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Changing the Self in Self Esteem
by Brian Orchard, www.vision.org

Self-esteem has many definitions ranging from simply "feeling good about yourself" to more detailed descriptions. These include "actualizing one's own attributes, having one's accomplishments validated by others, and being able to compare one to others favorably."

Many social ills have been attributed to low self-esteem, and early childhood development specialists 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. 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, prompting 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. 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.

While thinking for oneself can represent a healthy form of individualism, enshrining the self has served overall to degrade societal sanctions. An 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 unconditionally: "I must be accepted for who and what I am, regardless of whom and what I am."

When we choose to bolster our self-worth in this way, the positive characteristics of tolerance (patience, kindness and respect) are transformed into permissive attitudes that leave negative character traits unchallenged.

Accepting ourselves unconditionally is a dangerous aspect of false self-esteem which misconstrues tolerance by rejecting any objective measures for meaningful self-evaluation. Self-esteem and absolute standards are not comfortable bedfellows.

Entitlement Mentality
In tolerating our personal flaws, we can feel justified in asserting ourselves, defending our perceived rights, and claiming our self-determined fair share. This attitude can deteriorate into an assumption of entitlement: the feeling that we deserve something regardless of whether we have done anything to earn it.

The seeds are often sown early in childhood. According to psychologist Lynne Namka, "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." If unchecked, 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 self-esteem.

A Society of Victims
Self-tolerance and a sense of entitlement produce another 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 everyday behavioral problems as diseases. In this way bad behavior can be neatly isolated, clinically named, and subsequently treated. 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.

I Love Me
Individualism holds an elevated position in Western culture and can spawn narcissism-the obsessive love of self. The most worrying aspect of narcissism is the profound disconnection from reality. It promotes extreme responses to needs and desires that are perfectly normal. 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. The world is viewed from an emotional rather than a rational perspective; personal feelings override distinctions between right and wrong.

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, at its foundation it is always self-centered. It exists on the edge of dysfunction, because it is motivated primarily by emotions and desires. It loves only because of the pleasure and satisfaction it hopes to gain.

In contrast, true and sustainable self-esteem comes from a different source. It is based on outgoing love: a true concern for the well-being of others that subordinates the inwardly directed desires of the self. This love is the core of healthy self-esteem.

About the Author:
Brian Orchard is a pastor with 34 years of family counseling experience. He is a father and grandfather and has worked with youth programs in the U.S., Australia and the Philippines. You can read more articles on family and relationships at http://vision.org/visionmedia/overview.aspx?id=96.

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