Changing the “Self” in “Self-Esteem”

Everyone wants to enjoy a healthy level of self-esteem. But few seem to know how to achieve it.

The popular psychology of Western culture has firmly established a connection between happiness and self-esteem.

Certainly few would deny the importance of self-worth to a healthy outlook. But can social programs promising to enhance self-esteem unwittingly produce selfish, dissatisfied people with an unrealistic view of themselves and the world they live in? Without a clear understanding of the source of healthy self-esteem, how can we be sure that well-intended efforts aren’t instead leading, as some charge, to a generation of self-absorbed social misfits?

A close look at the subject reveals both a reliable path to proper self-esteem and a key to sustainable happiness. The two are clearly connected, though not in the way many sociologists and educators seem to think.

The Feel-Good Factor

Self-esteem has many definitions, but all address aspects of how we view and value ourselves. They range from simply “feeling good about yourself” to more detailed descriptions such as “actualizing one’s own attributes, having one’s accomplishments validated by others, and being able to compare oneself to others favorably.”

Regardless of its definition, self-esteem is a fundamental component of who we are as individuals, and that affects who we are collectively as a society. Much unhappiness in the form of social ills such as crime, poverty and addiction has been attributed to low self-esteem.

Society’s solution has been to offer programs to raise self-esteem. Early childhood development specialists place heavy emphasis on the importance of nurturing a positive self-image at a young age. They, and indeed most parents, recognize children’s need for a favorable sense of self-worth to establish a good social foundation and to connect with the world around them.

This deep-seated emotional need is not limited to children, and it is not inherently bad. Certainly an optimistic view of ourselves enables us to contribute to the world around us. An influential number of educators, however, have come to accept that if students can simply be made to feel good about themselves, then success in school and beyond will automatically follow.

Educators often pursue this objective through programs of self-affirmation. Such efforts have prompted lively debate within the educational community. Many fear that feelings have been given greater weight than competence and character. Experts in the field maintain that excessive promotion of self-esteem can create selfish, unfulfilled people with a distorted self-image. If the self is allowed to become the overriding focus of our lives in a misguided pursuit of self-esteem, the results, say an increasing number of experts, can be disastrous.

Indeed, the breadth of greedy, egocentric, careless behavior observable in our communities appears to confirm that the current emphasis on feeling good is ill-advised.

The Hallowed Self

Contemporary views of self-esteem stem directly from the history of Western philosophical thought. More specifically, they are a logical outgrowth of individualism, which has largely coincided with secularization.

In analyzing the secularizing of Western society in a recent newspaper editorial, political writer Milton Viorst observed, “The seminal notion that the Renaissance introduced to the West was that mankind, not God, is at the hub of the social universe. It held reason as important as faith, and urged men and women to claim responsibility, free of clergy, for their own lives.” Viorst continued, “The ideas led, over quarrelsome centuries, to the Reformation, the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution.”

This emphasis on reason or rationalism has been a driving force in the evolution of individualism. Sociologist Emile Durkheim noted more than 100 years ago that “the development of rationalism does not come about without a parallel development of individualism.” That we have arrived at a point in Western culture where the self is paramount should not be surprising; individualism has enjoyed a lengthy period of incubation.

The modern world’s inward focus promotes self-tolerance, entitlement, victimhood and narcissism.

While thinking for oneself can obviously represent a healthy form of individualism, enshrining the self has served overall to degrade societal standards and sanctions. The modern world’s inward focus promotes self-tolerance, entitlement, victimhood and narcissism. Each of these lenses obstructs our vision of right self-esteem and its foundation.

Just as I Am

Tolerance is a critical social lubricant in our diverse society. However, in their haste to promote a virtue, many have misapplied the concept and fallen into the trap of accepting themselves nonjudgmentally: “I must be accepted for who and what I am, regardless of who and what I am.”

Maureen Stout, who holds a doctorate in the philosophy of education, finds that “the current definition of self-esteem used by educators and psychologists seems to be . . . feeling good about oneself irrespective of individual or social attributes or characteristics” (The Feel Good Curriculum, 2000). In other words, we may choose to bolster our self-worth by refusing to judge ourselves by external standards. In this way the positive characteristics of tolerance (patience, kindness and respect) are transformed into permissive attitudes that allow negative character traits to remain unchallenged.

