UNCONDITIONAL SELF ACCEPTANCE (USA)
I accept myself because I’m alive and have the capacity to enjoy my existence. I am not my behavior. I can rate my traits and my behavior, but it is impossible to rate something as complex as my ‘self.’ My self consists of innumerable traits, not just this one. I strive for achievement only to enhance the enjoyment of my existence, not to prove my worth. Failing at any task cannot make me a failure.
I can choose to accept myself even if am unwilling or unable to change my ‘character defects’ because there is no law of the universe that says I can’t. My approval of myself cannot come from pandering to any external source or bowing to any external authority. My self-acceptance can only come from me, and I am free to choose it at any time.
— Nick Rajacic
SELF-WORTH – WHAT IT IS, AND IS NOT
If you feel (I did not say think) that you are worthless, you may be and probably are a victim of a culture that has told you that your worth depends on your achievements and the judgments of others. The feeling of worthlessness besets and enervates men and women, but in different ways.
For women it can be a devastating experience, especially for those who experience depression after a loss of love or approval. The same society which supports organized brutality in the form of football and boxing, assigned them second-class citizen status-a promotion from the third-class status of only 30 years ago. They are vulnerable, they are moving targets.
And men? David Burns, in his wonderful book, Feeling Good, wrote that men are even more vulnerable than women to feelings of worthlessness. He points out that men have been programmed since childhood to base their worth on their accomplishments. They must deal with unrealistic expectations assigned to them by the society in which they live. Winners are enshrined: all others are ‘losers,’ and are forgotten. Our culture tells us that what we do is important. What we are is not. That’s wrong, dead wrong.
Consider this… If you base your worth on achievements such as production and advancement, you may dig yourself into a depressive pit when you fail (as we humans often do) to accomplish some objective or goal. Some modest and reasonable achievement in life is, of course, necessary. It’s a matter of moderation and balance, working sensibly within the limits of your time, talents, and opportunities. My five foot, six inch neighbor will never play Center for the Boston Celtics. (But he’s a grand teacher!)
David Burns wrote, ‘Consider the fact that most human beings are not great achievers, yet most people [survive, and] are happy and well respected.’
If you base your worth on positive or negative criticisms from others, remember that these are merely judgments by people who don’t have all the facts and who have no right to act as your self-appointed judges. If you determine your worth by such judgments, your life will be an up and down roller coaster ride that will make your life miserable. Your best is good enough.
So much for the common, distorted, twisted, damaging, hurtful, unrealistic, impossible and downright stupid definition of self-worth.
Albert Ellis has written extensively on this subject. He refers to ‘The doctrine of variable worth.’ Here’s what worth is really all about: Worth is a philosophical idea, not a yardstick. Worth is based on self-judgment, not other-judgment. Worth is a constant, not a variable.
Your worth is not contingent on your performance, degrees, trophies, possessions, titles, money, behavior, or the judgment of anyone but you. And even you cannot judge it: you can only recognize it. Your worth is intrinsic to you as a human being distinguished from all other forms of life. If you are a Believer, you know that your worth transcends the mere human. You are part human, part divine. For a Believer to unfairly criticize the self is bad judgment, and to criticize God is impolite. Rudeness is not one of the seven cardinal sins, but it could be the eighth.
Your behavior may be rational or irrational and your accomplishments modest or enormous, but you are you, a human being with a mind and will. You are a million light years beyond your closest kin in the animal world, and sixty-eleven-trillion zillion light years (plus or minus six months) beyond any inanimate object in any galaxy or universe.
You can neither increase nor diminish your worth. Among humans, you are not just special-you are unique. Please don’t concern yourself about self-esteem and self-love. Those ideas involve rating, measuring (comparing to others), and judging.* Just accept yourself for what you are, a diamond in the rough. (But polish it once in a while.) Paul Hauck wrote a book on the subject of self-worth: Overcoming The Rating Game: Beyond Self-Love: Beyond Self-Esteem. Much recommended.
So please don’t tell me (or you) that you are worthless. If someone said to you the things you say to yourself, you would be insulted and probably say something like, ‘You have no Goddamned right to say that!’ Right, but then, neither do you.
Sometimes I think people who feel worthless also think of themselves as perfectionists. Perfectionism borders on arrogance, and it’s a nasty mind game, which sets up the self as a sure loser. Someone recently said to me (he was bragging), ‘I’m a perfectionist, you know.’ I faked a sad and sympathetic frown and replied, ‘Gee, I’m sorry to hear that,’ then added, ‘Just you and God, eh?’ My young friend was shocked. He frowned, took the point, and then experienced one of those delightful ‘Aha’ moments of enlightenment. It was a great moment for him, and my privilege to share in it.
— © Vince Fox (d.) Used here with permission.
Why had you better not rate your self or your essence? Albert Ellis provides a few more reasons:
1. Rating your self or your you-ness is an overgeneralization and is virtually impossible to do accurately. You are (consist of) literally millions of acts, deeds, and traits during your lifetime. Even if you were fully aware of all these performances and characteristics (which you never will be) and were able to give each of them a rating (say, from zero to one hundred) how would you rate each one?; for what purpose?; and under what conditions? Even if you could accurately rate all your millions of acts, how could you get a mean or global rating of the ‘you’ who performs them? Not very easily!
