If you're like most Americans, chances are you never thought you were at risk for low self-esteem. Sure, you felt bad at your kids' school's Career Day when you were the only parent who didn't own his own company. But unless your family psychometrician has administered a Coopersmith Self-Esteem Inventory or the Kaplan Self-Derogation Scale you probably never imagined that a negative self-image might be holding you back in life. You just thought you were no good.
But now you know that there are no bad people, only people who think badly of themselves. You know that "if you really joyfully accept yourself... nothing can make you unhappy," in the words of Father John Powell, a specialist in "psychotheology" at Loyola University of Chicago. You know that even famous, successful people like writer Gloria Steinem ("Revolution From Within: A Book of Self-Esteem") have to battle "inner feelings of incompleteness, emptiness, self-doubt and self-hatred." Negative thoughts afflict even paragons of achievement like athlete Michael Jordan, author of this poignant confession in the "self-esteem corner" of the Children's Museum of Denver: "I wish I came in first more often." Ordinary people obviously wish the same thing for themselves. Although only one in 10 Americans believes he personally suffers from low self-esteem, according to a NEWSWEEK Gallup Poll, more than 50 percent diagnose the condition in someone else in their families. And, of course, deviant behavior is prima facie evidence of self-image problems, as in the case of a man being sought in Montgomery County, Md., for a series of rapes. Citizens have been warned by police to be on the lookout for a man in his 30s with a medium build and "low self-esteem."
As a concept, self-esteem can be traced to Freud, who used the term ego ideal. Shame, the emotional expression of low self-esteem, has been a hot topic among therapists in recent years, and is the subject of a new book ("Shame: The Exposed Self ") by a prominent developmental psychologist, Michael Lewis. But as a paradigm for analyzing almost every problem in American society, self-esteem is clearly a product of today's relentless search for ever more fundamental and unifying laws of nature. Self-esteem is the quark of social science, a way to make sense of the wildly proliferating addictions, dependencies and 12-step programs jostling for air time on "Donahue." Low self-esteem is a meta--addiction, a state that seems to underlie afflictions as diverse as bulimia and performance anxiety. "People saw that self-esteem was a component of so many other things - teenage pregnancies, dropouts, drugs, school success - and they were hoping we'd found one solution to many problems," says psychoanalyst Nancy E. Curry of the University of Pittsburgh. People always hope that; it's what keeps publishers going, not to speak of religions.
As the distinction between therapy and the rest of American life has eroded, the concept of self-esteem has established itself in almost every area of society. The bulletin of The National Council for Self-Esteem, Self-Esteem Today, lists 10 national and regional conferences this year aimed at extirpating negative self-images from society. Most people, thanks to "Doonesbury," know that California appointed a state commission to promote self-esteem. But the idea is also very big in places like Minnesota (home of the "Very Important Kid" program for "encouraging self-esteem in 3-6 year olds") and in Maryland, where a state task force counted more than 1,000 ways in which citizens were already working to improve the self-esteem of their fellow students, government workers, business executives and cellmates. An outfit called High Self-Esteem Toys Corp. has brought out a fashion doll named Happy To Be Me, whose scale measurements of 36-27-38 are intended to represent a more realistic ambition for a human being than Barbie's exotic mannequin's figure, with its 18-inch waist and 33-inch hips.
Churches have discovered that "low self-esteem" is a less off-putting phrase to congregants than "sin." When PeeWee Herman was arrested last year, Jesuit scholar William O'Malley partially exonerated him with the observation that "masturbation isn't the problem, it's lack of self-esteem." (Going further, a Presbyterian Church committee on "human sexuality" last year actually recommended masturbation in cases of severe self-image deficiency. Its example was a man confined to a wheelchair who gains "self-esteem" from the use of an electric vibrator. The committee's report was rejected.)
Businesses have begun to realize that improving employees' self-esteem, usually known in this context as "empowerment," can be a more effective motivator than expensive, old-fashioned "raises." "Self-esteem is a basic building block on which personal effectiveness is based," says management-training consultant Dave Ehlen, head of Wilson Learning Corp. America's corporate managers-the same group whose excessive salaries are elsewhere regarded as a national scandal-have to be made to "believe in themselves ... to feel good about what they are and where they are going." How does this work in practice? Nancy Stephan, a Minneapolis consultant, was called in to help a medium-size company suffering from a communication problem: the president was yelling at his subordinates. She diagnosed this as a lack of executive self-esteem. By teaching him to "talk to people in a caring way," the company's problem was solved! "Relationships have improved tremendously," Stephan says. They're not actually making any more money, "but they're communicating on a whole different level."
