to cover up? Why the rush to indoctrinate children into believing that what stood between them and and anything challenging was nothing but their own conception of themselves? (Therefore, implicitly saying that actual shortcomings, human weaknesses, or even different abilities were a mirage.) Self-esteem education constitutes a natural extension of American ethos — particularly this idea that one could be absolutely anything they wanted and their identity was wholly malleable.

A lack of self-esteem is often treated as a moral failure, as a kind of sin. Taught in this manner in school, self-esteem was something of a virtue that was carted out in day-to-day lessons as if it were cut from the same cloth as integrity or compassion. Granted, I don’t think self-esteem is bad necessarily, but I do wonder if its prevalence was complicit in creating some degree of cultural anesthesia — in the sense that most Americans are good at papering over their problems, anxieties, desires, and dreams rather than listening to their “authentic selves,” for lack of a better term.

As well, I have to admit that self-esteem is suspiciously convenient. It essentially catalyzes one’s innate biases, acting as the extra dose of confirmation that whatever one wants to believe is true is therefore assuredly true. Having self-awareness is a good remedy for the potential pitfalls of self-esteem reliance.

But the best substitute for self-esteem, in my opinion, is self-respect. According to most dictionaries, these two are synonyms for each other but I think most people would be able to differentiate between the two simply by virtue of everyone knowing that American self-esteem tends towards that puffed-up, ceaseless belief in oneself — in whatever one would like to positively believe about oneself.

Self-respect, at least how I perceive it, is a better recommendation and a more rooted-in-the-ground, realistic notion. Instead of simply believing that I am great, for example, why don’t I treat myself great? As if I deserve to take care of myself? My obligation is not principally to linguistically cheerlead myself and have that be the antidote to all my ills; moreso, my obligation is to take care of myself and to treat myself with respect. I don’t need to embrace myself with an endless stream of praise because more importantly, I should be doing things that demonstrate that I am taking myself and my desires seriously and that I am looking out for myself in a responsible fashion.

Self-esteem is mostly words; self-respect necessarily encompasses action as well. That’s why, in part, it’s more realistic. I feel self-respect when I decide to work on something productive rather than falling prey to lazily scrolling through a brain-numbing assortment of YouTube videos, for example. When I choose the former, I inevitably feel a natural pride in myself. I wouldn’t have gotten the same sensation if I had chosen the latter, tacking on an, “Oh, it’s fine, you deserve this, you’re still just as good a person anyhow.”

But I wouldn’t feel this, much less honestly believe it. The words, the self-esteem, the artificial reassurances simply cannot supersede the authentic, naturally produced effects that come with actually practicing self-respect for oneself. It is not true that I would feel just as wonderful a person if I chose mindless YouTube over something productive. And if I truly respect myself, I know what’s best for me and thus, I’ll usually chose the option that actually will make me feel more “wonderful” — if we’ll stick with that word.

It’s a lie that self-esteem and verbal reassurances will be enough to absolve the actual, real distance and difference that there is between these two activities. It’s not entirely a mind-game. Objective reality exists. And that’s why sometimes I think the self-esteem narrative peddles lies.

Self-esteem implies that one can personally distinguish what they believe they are worth. It’s all very arbitrary and open-ended — a limitless spectrum. And you have the absolute power to tack yourself on that spectrum wherever you please. There’s something inherently discomfiting about this, is there not? In theory, this is liberating. But to many of us, on an intuitive level it feels vaguely wrong. So we constantly question this conception of ourselves and we vacillate with our self-esteem because we’re aware that to engage in the arbitrary pinning of self-esteem is a hollow endeavor and nothing is behind it, in a lot of cases, but our own whims. And it requires nothing but our own mastery of intentional delusion.

Indeed, there’s often a delusional aspect to classic self-esteem. There’s this unspoken belief that with nothing but words we can create our own reality. This is not necessarily true (though speaking to yourself positively is better than speaking to yourself negatively).

Interestingly, there’s American notions of rapid, instantaneous overhauls and easy-breezy cosmetic smoothing-overs bound up in the contemporary self-esteem narrative. The idea that we can veritably change our entire reality simply by feeding ourselves a particularly ego-bolstering string of reassurances is an appealing one and one that, if you think about it, perfectly meshes with our cultural ethos of complete malleability and quick fixes.

To pose another thought experiment: Why do you think people’s confidence in themselves appears to fluctuate so much? Every day there’s wild ricocheting going on as people grapple with their current level of self-esteem. Dissatisfied with their sometimes slippery sense of self-regard they festoon their home with affirmative sayings and mentally parcel away uncomfortable feelings and become deathly afraid of slivers of negativity they encounter.

Positivity (and its corollary and associate, self-esteem) is not only very culturally laudable but also treated as virtuous as well. My point being: In order to arrive on the shores of self-respect (the better alternative to self-esteem) one must confront oneself and face up to their honest shortcomings and the latent darkness they may have in themselves that all humans must contend with.

Self-respect is more like an accountability partner, self-esteem more like a cheerleader. Which one do you think is honestly better for yourself? Self-esteem is a typical superficial, Americanized Band-Aid solution to avoid the difficult task of genuinely respecting ourselves and becoming truly better people. Self-esteem is believing us to be better people whereas the result of self-respect is, in a lot of ways, becoming better people.

Self-esteem manifests in an internal commentary and this is often the extent of it. Self-respect, on the other hand, manifests in actions that show regard, concern, warmth, and respect for ourselves. Feeling as if our lives are staunchly meaningful is the result of cultivating self-respect. Self-esteem just assures us that we’re wonderful because we tell ourselves we are (and not because we necessarily act in a manner that would corroborate this).

And crises of self-confidence are so common precisely because we are viscerally attuned to the realization that we’re trying to sell ourselves on something. We’re our own salespeople. The self-esteem narrative is running in our heads just like the bright, cajoling, shrewd commercials we see on TV.

Self-esteem is tied to this question: How much worth do you think you have? It’s a little existentially chilling to venture with this question all our lives. Naturally, we’d all like to believe that we have value and we will probably march on ahead with assuring ourselves of this thusly. It is better to set out with the ironclad belief that simply by virtue of being human that we have intrinsic worth and from there deciding what we might do and who we might be to, in a real and fundamental sense, increase our own self-respect.

That as a culture we are, in an angst-like fashion, so tangled up with this question is telling. It is telling in that it might reveal that our cultural space is permeated by an absence of meaning, to the point that people don’t believe they have meaning unless they verbally sanction themselves with it in an individualized, manufactured manner.

So, here’s my final query: Why do you think so many people in Western society are dismally wandering around thinking themselves worthless? (It often happens that many teenagers fall prey to depression/anxiety because at some point, the self-esteem mask they were handed as children slips off and these young people have nothing left to fall back on, no solid platform of meaning.) The way I see it, the self-esteem narrative is dangerously, thinly propping up large swaths of our society. And people are going around shivering in fear about the consequences of not continuing to feed themselves hollow lines of unfailing optimism and nothing else.

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Writer of economics, psychology, and lots in between.

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