2. Just as your deeds and characteristics constantly change (today you play tennis or chess or the stock market very well and tomorrow quite badly), so does your self-change. Even if you could, at any one second, somehow give your totality a legitimate rating, this rating would keep changing constantly as you did new things and had more experiences. Only after your death could you give your self a final and stable rating.
3. What is the purpose of rating your self or achieving ego aggrandizement or self-esteem? Obviously, to make you feel better than other people: to grandiosely deify yourself, to be holier than thou, and to rise to heaven in a golden chariot. Nice work, if you can do it! But since self- esteem seems to be highly correlated with what Bandura (1977) calls self-efficacy, you can only have stable ego-strength when (a) you do well, (b) know you will continue to do well, and (c) have a guarantee that you will always equal or best others in important performances in the present and future. Well, unless you are truly perfect, lots of luck on those aspirations!
4. Although rating your performances and comparing them to those of others has real value because it will help you improve your efficacy and presumably increase your happiness rating your self and insisting that you must be a good and adequate person will (unless you, again, are perfect!) almost inevitably result in your being anxious when you may do any important thing badly, depressed when you do behave poorly, hostile when others out-perform you, and self- pitying when conditions interfere with your doing as well as you think you should. In addition to these neurotic and debilitating feelings, you will almost certainly suffer from serious behavioral problems, such as procrastination, withdrawal, shyness, phobias, obsessions, inertia, and inefficiency (Bard, 1980; Ellis, 1962, 1971, 1973; Ellis and Becker, 1982; Ellis and Harper, 1975; Ellis and Knaus, 1977; Grieger and Grieger, 1982; Miller, 1983; Walen, diGiuseppe and Wessler, 1980; Wessler and Wessler, 1980).
For these reasons, as well as others that I have outlined elsewhere (Ellis, 1962, 1971, 1973, 1976, 1988), rating or measuring your self or your ego will tend to make you anxious, miserable, and ineffective. By all means rate your acts and try (undesperately!) to do well. For you may be happier, healthier, richer, or more achievement- confident (confident that you can achieve) if you perform adequately. But you will not be, nor had you better define yourself as, a better person.
If you insist on rating your self or your personhood at all which REBT advises you not to do, you had better conceive of yourself as being valuable or worthwhile just because you are human, because you are alive, because you exist. Preferably, don’t rate your self or your being at all and then you won’t get into any philosophic or scientific difficulties. But if you do use inaccurate, over-generalized self-ratings, such as ‘I am a good person,’ ‘I am worthwhile,’ or ‘I like myself,’ say ‘I am good because I exist and not because I do something special.’ Then you will not be rating yourself in a rigid, bigoted, authoritarian, that is, fascistic manner.
— © Dr. Albert Ellis (d.) Used here with permission.
THE TROUBLE WITH SELF-ESTEEM
High self-esteem is now viewed much as cocaine was in the 1880s–a wondrous new cure for all ills, miraculously free of dangerous side-effects. Self-esteem is both the sacred cow and the golden calf of our culture. Nothing is esteemed higher than self-esteem, and no self-esteem can be too high. Nathaniel Branden, a leading exponent of self-esteem, raises the question: “Is it possible to have too much self-esteem?” and gives the resounding answer: “No, it is not, no more than it is possible to have too much physical health.”1
What is Self-Esteem?
To esteem something means to have a high opinion of it. To have high self-esteem means holding a high opinion of oneself. This high opinion is usually based on a high overall rating of oneself as a person, and this high rating is in turn based on evaluating one’s actual performance. There are two popular views of self-esteem. One is the theory that it’s good for people to feel good about themselves, irrespective of how well or badly they have actually performed. If they esteem themselves highly, they will automatically do better–and even if they don’t do better, well, they’ll at least feel happier. This theory has been applied in recent years as an educational technique, the “self-esteem curriculum,” devoted to convincing students that they are wonderful and “special.” Educationally, it has yielded disappointing results.
The other approach to self-esteem seems to be popular with libertarians. This approach views self-esteem as something earned. If we perform better, we will then feel better about ourselves. We will rate ourselves more highly, and this will cause us to feel better. Feeling better is therefore our psychological reward for performing better. Usually, it’s also supposed to cause us, in turn, to perform even better.
At first glance, these two approaches seem to have little in common, but on closer examination, the first approach usually turns out to be a variant of the second. The teacher who tries to cultivate high self-esteem in her students usually does not say: “Feel good, no matter how badly you do!” Instead, the teacher deliberately lowers standards, so that the students get lots of praise for very minor achievements, while poor or mediocre work is accepted as adequate or better. And the proponents of earned self-esteem, when they confront the fact that many individuals make themselves needlessly miserable by comparing their performance to some ideal, also advise those individuals to lower their standards, so that they will feel better at a lower threshold of achievement.
In practice, therefore, both approaches to building self-esteem have a common thread: a person judges his performance to be good, then he forms a higher opinion of himself, not just his performance. Then he basks in the glow of contemplating what a terrific person he is. Then, he feels happier, and performs even better.
Doubts about High Self-Esteem
Psychiatrists, politicians, educators, and religious leaders have all been drafted into the movement to make people feel good about themselves. High self-esteem is the enchanting magic powder which will bring sobriety and civility to the teenage gangsters of the inner cities as well as bliss and fulfillment to depressed suburban housewives.
