Self-Esteem vs Self-Respect

An interesting essay by Theodore Dalrymple, a British psychologist who has worked extensively in prisons. Via psychiatrist Dr Sanity, who adds thoughts of her own.

My sense is that the self-esteem movement started benignly enough, with the sensible idea that it is usually better to focus on praising people for things they do right rather than on condemning them for their inadequacies. But it soon fell into the hands of various airheads, many of them professors in “education” schools, who too frequently have been hostile to the whole notion of individual achievement and individual accountability.

I think the “self-esteem” movement in its current incarnation is doing serious harm to education, to the doing of productive work throughout the economy, and probably to personal relationships as well. I’ve written extensively about this topic at Photon Courier: some selected posts are linked below:

Excerpts from a USA Today report on the excesses and consequences of the self-esteem movement. One teacher describes being told that red pens should not be used for correcting papers “because red is so symbolic of wrong answers.” A dean at Stanford says she keeps a box of Kleenex in her office because so many students have never before had to deal with tough feedback.

The movie: “You are wonderful” and the poster: “It’s all about me.”

Some actual research into the claims of the self-esteem movement.

A college instructor with 15 years of experience says that many students now find it almost impossible to deal with setbacks.

Superheated ‘steem hits the workplace. Closely related: hovering parents in the workplace.

A law firm practice manager (in the UK) observes that “The apparent self-esteem and expectations of some candidates render them unemployable.”

Shrinkwrapped on self-esteem and narcissism.

16 thoughts on “Self-Esteem vs Self-Respect”

  1. self-esteem actually comes from the ayn rand brigade. look into it. it was hardly harmless in its beginning roots.

  2. A couple of histories of the self-esteem movement, here and here. And this 1968 book also seems to have been important.

    I assume your Ayn Rand reference is to the work of Nathaniel Branden…his definition of self-esteem is cited at the Wikipedia link, and has a lot to do with individual competence and worthiness. It seems inherently improbable that any Randist opinions could have much influence on the public-education establishment, given that the Weltanschauungs of these groups are about 178 degrees out of phase.

  3. I don’t know where all this began, I just want it to end. If I have to interview another one of these people’s grandiose and entitled off-spring, I will puke.

    You are not special “just for being you” to anyone but your mother. My love for you is entirely conditional on you dropping the attitude and producing an honest day’s work.

  4. Methink:
    in the days of lore, when I was in the position to interview candidates for a junior designer/entry level slot, I had an amusing collection of them. One guy, in particular; he came to interview w/o a portfolio and when asked to show samples of his work, even if it’s his school coursework, said “I don’t believe in fair representation of one’s creative abilities in a portfolio. I see myself more of a conceptual artist, in a sense that I’ll describe a concept to a team, and they’ll develop and present it by mixed-media means”.

  5. self-esteem actually comes from the ayn rand brigade.

    I’ve read a lot of misguided interpretations of Rand’s ideas, but that one goes to the top of the list.

  6. The other side of this coin is that real achievement, or at least effort, is denigrated unless it fits the preconceptions of the interviewer. For example, my older son was applying to college. He asked me what he should use as a subject for his mandatory essay on something important he had done as a high school student. We talked about it and he decided to write about sailing to Hawaii with me when he was 16. He stood a watch in the Transpacific Yacht Race, took his turn on the helm and worked hard, one of a crew of seven. We finished after 11 days, 20 hours and ended 9 minutes from winning overall. His high school counsellor was dismissive of the topic and asked him if he really wanted to get into college. I suppose a peace march would have been preferable.

    That son is now a successful attorney in the San Francisco Bay area and sails every weekend. He could probably make a decent living as a professional sailor.

  7. Michael K…and the high school counselor may well have been correct, in terms of what would sell with the college admissions people.

    It strikes me that we as a society have delegated a very considerable amount of power to college admissions officers. How much do we actually know about who these people are and what their values might be?

  8. I used to orient my consulting staff by saying

    “all of your life to date you’ve been told that your opinion is important and that people care what you think”

    Then I’d say

    “It isn’t true. You watch for my lead, you do what I say, and maybe you’ll learn something”

    The good ones did, the bad ones didn’t.

    The problem was critical because as a consultant you are charging for services; if someone is rude or arrogant the client (who already is skeptical of consultants) goes into overdrive.

  9. Tatyana,

    I do hope that guy is enjoying living in his parents’ basement – waiting for all the “free” health care.

  10. Methinks,
    He might be doing just that, or he might become a Design Director of some Co. After one of the VP’s of a top-10 architectural firms told me (unofficially) that they need a person with exactly my qualifications, years of experience and specific market focus, but of about 35yo, because they like to see young faces in the office – nothing would surprise me anymore.

  11. I think it important to note that sociopaths always have very high self-esteem. Indeed, the very dangerous (such as the sociopath who crashed the plane into the IRS or the one who shot up the university) are usually driven to into their murderous rages by the belief they have been cheated out of the just rewards of their genius. Something to keep in mind. Even people with normal empathy can become bitter and angry if they believe themselves cheated of their just rewards.

    The self-esteem movement is very dangerous because it creates a serious disconnect between an individual’s real accomplishments and their expectations of just rewards. Most people won’t act out violently but they may lash out politically or economically if they believe that the “system” systematically denies them what their self-esteem tells them they deserve. Instead of thinking, “I don’t provide enough economic value to others so I need to increase my skill levels in order to make more money/status etc,” they think, “The system is corrupt and does not reward me as it should. The government needs to step in and make things ‘fair’.”

  12. Well said, Shannon. As always.

    Tatyana, the system is corrupt because of the sociopaths in politics!!

  13. Excessive self-esteem is indeed a national disease. I wonder what the chicagoboyz do to keep theirs in check.

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