Accepting ourselves without regard to external criteria is a dangerous aspect of false self-esteem. This approach broadly misconstrues tolerance by specifically rejecting any objective measure by which a meaningful self-evaluation can be undertaken. Self-esteem and absolute standards are not comfortable bedfellows.

Entitlement Mentality

If we learn to tolerate our errors and personal flaws, then we come to accept ourselves as somehow basically okay. Thus we can feel justified in asserting ourselves, defending our perceived rights, and claiming our self-determined fair share. This attitude can quickly deteriorate into the assumption that the world owes us something. Entitlement is the feeling that we deserve something, whatever it may be, regardless of what we may or may not have done to earn it.

This destructive attitude often develops early in childhood. According to psychologist Lynne Namka, “some children feel owed or entitled to get their way. While it is normal for a child to ask for what he wants, some children are overly demanding and needy. They have not learned to balance taking from others with giving; they view other people as existing merely to give to them.”

Namka adds that a child’s selfish behavior, “if it is not checked or outgrown, . . . can become a lifelong pattern of getting everything for himself” (“‘You Owe Me!’: Children of Entitlement,” 1997). If unchecked in childhood, these attitudes intensify and may be manifested in behaviors such as road rage, students demanding better grades than they earn, or corporate executives awarding themselves exorbitant salaries. Attitudes of entitlement have the unfortunate consequence of divorcing both character and behavior from how we value ourselves.

A Society of Victims

Because they may imply that self-esteem is a fundamental right, self-tolerance and a sense of entitlement produce another psychological malady that is increasingly present in our culture: victimhood—placing the blame for personal inadequacies elsewhere.

The growing tendency among many psychologists and medical practitioners is to classify all manner of behavioral problems as diseases. In this way bad behavior can be neatly isolated, clinically named, and subsequently treated with drugs and/or counseling. Thus an individual is unfettered by accountability for his or her actions. This trend mirrors a broad shift in cultural values from self-control to self-indulgence.

Some have suggested that children are being overdiagnosed with such diseases as Attention Deficit Disorder in order to separate responsibility from behavior. Psychologist Ofer Zur pinpoints the broader effects of the poor-behavior-as-disease model of life when he writes, “Psychotherapy sees many normal life events as trauma in need of healing rather than as enriching experiences. This has political consequences. Individuals are freed from moral responsibility for what they do or what happened to them and therefore are no longer citizens, but patients or victims” (“Psychology of Victimhood,” 2003).

Once victimhood is enshrined, offensive behavior is increasingly blamed on childhood abuses.

Once victimhood is enshrined, offensive behavior is increasingly blamed on childhood abuses. Criminals are transformed into the blameless. Of course, there are innumerable cases of genuine psychological trauma and unimaginably scarring cruelty. But problems are frequently misdiagnosed as self-esteem issues, and the symptom rather than the cause receives treatment. Zur comments that victimhood is “often claimed by the privileged middle class and the wealthy of our society. The victim’s stance of ‘Don’t blame me!’ is often accompanied with ‘I deserve this, this and this!’ The ‘rights industry’ or the ‘rights movement’ goes hand in hand with the victim industry.”

I Love Me

An increasing emphasis on individualism illustrates the elevated position the self holds in Western culture. This prominence is often referred to as narcissism—the obsessive love of self. With the self-esteem movement embedded in child development programs, young adults are now encouraged to develop image rather than character.


The name of the social condition popularly known as narcissism comes from Greek mythology. According to one version of the tale, Narcissus was the son of the mythological river god Cephissus and the nymph Liriope, and his beauty caused all who saw him to fall in love with him. Narcissus, however, rejected all his admirers. 

Among those who were enamored with him was a nymph named Echo. She was so distraught over his rejection that she withdrew to a lonely spot and faded until all that was left of her was a whisper. According to the story, the Greek gods heard the rejected girl’s prayers for vengeance and caused Narcissus to fall in love with his reflection in a pool of water. Spellbound by the sight of himself, he couldn’t tear himself away from the edge of the pool. As he gazed unceasingly at his own image, he pined away and died. 

The term narcissist has come to refer to someone who indulges in self-worship or is in some way excessively self-absorbed.

Lilian G. Katz of the University of Illinois Early Childhood and Parenting Collaborative warns that school self-esteem programs promote schemes that, while they “are intended to help children achieve and maintain high self-esteem [they] may inadvertently cultivate narcissism.” She cites other researchers who claim “that when success is more important than self-respect, the culture itself overvalues image and is narcissistic, and further that narcissism denotes a degree of unreality in individuals and the culture” (“Distinctions Between Self-Esteem and Narcissism,” 1993).