A multitude of therapists and gurus are quick to identify low self-esteem as the root cause of emotional disturbance, addiction, poor relationships, failure to learn in school, child abuse, and a host of other ills. Yet the evidence points in the other direction.
Studies on issues from smoking to violence, along with comprehensive reviews of the entire self- esteem literature, not only cast doubt on the benefits of high self-esteem but suggest that it might even be harmful.
Psychologists at Iowa State University have linked high self-esteem with the failure to quit smoking. “People with high self-esteem have difficulty admitting their behavior has been unhealthy and/or unwise,” writes researcher Frederick Gibbons.2
A study popularized by Charles Krauthammer, writing in Time magazine, investigated the self- concepts of 13-year-olds in Britain, Canada, Ireland, Korea, Spain, and the United States. Each was administered a standardized math test. In addition, they were asked to rate the statement: “I am good at mathematics.” The Americans judged their abilities the most highly (68 percent agreed with the statement!). On the actual math test, the Americans came last. Krauthammer concludes: “American students may not know their math, but they have evidently absorbed the lessons of the newly fashionable self-esteem curriculum wherein kids are taught to feel good about themselves.”3
Researchers at Case Western Reserve University and the University of Virginia conducted a comparison of evidence from a variety of studies concerning individuals involved with aggressive behavior of all kinds: assault, homicide, rape, domestic violence, juvenile delinquency, political terror, prejudice, oppression, and genocide. In some studies, self-esteem was specifically measured; in others it was inferred. The authors concluded that “aggressive, violent, and hostile people consistently express favorable views of themselves.” It’s therefore pointless to treat rapists, murderers, and muggers by convincing them that they are superior beings, for this is precisely what such criminals typically believe already.
These researchers considered the possibility that in such cases observable high self-esteem was a disguised form of low self-esteem, but were unable to find any corroboration for it. The authors conclude that “the societal pursuit of high self-esteem for everyone may literally end up doing considerable harm.”4 According to American Educator, psychologist and researcher Roy Baumeister has “probably published more studies on self-esteem in the past 20 years that anybody else in the U.S. (or elsewhere).” As Baumeister has observed, many violent crimes result when an individual defends a swollen self-image against a perceived attack. “They’ll lash out to try to head off anything that might lower their self-esteem.”
Baumeister concludes that “the enthusiastic claims of the self-esteem movement mostly range from fantasy to hogwash. . . . Yes, a few people here and there end up worse off because their self-esteem was too low. Then, again, other people end up worse off because their self-esteem was too high. And most of the time self-esteem makes surprisingly little difference.”5
A comprehensive review of the self-esteem literature found that: “the associations between self-esteem, and its expected consequences are mixed, insignificant, or absent. This nonrelationship holds between self-esteem and teen age pregnancy, self-esteem and child abuse, self-esteem and most cases of alcohol and drug abuse.”
Millions of taxpayers’ dollars have been expended by the government on professional training to boost the self-esteem of teachers and students, and even more millions have been spent by private individuals paying therapists to help them enhance their self-esteem. Yet the available evidence does not support the theory that attempts to raise people’s self-esteem necessarily produce substantial benefits, and some evidence suggests high self-esteem may have pathological consequences. We should be cautious about accepting enthusiastic claims for the unalloyed benefits of high self-esteem.
Invisible Low Self-Esteem
How do advocates of building high self-esteem respond when confronted with this kind of evidence? They have two answers.
The first is to say that when a person seems to have high self-esteem and also has a screwed-up life, that person really has low self-esteem.
This reply has a certain plausibility, because we’re all familiar with the stereotype of the loud, brash, assertive person who is inwardly frightened, cringing, and self-doubting. Novelists and movie-makers love such characters, and they do occasionally exist. But mostly, in real life, if persons are outwardly loud, brash, and assertive, they are likely to be inwardly loud, brash, and assertive, or at least, more so than those who are outwardly timid or self-effacing. If someone exhibits obvious signs of thinking that he is one of the superior beings of the universe, chances are that he really believes–yes, way deep down–that he is one of the superior beings of the universe. In other words, he’s living in a fantasy world out of touch with reality.
Furthermore, if observable self-esteem is to be brushed aside as immaterial, then this has two difficulties.
Empirically, the claim that high self-esteem is good for you becomes unfalsifiable and therefore untestable. We are unable to determine whether there’s any truth in it.
Pragmatically, if we’re trying to help people to improve their lives, all we can work on is the observable. If we try to help them by building their self-esteem, this becomes futile unless we can be reasonably sure that we can tell whether their self-esteem has gone up or down. The building of a kind of self-esteem which can never be discerned in someone’s behavior (including what that person says) is not really a practical plan.
Authentic and Inauthentic Self-Esteem
The second answer of the self-esteem promoters to the discouraging evidence on the practical results of self-esteem is to make a distinction between “authentic” and “inauthentic” self-esteem. Only authentic self-esteem brings true happiness, they claim.
As self-esteem in practice means feeling good about yourself because of how well you have done, increasing your self-esteem requires watching your behavior to see whether you have in fact done well. Self-esteem promoters often disagree about what aspects of your behavior you should be watching.
We can look at it this way. Advocates of high self-esteem think: I must do x. If I manage to at least do x, I can congratulate myself on being a good person. If I do less than x, then it follows that I will judge myself to be a bad person.