Nowhere has the concept taken root as firmly as in education. Toddlers are encouraged to "reach their full potential" in self-esteem day-care centers. High-school drug and alcohol programs now emphasize self-esteem, on the theory, according to New Hampshire school administrator James Weiss, that "if youngsters feel good about themselves, those temptations won't be so strong." Of course, there are still some kinks to work out. Pamela Smart the New Hampshire school teacher convicted of having her husband murdered, met her teenage lover at a "Project Self-Esteem" workshop in Winnacunnet High School.
The San Diego city school system voted last year to abolish failing grades, a move that was widely misconstrued as an effort to legislate failure itself out of existence. That was not precisely the intention; under the proposal, a student who didn't complete the work would have to repeat the course, but only the subsequent passing grade would show on his record. Nevertheless an outraged public rescued the "F" before the plan could take effect. In any case, it's not clear why anyone believes that too many failing grades are the problem in American schools. Psychologist Harold Stevenson of the University of Michigan found that American schoolchildren rank far ahead of students in Japan, Taiwan and China in self-confidence about their abilities in math. Unfortunately, this achievement was marred by the fact that Americans were far behind in actual performance in math. Japanese parents "don't lavish praise on their children - they're concerned they will end up thinking too much about themselves, and not enough about the group," says Lewis. The difference between the cultures "is that the Japanese are trying to be proud, and we're trying to be happy." A new comparison of math and science achievement by schoolchildren in 20 countries, released last week, also showed Americans ranking near the bottom (page 57).
As a theory of behavior, self-esteem has intuition on its side, if not necessarily a monopoly on convincing research. It seems to make sense that people who have a low opinion of themselves are more likely to seek momentary pleasures in drugs or sex. Many criminologists believe that delinquency results from youth with low self-esteem trying to show off - a "performance for an audience," in the words of Martin Gold of the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research. Inevitably, the evidence for this tends to be somewhat anecdotal. The best anecdote is Lewis's account of adolescent boys in a reform school who would punch the offender in the face when one of them passed gas. But does it necessarily follow that "people with low self-esteem confuse being in the presence of someone who farts with the different situation of actually being farted upon"? And what should the nation do about it, anyway?
As a general prescription for child-rearing, self-esteem is unassailable. To develop it, says child psychiatrist Dr. Stanley Greenspan, children need "a constant and loving caregiver ... a fundamental sense of safety and security." Who could be against that? "A sense of self, grounded in a sense of personal competence and supported by people who think I am a valuable and worthy person, is a requisite for productive learning to occur," says Linda Darling Hammond, a professor of education at Columbia Teachers College. That also seems intuitively obvious to most Americans today - although 70 years ago it was equally obvious to many educators that schools had to break down children's "sense of self," the better to fill their heads with facts.
Like most things that are intuitively obvious, though, self-esteem can be hard to demonstrate empirically. A recent survey of the literature estimated that more than 10,000 scientific studies of self-esteem have been conducted. Researchers have measured it with more than 200 different tests. (Typically, respondents are asked to agree or disagree with statements such as, "On the whole, I am satisfied with myself.") There isn't even agreement on what it is. Greenspan defines it, tautologically enough, as "the innermost sense of self-worth and value. " "I think of it as related to three things: confidence, competence and relationships," says Rutgers University psychologist Maurice Elias, clarifying matters only somewhat. Even the National Council has been unable to agree on a single definition, according to executive director LeRoy Foster, after polling 100 teachers and coming up with "27 distinctly different answers."