The most worrying aspect of narcissism is the profound disconnection from reality. It promotes extreme responses to needs and desires that are perfectly normal. Katz explains that narcissists are “sometimes described as exhibitionistic, requiring constant attention and admiration, often believing that they are entitled to special favors without the need to reciprocate.” Such people “tend to exploit others, to be seekers of sensations, experiences, and thrills, and to be highly susceptible to boredom. Many of these characteristics of narcissism seem to apply to our culture in general and to many of our youth in particular.” She adds that “adults diagnosed as suffering from the narcissistic syndrome often complain that their lives are empty or meaningless, and they often show insensitivity to the needs of others.”

When the self becomes the center of the individual’s universe, disconnection from other people also occurs. The feelings and needs of others take a distant second place, and personal identity is sought within narrow groups that validate self-centered views. In this way, the world is viewed from an emotional rather than a rational perspective; personal feelings override distinctions between right and wrong.

Self-serving pursuits do not create self-esteem. In fact, they often have just the opposite effect.

Pursuing self-esteem via self-centered activities is a vicious cycle, however. Self-love is ultimately unfulfilling. Dissatisfied, the narcissist seeks opportunities to feel good through more self-centered activities. But self-serving pursuits do not create self-esteem. In fact, they often have just the opposite effect: low self-esteem and a sense of worthlessness that can end in tragedy.

A respected authority on child development, William Damon, asserts firmly that “one cannot ‘find’ self-esteem in isolation from one’s relations to others because it does not exist apart from those relations” (Greater Expectations, 1995). When we attempt to place a value on ourselves and ignore the value of other people, we lose sight of where true self-esteem originates.

A Different Kind of Love

As society has become increasingly absorbed with the pursuit of individualism, it has lost sight of an important dimension of self-esteem: a standard by which to evaluate the self and its relationships with others. While many people have come to view self-love as the basis of self-worth, true and sustainable self-esteem comes from a different source.

In an interview with Vision Damon noted that “self-esteem is a perfectly good thing for people to have, but it should be the result of good behavior. In other words, you should feel good about yourself because you’ve done something right. . . . We want to promote self-esteem that comes from achievement and from service to others.” That clearly represents a very different kind of love.

There are two basic types of love. The first, self-love, may be expressed in a variety of beguiling forms, but at its foundation it is always self-centered. It exists on the edge of dysfunction, because it is motivated, first and foremost, by emotions and desires. It loves only because of the pleasure and satisfaction it hopes to gain.

The second type is far more rare: outgoing love. It is based on true concern for the well-being of others and subordinates the inwardly directed desires of the self. This love is the core of healthy self-esteem.

Some might be surprised that the Bible not only defines outgoing love, it also shows it to be a prerequisite of both self-esteem and happiness. The desire to feel good about ourselves has prompted many to throw off any uncomfortable constraints on human behavior. But as hard as it is to accept in today’s environment, happiness and well-being are dependent on constraints. And the constraints given in the Bible are designed to focus our attention away from individual desires and toward the needs of others. These principles have been established as the bedrock of civilization for millennia because they prompt behavior that is helpful both within and between individuals. The clear standard—like a guardrail along a treacherous road—is known as the law of God.

Jesus summarized the law by stating, “The first of all the commandments is . . . ‘you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ This is the first commandment. And the second, like it, is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:29–31). Clearly both love toward God and love toward fellow man are outgoing. They produce actions and attitudes that promote the happiness of others ahead of personal happiness.

In writing to Christ’s early followers in Rome, the apostle Paul made this observation regarding the second great commandment: “Owe no one anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not bear false witness,’ ‘You shall not covet,’ and if there is any other commandment, are all summed up in this saying, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law” (Romans 13:8–10, emphasis added).

What a paradox! Love and obedience to God’s law are one and the same! The apostle John summed it up this way. “For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments” (1 John 5:3).

The modern self-esteem movement fails because it rejects God’s law as the basis of love. Yet as we do those things that fulfill love toward other people, we begin to experience feelings of true self-worth. Obedience to God’s law—the expression of outgoing concern—produces well-being and contentment coupled with a positive self-image. The resulting sense of happiness cannot exist in the individual who is drawn into the lonely vacuum of self-interest.

Is your life empty and unfulfilled? Perhaps some time spent exploring and practicing commandment-based love will help fill the emotional tank.