The advocates of high self-esteem frequently disagree on what “x” is. They each have their own favored criterion for assessing performance, their own choice of x, or perhaps their own varying standards for measuring x. But they all agree that the name of the game is pursuit of a feeling of self- worth, to be attained by doing (at least) x.
According to Nathaniel Branden, for example, x equals “the choices we make concerning awareness, the honesty of our relationship to reality, the level of our personal integrity.” Branden warns against deriving self-esteem from success in particular pursuits–in Branden’s view that would be what we are calling “inauthentic” self-esteem. Branden maintains that we’re worthwhile as humans if we make good choices, act honestly and act with integrity. We can then esteem ourselves highly because we can tell ourselves, in Branden’s words, “I coped well with the basic challenges of life.”7
When the self-esteem concept is criticized, its proponents can defend it by explaining that the reason self-esteem didn’t seem to work in a particular case is not that the very concept is flawed, but rather that the wrong “x” was chosen. Therefore the self-esteem that resulted was not authentic self-esteem but “pseudo-self-esteem.”
But notice that all self-esteem theory has the same pattern, though this is not usually clearly spelled out. First, you set a goal. Second, you act in pursuit of that goal. Third, you observe your action and its consequences. Fourth, you evaluate your action. Fifth, you globalize that evaluation: you move from evaluating your action to evaluating yourself as a total person. And sixth, you ( supposedly) feel and act better thereafter if you decide you’re a great person, or you (supposedly) feel and act worse if you conclude you’re a pathetic loser.
The Alternative to Self-Esteem
The desirability of raising self-esteem seems persuasive because people with serious emotional problems often have low self-esteem: they hold a low opinion of themselves and dwell on their shortcomings. So it’s an appealing idea to improve individuals’ rating of themselves, and this seems to require getting them to hold a higher opinion of themselves–building their self-esteem.
The way of thinking I have just outlined may seem at first to be so obvious as to be unquestionable. But in fact, it commits an error. It assumes that the only alternative to giving yourself a low rating is to give yourself a high rating. This way of thinking considers only two alternatives: either you rate yourself as a bad person (a failure, a louse, a nothing) or your rate yourself as a good person (a success, a paragon, a fine human being). That ignores another option: don’t rate yourself at all.
It’s the essence of the gospel of self-esteem that you should rate yourself highly. Almost unnoticed is the assumption that you can’t avoid rating yourself, and equally inconspicuous is the practical corollary of raising your self-esteem: if you set out to “build your self-esteem,” you become preoccupied with your rating of yourself.
Not rating yourself, refraining from self-rating, means that you can evaluate what you do without drawing conclusions about yourself as a total person. For instance, if you are frequently late for appointments, you may think, “Being late for appointments has consequences I don’t like. Is there some way I can stop being late?” You don’t have to think, “Because I am often late for appointments I am a loser.” You don’t need to draw any conclusions about your total self. That may sound unobjectionable. But suppose that you conquer your habit of being late. Now, you’re always punctual. What harm can it do to pat yourself on the back? Why not think, “I’m an admirably efficacious person, because I’m always on time”?
It can indeed do harm! You are drawing comfort and sustenance from your judgment that you are a fine person, and you are requiring yourself to perform well to support that judgment. This leads to anxiety. Moreover, the next time you don’t perform so well, you will then be liable to feel, not just regret and sadness that you didn’t do what would have been best, but demoralization and discouragement, because you now have evidence that you are not such a good person.
We can acknowledge that low self-esteem may be a problem, without recommending high self- esteem. If someone has low self-esteem, we need not try to replace that person’s low self-esteem with high self-esteem. We can instead encourage them to stop globally evaluating themselves. Instead of low self-esteem or high self-esteem, they can have no self-esteem. Or better, since “no self-esteem” sounds like low self-esteem, they can do without self-rating.
If we do not rate our total selves as good or bad, what attitude is it best for us to take towards ourselves? Instead of esteeming ourselves, we can unconditionally accept ourselves as we are. No matter how well we perform, no matter how brilliant our accomplishments, we are always imperfect, fallible human beings. Conversely, no matter how badly we screw up, we always do some things right (as demonstrated by the fact that we have survived this far).
Unconditional self-acceptance doesn’t mean that we don’t want to change anything. It means that we unconditionally accept the reality of who we are and what we are like. This does not involve any overall evaluation of our worth or quality as human beings. It means that nothing that we do will make us believe that we are, in toto, terrific or terrible, heroic or horrible, godlike or goblinlike.
Having unconditionally accepted ourselves, we can then concentrate on what we do and how we can improve it–not because this will make us feel wonderful about ourselves–give us high self-esteem– but because we will then more effectively accomplish the goals we have set ourselves, and feel wonderful about that.
The Gap in Self-Esteem Theory
There’s a strange aspect of the reasoning of many self-esteem theorists. They often seem to assume that if you perform well according to their chosen x, this will automatically cause you to esteem yourself highly. Robert Ringer, for instance, states: “It takes a good deal of practice to play the game effectively but a good player reaps the rewards of self-esteem, the self-esteem which comes from knowing who you are, what you stand for, and where you’re going in life.”8
What is odd about this view is that Ringer appears to believe that self-esteem wells up spontaneously within you if you do something. He doesn’t seem to understand that, whatever you do, this can only affect your self-esteem if you evaluate what you have done, and evaluate your total self based on what you have done, that this requires judging your behavior and your self according to some standard, and that you are free to perform these mental acts of evaluation or not to perform them.
