In a large theatre in Seattle, USA, an overweight young mobile phone salesman called Stuart steps up to the microphone.
He is auditioning for a TV talent show. His gait, bearing, facial expression — the whole body-language package — signals that here, ladies and gentlemen, we have a loser.
Stuart is going to sing ‘opera’. As the judges glance sideways and roll their eyes, the audience sits back and waits for the fun to begin. What follows is a spine-tingling, lump-in-the-throat rendition of Nessun Dorma that brings the audience to its feet and the judges to their knees. It’s an electrifying piece of theatre that lays the foundations for huge recording contracts and international stardom.
But our young performer discovers another kind of stardom too. Within no time at all his story finds its way into inspirational seminars, life-changing coaching programmes and onto websites that promise to revolutionise your life. It turns out that, like Stuart, you too can release your inner strength, find your power and discover your destiny. Only ‘believe in yourself …’
Believe in yourself
In a London inner-city school, an eight-year-old girl sits enthralled. A teacher is telling the story of ‘mouse’. ‘Poor mouse’, says the teacher. ‘She’s forgotten that she has her own special gift. “I’m no good; I’m only a mouse!”’
‘Believe in yourself’, the little girl whispers.
‘I’m no good, I’m only a mouse!’
‘Believe in yourself’, her classmates join in. ‘Believe in yourself.’ As the children try to convince mouse that it’s ‘good’ to be who she is, it’s repeated over and over: ‘Believe in yourself!’
At the end of the lesson the children file out of the assembly room, chanting: ‘It’s good to be me, good to be me’. A school inspector sitting towards the rear of the classroom nods his quiet approval: a whole-school self-esteem policy that works.
In New York, a black American pop singer is being interviewed for the latest issue ofHello! magazine. Described as a ‘global phenomenon’, she offers the usual briefing about her taste in fashion, boyfriends and the inevitable plug for her latest record. Then comes an unexpected question. The interviewer asks her to confide her ‘greatest sin’.
After a few moments of reflection, with utter sincerity, she makes her confession. ‘My greatest sin’, she intones, ‘is that I’ve never truly loved myself.’
In a small church hall in the Midwest of the United States, a young mother is calling her Sunday school lesson to order. A wall poster displays a fair-skinned Jesus smiling benignly at a group of Western children gathered around his knee.
‘You’re special!’ he is telling them.
‘Today’, the teacher announces, ‘we are going to let off a little self-esteem!’ None of the kids gets the joke.
The world of self-esteem
Welcome to the world of self-esteem. Half a century ago, if somebody complained of feeling down or that nobody liked them, that they were ‘no good’ or they didn’t like themselves, a friend would most likely offer advice along the following lines: ‘Don’t get stuck in your own problems. Don’t think about yourself so much. Instead of being a “here-I-am” person, try to be a “there-you-are” person! Think about other people. Try to get out more. Make new friends and explore some new interests. You’ll never get anywhere by contemplating your own navel’.
Today the same friend would offer radically different advice: ‘You need to believe in yourself more! Stop thinking so much about other people’s problems and worrying about other people’s expectations. You need to discover who you are. Be yourself. Learn to like yourself. Build up your self-esteem’.
How life has changed, and not just in the counselling room or on the psychiatrist’s couch. Now, everybody is ‘special’ and all must receive prizes. From their earliest years, we try to inoculate our kids against the hazards of low self-esteem: ‘You’re incredible!’; ‘Danger, princess on board!’; ‘What have we here, a Mozart in the making or what?!’ And when they grow up into mature adults striving for success and recognition, the message keeps on coming: ‘You just need to believe in yourself!’
Things have changed in our churches too. I sat in a committee meeting recently, addressed by a chirpy young ‘church-growth consultant’ sporting a spiky haircut and a PowerPoint presentation. Clicking on yet another depressing graph showing national church attendance figures heading southwards he announced: ‘Our churches need leaders who will help them build up their self-esteem’.
In my Sunday school days many decades ago, we sang a little song that went, ‘Jesus first, myself last, and others in between’. We would never teach our children to sing such self-negating tunes now. Why not? ‘Because you can’t love other people until first you love yourself.’ In this upside-down world of self-esteem it’s not the sin of pride that we take into the confessional, but the transgression of ‘not liking myself enough’.
Hardly anybody disagrees with this now. It’s a no-brainer. Self-esteem ideology has gained acceptance among lawyers and academics, as well as politicians, educationalists and church leaders. In academic psychology it’s one of the most published topics in the whole of the psychological literature. What happened to bring this about? How did the self-esteem movement gain such a foothold in our lives?
The big fix
First, the self-esteem idea promised big. What started out with good intentions — to help a minority crushed by criticism to stop beating themselves up and take a more realistic view — became a one-size-fits-all solution for just about everybody. This didn’t just apply to bad feelings linked with a difficult and emotionally toxic childhood either. Self-esteem ideology made a land grab for the big questions of significance and personal ‘value’ too.
Everybody has questions about their value and significance. Since the beginning of time humans have puzzled over questions of where we figure in the grand scheme of things and what we are ‘worth’. The prophets of the Old Testament told us to ‘stop trusting in man, who has but a breath in his nostrils. Of what account is he?’ (Isaiah 2.22). Even now, in the Higgs-boson era, issues of significance continue to haunt us. The self-esteem movement gripped our imagination because it engaged with this, the deepest and most profound problem of our lives, and it told us it could fix it.
Secondly, the self-esteem idea had experts. Oh yes, massed ranks of them. And the experts told us that promoting self-worth (or ‘boosterism’ as I prefer to call it) works. They convinced us that there was enough objective, scientific evidence about the terrible toll that low self-esteem wreaks in our lives to merit radical and far-reaching changes to the way we think. They said that, provided we recruit enough parents, teachers, Sunday school leaders and counsellors to the cause, bad self-esteem can be unlearned. And soon a vast army of self-help gurus, therapeutic educationalists and ‘cultural entrepreneurs’ stood ready to fill the breach.
Thirdly, when the self-esteem movement took off nearly half a century ago, it resonated perfectly with the emerging spirit of the age. After surfing the sexual revolution of the 1960s, self-esteem ideology thrived in the new humanisms of the 1970s and the materialistic orgies of the 1980s. Eventually, the primacy of self-admiration became the default cultural mode: If we want to love one another, first we have to learn to love ourselves — right? Who could disagree with that? And hey, hadn’t Jesus even said something about loving your neighbour as yourself? We overdosed on self-admiration and, as a result, the self-esteem movement gained a powerful foothold in the Western mind, and reshaped secular and Christian cultures alike.
The big con?
But did it work? It was only after decades of promoting self-esteem that academic psychologists got around to asking this, the most important question of all. What did they discover? Had the self-esteem movement delivered on its promises? Does encouraging people to value, love and honour themselves produce the kind of outcomes we all hoped for? And, for the Christian, what is the biblical perspective upon all of this?
Glynn Harrison is Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry, University of Bristol, where he was a practising consultant psychiatrist and Chair of the Department of Psychiatry. He preaches locally and speaks on issues of faith and psychology, neuroscience and psychiatry.
This article is edited from The Big Ego-trip by Glynn Harrison, published by IVP in February 2013, and is used with permission.