How's Your Supply of Self Esteem? (Jan/Feb 2004)

Friday, 01 April 2011 17:49

OpenMind - Journal of the mental health association MIND

Jan / Feb 2004


Dorothy Rowe

Low self esteem bad: high self esteem good. This has been the mantra of many people, myself included, for the last twenty years or more. Nowadays there are many people who may say they've got lots of self esteem, perhaps because they've been in therapy and have learned not to denigrate themselves, or perhaps because they've been born to parents who have always told them how wonderful they were. It's marvellous when someone who's been leading a miserable life manages to blossom into a happy, confident person. Such people are usually a joy to be with. However, when I encounter people who claim to possess lots of self esteem, I quite often find myself thinking, 'This isn't high self esteem. It's just plain vanity and bad manners.'

In Jonathan Franzen's novel The Corrections there's a character, Melissa, a student, who was always telling people about her high self esteem. When she was talking to her teacher Chip she said, 'I like myself. You don't seem to like yourself very much.' Chip replied, '"Your parents seem very fond of themselves. You seem very fond of yourselves as a family." He'd never seen Melissa really angry. "I love myself," she said. "What's wrong with that?"'

Chip couldn't put clearly into words what he felt was wrong but he soon suffered the consequences of Melissa's great self-confidence. Melissa 'had no patience with people she considered fools.' She insulted her fellow students by pointing out how little they knew, and she very publicly seduced her teacher Chip, which resulted in him losing his job. Melissa was quite unaffected by the pain and destruction she caused to other people. When she tired of someone she simply moved on. After all, if you esteem yourself highly you must always put your own interests first.

Melissa was a monster, but no doubt Jonathan Franzen modelled her on those people who claim that their high self esteem means that they don't have to take account of other people's needs and feelings. Esteeming themselves highly relieves them of the necessity to be unselfish in the way that common courtesy has traditionally required. Certainly such people behave very differently from those people whose self esteem would be described as very low. But there is one feature which both groups of people share.

People who value themselves very little and who believe that they are in essence unacceptable are totally self-absorbed. They worry constantly about getting things wrong, about being rejected, ignored, hurt or humiliated. Such worry leaves them very little time to observe what is happening to other people and be aware of their thoughts and feelings. Those who claim to possess high self esteem are equally self-absorbed since every situation requires them to decide what is in their own best interest. In self-abasement and in vanity the person is totally entranced by his reflection in a psychological mirror.

The vanity of claiming to possess high self esteem is simply the denial of feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness. It's a kind of whistling in the dark. By contrast, when we make major re-assessment of ourselves, when we have the courage to look at the childhood origins of our rejection of ourselves and see that what troubles us is no more than ideas which we can change, and when from that re-assessment we in effect begin our life all over again, the question of degrees of self esteem is no longer relevant. The mirror which has absorbed us for so long disappears, and we find ourselves intrigued and absorbed by the world around us. We study other people and repeatedly confront the moral dilemma of when we should behave unselfishly and when we should put our own interests first. Understanding, accepting and valuing ourselves involves neither self-abasement nor vanity. We simply are.

Jonathan Franzen The Corrections Fourth Estate, London, 2002, pp. 68, 41