Nathaniel Branden also writes as though he believed that if you have coped well with the basic challenges of life (his nominated “x”), this must automatically cause you to possess high self-esteem.9 And, presumably, if the truth is that you have not coped well with the basic challenges of life, that must automatically cause you to possess low self-esteem.
You are apparently unable to react in any other way, for example by concluding: “I haven’t coped well with the basic challenges of life but I’m not going to let this get me down.” Or: “I haven’t coped well with the basic challenges of life. Tough shit! I’ll just try harder.” Or: “I haven’t coped well with the basic challenges of life. What a fascinating specimen I am! I’ll write a novel about myself.”
Self-esteem advocates often seem to assume that judging your total self is involuntary, and automatic. However, esteeming oneself involves choices among alternatives: you choose to act, you choose to evaluate your actions, you choose to extend the evaluation of your actions to an evaluation of your total self, you choose the standard by which your total self will be evaluated.
To esteem our selves or to rate our selves flows from choices we make in how we will think: cognitive choices. If we fail at some endeavor, or a whole series of endeavors, we are not fated to think the worse of ourselves. If we do draw the conclusion that we are worse as persons because we have failed in some specific endeavors, that conclusion arises from our philosophy of life, our beliefs, our habits of thought.
When I say that these are matters of choice, I mean this in the same way that learning a foreign language is a matter of choice. Changing our habits of rating or not rating ourselves requires repetition and reinforcement over a period of time. We may in the past have unreflectively accepted that when we screw up (or fail to “cope well with the basic challenges of life”), this diminishes our worth as persons. At the moment when we draw this conclusion, it may therefore indeed be “automatic.”
In exactly the same way, the horror of a superstitious person when a black cat crosses his path may be automatic and may seem involuntary. But that person can question the validity of his superstitious belief and can, over time, learn to accept that a black cat is not something to be dreaded.
The conviction that our self-worth rises or falls according to our performance is indeed a kind of superstition. If we were to discuss the experience of dread which seizes a superstitious person who has seen a black cat, as though this feeling did not depend upon that person’s superstitious beliefs but flowed simply from his seeing a black cat, we would be obscuring the vital part played in this seemingly automatic process by the person’s beliefs–beliefs which can be changed, though changing them may take persistent effort.
Problems with Self-Esteem
Fifty years ago, marathon runner and writer Trevor Smith, then 15, spent a hiking vacation with a group of classmates, climbing Switzerland’s Stanserhorn. One thousand feet from the summit, exhausted and struggling, Smith chose to turn back.
Later that evening at dinner, reunited with all his classmates, Smith “saw the glow of satisfaction on the faces of the boys who made the summit safely . . . I regretted bitterly that I had quit when others succeeded.” Smith continues to view the decision to abort his ascent as so horrible that even today he relives it “as if it happened yesterday.”
As an adult, Smith climbed peaks, paddled white water, and ran hundreds of races. He concludes: “Sometimes I’ve paid a high price in discomfort and many injuries. But achieving goals gave a feeling of self-esteem that healed everything.” Smith’s lesson for his readers? Develop high self- esteem. “Tell yourself that you can do just about anything that any other human being can do . . . If you believe you can do just about anything, usually you can.”10
Trevor Smith’s thinking illustrates the essence of the self-esteem notion: self-rating. When you do well you rate yourself as a “good” person, you have high self-esteem; you can do anything. When you do poorly, you’re a worthless failure. (Or if not worthless, you’re certainly worth less.) So your motivation to do well is that you will derive satisfaction from proving that you’re a good person.
Smith’s widely accepted but dangerous view of self-esteem illustrates its inherent traps. If you subscribe to his self-esteem notion, when you do well you’ll tend to take an overblown, grandiose view of your self. And when you do poorly you’re likely to feel depressed and hopeless. Many people who pursue this approach live their lives either anxiously and compulsively striving to prove themselves (instead of enjoying themselves by striving to attain their goals) or phobically avoiding challenging and competitive situations.
In the 1960s, Joe Pine, an acerbic conservative TV talk show host, had as his guest the long-haired rock musician Frank Zappa. Pine was prone to surliness, which a leg amputation–he wore a wooden prosthetic–may have exacerbated. As soon as Zappa had been introduced and seated, the following exchange occurred:
PINE: I guess your long hair makes you a girl.
ZAPPA: I guess your wooden leg makes you a table.
This brings out another of the attendant difficulties with the pursuit of self-esteem. If I am to decide whether I am doing well or badly as a total person, I have to somehow reduce to a common measure all the varied aspects of my performance in different fields, to come up with a single score or rating of my self.
Individuals are unique and many-faceted. “Weighting” all the different aspects of one’s behavior is unavoidably subjective. Suppose that your daughter is an excellent swimmer but a poor runner, or is well above average in math but well below average in languages, or is often unusually considerate of her little brother but sometimes mercilessly teases him to the point of tears. There is no objective method for making these different behaviors commensurable.
In practice, people who pursue self-esteem usually don’t get very far in trying to formulate a weighted evaluation of all their performances. Instead, they tend to fall back on some formula which grossly oversimplifies the picture. For example, a child may become convinced that he is no good because he has done poorly at spelling. He may then give up trying, using as an excuse the “fact” that he is a no-good failure.
Furthermore, people often change–not all at once, overnight, but in particular ways continually. As Albert Ellis puts it, “People’s intrinsic value or worth cannot really be measured accurately because their being includes their becoming.”12
Another problem is that once we get into the habit of thinking that we are good because we have performed well or bad because we have performed poorly, we generally find that this is not symmetrical. There is something innate in human beings–perhaps it has survival value–to pay attention to what is creating discomfort and to pay no attention to what is going OK. Self-raters therefore tend to drift downward in their self-rating, drawing gloomy conclusions when they fall short, and not fully balancing these with optimistic conclusions when they do well. This tendency is all the more powerful because of a fact I have omitted to mention so far, for the sake of simplicity. People who rate themselves always find in practice that “feeling good” or “feeling bad” about themselves is not stable. So, when we say that someone has high or low self-esteem, we’re referring to an average: how good they feel about themselves always fluctuates. Our moods fluctuate naturally, and hanging our sense of well-being on the peg of our self-rating tends to magnify the mood swings.
Just Say No to High Self-Esteem
It is rational to be concerned about your effectiveness in pursuing your goals, and therefore in dealing with problems that arise. It is not rational to be concerned about your overall rating as a person.
The pursuit of high self-esteem, even where it seems to be working for a while, can be hazardous. And at best, self-esteem accomplishes nothing important that can’t be accomplished by self-acceptance.
About the Author
Dr. Michael R. Edelstein, a licensed clinical psychologist with over 25 years experience, is in private practice in San Francisco. He is the author of Three Minute Therapy: Change Your Thinking, Change Your Life, a self-help book for overcoming common emotional and behavioral problems.
1. The Power of Self-Esteem http://laissezfairebooks.com/product.cfm? op=view&pid=NB5600&aid=GC (Deerfield Beach: Health Communications, 1992), p. 46.
2. F.X. Gibbons, T.J. Hedges, and A. Benthin. “Cognitive Reactions to Smoking Relapse: The Reciprocal Relationship between Dissonance and Self-Esteem.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology http://www.apa.org/journals/psp.html 72: 1 (1997), pp. 184-195.
3. “Education: Doing Bad and Feeling Good.” Time http://www.time.com (5 February 1990).
4. R.F. Baumeister, J.M. Boden, and L. Smart. “Relation of Threatened Egotism to Violence and Aggression: The Dark Side of High Self-Esteem.” Psychological Review http://www.apa.org/journals/ rev.html 103: 1 (February 1996), pp. 5-33.
5. Roy F. Baumeister. “Should Schools Try to Boost Self-Esteem?” American Educator http://www. aft.org/publications/american_educator/ (Summer 1996), p. 14.
6. A. Mecca and N. Smelser, The Social Importance of Self-Esteem http://www.amazon.com/exec/ obidos/ASIN/0520067096/ (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), p. 23.
7. The Power of Self-Esteem , pp. 59, vii.
8. Robert J. Ringer, Looking out for #1 http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0449210103/ (New York: Fawcett Crest, 1977), p. 87; and see pp. 11-12.
9. Branden advises that we judge ourselves by what is within our volitional control, not by what is under the control of other people (The Power of Self-Esteem http://laissezfairebooks.com/product. cfm?op=view&pid=NB5600&aid=GC, p. 52). He does not address the issue of our being free to abstain from any self-judgment at all. We can speculate that he might think this is impossible, or he might think it would have harmful consequences for our personal efficacy. In either case, he would be mistaken.
10. “Perspectives: Believe in Yourself.” Running and Fit News (June 1997), p. 3.
11. Cited in Robert B. Cialdini, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion http://www.amazon.com/ exec/obidos/ASIN/0688128165/ (New York: Morrow, 1993), p. 274.
12. Early Theories and Practices of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy and How They Have Been Augmented and Revised during the Last Three Decades. Journal of Rational-Emotive and Cognitive- Behavioral Therapy, 17:2 (1999), pp. 69-93.
OVERCOMING THE RATING GAME
It is not easy to understand why self-rating is not in your best interest. After all, it goes totally against our usual ways of thinking about people and their behaviours. I hope the following summary of what I’ve said so far makes it all a littler clearer:
Teach your children NOT to strive for high self-esteem. This is nothing less than teaching them arrogance, conceit and superiority feelings.
Teach your children never to rate themselves negatively. That leads to guilt, depression, feelings of inferiority and insecurity.
Instead, urge your children to seek SELF-ACCEPTANCE. That avoids all self-rating and the wide sweep of emotions from conceit to self-hate.
All statements of self-esteem are statements of over-generalization since most of the qualities we possess are ignored in favour of the ones we happen to focus on for the moment.
The self refers to millions of characteristics. It cannot be measured by fewer than all the traits which go to make up the self.
When you refuse to rate your self you avoid all feelings of guilt and inferiority. Both lead to depression by self-blame.
When you refuse to rate others you avoid all anger and its many forms: resentment, bitterness, hate, aggression and fury.
Self-rating is unhealthy, painful, grandiose and wrong. You cannot be a contented human being until you accept your strengths and weaknesses for the present, change what you can, and accept what you can’t.
To love yourself is to rate yourself and will only give you trouble when what you want is security.
Psychological health is achieved most fully by performing three operations: rating things ABOUT people, but never rating people themselves; developing your skills to the maximum; and making others respect you.
When you are told you are bad, your response had better be ‘At what?’ Always be specific, never general or global.
In short, leave your self alone. Then how do you rate yourself? You don’t. ACCEPT YOURSELF.
Finally, try never to feel embarrasses, humiliated, insulted or ashamed. They are all varieties of self-rating and give you away instantly as an insecure person.
Recipe for Self-Acceptance
In an earlier book I wrote a short prescription for self-acceptance. I’d like to share it with you:
Hold your head up high and fill your heart with hope. Do not let the pessimism of the world drown you in messages of despair. You are a member of the human race, the most spectacular achievement in our world. Though you are imperfect, you are far more gifted than you are faulty.
Accept yourself with your shortcomings if you cannot alter them. With guidance and hard work, however, you can reduce your weaknesses and your flaws to a point where they do not interfere with your enjoyment of life.
Stop neglecting yourself. You are not much good to others if you are not good to yourself. Hold your head up high, for you are one of a kind. Be proud that even with your limitations you have enough talent, intelligence, and resources to fulfill your destiny to a reasonable degree.
Hold your head up high and face the world with curiosity and gentleness. More often than not others will respond in kind. But if they should not, then do not hesitate to become firm with them, knowing deep in your heart that these are not bad people, they are like you, merely imperfect. But because you value yourself, you will not allow them to abuse you.
However many years you have left on this earth, use them well. Satisfy your deepest desires and needs to a reasonable degree. And always give yourself the attention and the care you would give those you love the most. To show respect for others but not yourself makes a mockery of your best intentions. Teach others the morality of self-acceptance by setting an example of it in yourself
TACKLING YOUR DIRE NEED FOR APPROVAL
People strongly desire approval and would be much less happy if they received none. Nonetheless, adults do not need approval. The word need derives from the Middle English word nede, the Anglo-Saxon nead, and the Indo-European term nauto, which mean to collapse with weariness. In English it mainly means necessity; compulsion; obligation; something utterly required for life and happiness.
Wants, preferences, and desires are not needs or necessities. When you insist that you absolutely must have approval, you self-sabotage yourself for several reasons:
Your demand that every important person love you creates a perfectionistic, unattainable goal. If you could get ninety-nine people to love you, you will always encounter the hundredth that doesn’t.
Even if you demand love from a limited number of people, you cannot usually win the approval of all of them. Some, because of their own limitations, will have little ability to love anyone. Others will disapprove of you for reasons entirely beyond your control. Still others will despise you forever because of some prejudice against you.
Once you absolutely “need” love, you will worry how much and how long you will be approved. Do others really care enough? And if they do, will they continue to care tomorrow and the year after? With thoughts like these, you will feel endless panic.
If you always need love, you must always be distinctly lovable. But who is? Even when you have lovable traits, how can you display them at all times for all people?
If you could always win the approval of those you “need” you would have to spend so much time and energy doing so that you would have no time for other pursuits. Constantly striving for approval means living mainly for what others want you to do rather than for your own goals. It often means playing the patsy and buying others’ approval.
Ironically enough, the greater your need for love, the less people will tend to respect and care for you. Even though they like your catering to them, they may despise your neediness and see you as a weak person. Also, by desperately trying to win people’s approval, you may easily annoy them, bore them to distractions, and again be less desirable.
Feeling loved, once you achieve it, may be boring and bothersome, as people who love you often make inroads on your time and energy. Actively loving someone else is a creative and absorbing act. But the dire need for love easily blocks ardor. Perversely, it sabotages loving, because when you demand intense affection, you have little time and energy to devote to the growth and development of those on whom you make your demands.
The dire need for love frequently encourages your own feelings of worthlessness: “I must have love, because I am a lowly incompetent individual who cannot possibly get along without it. Therefore, I must have, I need, devotion from others.” By desperately seeking love in this manner, you frequently cover up your own feelings of worthlessness and thereby do nothing to tackle them and overcome them. The more you “succeed” in being greatly loved, the more you may inflate this goal and continue to indoctrinate yourself with the idea that you cannot regulate your own life.
For these reasons, you can rationally forgo the goal of gaining undying love. Instead, you’d better accept yourself and remain vitally absorbed in people, things and ideas outside yourself. For paradoxically, you usually find yourself by losing yourself in outside pursuits and not be merely contemplating your own navel.
If you actually have a dire need for love; if you accept the fact that you have it; and if you keep challenging, questioning, and disputing it, it will ultimately and often quickly, decrease. For remember: It is your need; and you keep sustaining it. Other methods to combat and minimize your overwhelming love needs include:
Ask yourself what you really want to do, rather than what others would like you to do. And keep asking yourself, from time to time: “Do I keep doing this or refusing to do that because I really want it that way? Or do I, once again, unthinkingly insist on trying to please others?”
In going after what you really want, take risks, commit yourself, and don’t desperately avoid making mistakes. Do not be needlessly foolhardy. But convince yourself that if you fail to get something you want and people laugh at or criticize you, and not merely show you how you failed, they may have a problem. As long as you learn by your errors, does it make that much difference what they think?
Focus on loving more than on winning love. Realize that vital living hardly consists of passive receiving but of doing, acting, reaching out. And just as you can force yourself to play the piano, do yoga exercises, or go to work every day, you can also often commit yourself to loving others. In so doing, your dire needs for their love will probably decrease.
Above all, don’t confuse getting love with having personal worth. If you rate yourself as having intrinsic worth or value as a human, you’d better claim to have it by virtue of your mere existence, your aliveness- and not because of anything you do to “earn” it. No matter how much others approve you, or how much they may value you for their own benefit, they can only give you extrinsic value or worth to them. They cannot, by loving you, give you intrinsic value- or self- worth. If intrinsic value exits at all (which we seriously doubt, since it seems an undefinable thing in itself), you get it because you choose, you decide to have it. It exists because of your own definitions. You are “good” or “deserving” because you think you are and not because anyone awards you this kind of an “inherent value”.
If you can really believe these very important points- that you need not rate yourself, your essence at all, and that you can choose to call yourself “worthwhile” just because you decide to do so- you will tend to lose your desperate need for others’ approval. For you need- or think you need- their acceptance not because of the practical advantages it may bring, but because you foolishly define your worth as a human in terms of receiving it. Once you stop this kind of self- defeating defining, your dire need for their approval tends to diminish. Similarly, if you reduce your dire need for others’ esteem, you will find it relatively easy to stop rating yourself as a person, even though you continue to rate many of your traits. You will create unconditional self- acceptance (USA)- will value yourself merely because you are alive and kicking, and for that reason alone “deserve” to have an enjoyable life.
Taken from Chapter 10: Tackling Your Dire Need for Approval
A Guide To Rational Living – Albert Ellis & Robert Harper
Used here with permission.
The ability to act in your own interests follows on from self-acceptance and confidence. As we shall see, it is also important to take into account the interests of others. The principle of enlightened self-interest takes into account both parts:
1. You place your own interests first.
2. You keep in mind that your own interests will be best served if you take into account the interests of others. Human beings are fundamentally self-interested
Human beings are fundamentally self-interested
Notwithstanding any precepts that say we should be otherwise, human beings appear to be intrinsically concerned first with their own welfare.
Hans Selye has argued that the desire to maintain oneself and stay happy is the most ancient – and one of the most important – impulses that motivates living beings. All living beings protect their own interests first of all. Selye points out that this begins with our basic biological make-up, in that the various cells in our bodies only cooperate with each other to ensure their own survival.
Human beings are also motivated by social interest
Selye has pointed out, though, that we are also strongly motivated by altruistic feelings. As well as self-interest, we also possess social interest – the wish to ensure that the social system as a whole survives and develops.
How is that two apparently contradictory tendencies can co-exist? The answer is that we help others in order to help ourselves. In other words, our self-interest is enlightened. It appears that like self-interest, social interest is also inherent within human beings – both have biological roots. Collaboration between body cells promotes the survival of each individual cell and enables the total organism to function.
In effect, individual interests are best served by mutual cooperation. Accordingly, self-interest without social interest is misguided. So is social interest without self-interest. Always putting others first leads to resentment or a martyr attitude. People who believe they are acting purely in the interests of others are dangerous. By denying (to themselves) that their own self-interest is involved, such people may justify all types of manipulative and controlling behavior toward others. You are both self-interested and socially interested.
This dual tendency is built in to your very being and begins with your basic biology. By accepting this about yourself, you will be able to do a better job of acting in your own interests – in an enlightened manner.
What is it to be enlightened
The word enlightened as several related meanings. It is humanitarian – charitable, liberal, and idealistic; and at the same time utilitarian – useful, beneficial, and practical. Can you see how merging an enlightened attitude with innate self-interest can apply at all levels – to yourself, to your family, to your town or city, to your country, and to the world as a whole?
Consider the effect on this planet if every person acknowledged their self-interest and then practiced it in an enlightened manner. What if every country based its external and foreign policies on the humanitarian and practical principle of enlightened self-interest? Why enlightened self-interest is important to stress management If human beings did not have an inherent will to protect themselves and further their own interests, they would not survive. If you don’t attend to your own interests, who will?
Knowing what is in your interests will help you get what is best for you and avoid what is harmful. It will keep you moving toward your goals – and ensure that your goals are the right ones for you. But you had better simultaneously take into account the interests of others. Getting people to have positive feelings toward you is a good idea. They will be more likely to treat you well and less likely to harm you. Contributing to their welfare will encourage them to contribute to yours. And contributing to the development and survival of the society in which you live will mean a better environment in which to pursue your interests.
If you acknowledge that self-interest is inherent in your nature, you will feel less guilty about looking after yourself. If you acknowledge that altruistic behavior is in your interests, you will be more likely to cooperate with others. If you do both, everyone gains.
Developing enlightened self-interest
Begin by practicing enlightened behaviors. Here are some ideas to get you started now: Go out of your way to show positive feelings towards others – gratitude, respect, trust – which in turn will arouse goodwill from them.
Choose some new activities in various life areas – work, family, leisure – that will bring goodwill. At the same time, act assertively. Ask for what you want, say No to what you don’t, and tell others (when appropriate) what you think and how you feel. Make a point of doing something just for you each day for a while.
Until enlightened self-interest becomes part of you, consciously seek to get more of what you want while facilitating the interests of the other people in your world.