The programs aimed at cultivating self-esteem also have a fairly homegrown air about them. "There's a huge self-esteem industry out there, and a lot of it is nonsense," says Lillian Katz, president-elect of the National Association for the Education of Young Children. Everyone gives lip service to the notion that self-esteem must arise from within, from a genuine sense of achievement and worth. But the actual impact of the self-esteem movement has happy-face stickers for the most routine accomplishments of childhood. Most children's sports teams now automatically give trophies just for showing up, with the result that the average 12-year-old's bedroom is as cluttered with honors as Bob Hope's den. In Woodland Hills, Calif., the Halsey Schools (nursery through grade 3) holds an awards ceremony every six weeks. Each child who enters the Denver Children's Museum is directed to the "self-esteem corner," handed a paper flag and a supply of positive adjectives to trace and stamp on it. The adjectives are supposed to spell out the child's name, so if she happens to be, say, Phyllis, she can anoint herself Patient or Perky, but not Awesome.
And what if Phyllis happens to be Pompous, or just a Pill? There is no self-criticism corner; the museum's goal according to promotion director Leslie McKay is for children to leave "feeling good about themselves." If children are actually fooled by this stuff, the country is in worse shape than anyone imagined. Katz, who is also a professor of education at the University of Illinois, holds to the old-fashioned notion that self-esteem must follow, not precede, real accomplishment. "I'm getting so sick of these empty slogans," she says, citing an example of an Illinois school decked out with a giant banner reading: WE APPLAUD OURSELVES. "Schools have established award structures - the happy helper of the week, the reader of the week. Teachers think that if they don't do this stuff, the kids won't do the work, but that's ridiculous. We don't need all this flattery. No other country does this."
This is not a prescription for never saying anything nice to children. Children do need encouragement; the problem is that like so much else in life, it is distributed inequitably. "Praise has to be connected with values, with the development of character," says Curry. "Kids need authentic feedback, not praise for walking across the room without falling over." "Too many teachers forget to give children credit for the things they did right, rather than focusing on X-ing what they did wrong," says Darling-Hammond. "We should be remedying that - rather than encouraging Yuppies to be more obnoxious with their kids."
But who wants to be bothered waiting for a child to do something right, when it's so much simpler just to praise him all the time? The Self-Esteem movement hunts down negative thoughts with a holy zeal, a single-minded dedication to knocking some self-esteem into these kids' heads. "101 Ways to Make Your Child Feel Special," by well-known parenting authority Vicki Lansky, recommends that you "tell your child how nice he or she looks ... even if plaid pants are being worn with a striped shirt!" Do parents really have to suspend judgment to that degree? She also recommends blowing up your child's photo to poster size and hanging it in his room, just the thing if you want to raise a kid with the ego of a rock star. In a pamphlet called "Celebrate Yourself," the Corporation for Public Broadcasting points out that even "handsome 6-foot 1-inch actor Kevin Costner" sometimes criticizes himself- "I wish I were smart ... more disciplined ... and better read." If Harold Bloom said this, he would have a self-esteem problem. But a movie star? Isn't Costner just expressing an honest criticism and setting a laudable goal for improvement? Evidently not; this is dismaying evidence that "all of us - even very successful people - put ourselves down."
Self-esteem is a common prescription for African-American youth, who bear the particular burden of a heritage of racial prejudice. "The decks are really stacked against some minorities," says Dr. Alan Stoudemire, a psychiatrist at the Emory Clinic in Atlanta. "They receive powerful messages from family or teachers or society that they are not as good as everyone else." In the absence of real solutions to this problem, slogans and exhortations are being tried instead. Jesse Jackson's famous chant distills the philosophy of self-esteem to its minimalist essence: "I am ... Somebody!" Others are a trifle more specific. When Jacqueline Ponder, the principal of Atlanta's East Lake Elementary School, noticed that the boys in her classrooms were neglecting to carry books and hold doors for their teachers, she diagnosed the problem as low self-esteem and prescribed a motto: "I Am a Noble African-American Boy!" "Once they have their self-esteem," Ponder asserts, "they don't need anything else. They are. And all they have to do is develop that which they are."
As far as the case for self-esteem goes, that says it all. It is a matter less of scientific pedagogy than of faith - faith that positive thoughts can make manifest the inherent goodness in anyone, even 10-year old boys. Americans are notoriously partial to this brand of naive optimism. As long ago as the 1920s, the French therapist Emile Coue wowed this nation with his formula for self-improvement, based on daily repetitions of the mantra "Every day in every way I am getting better and better." Norman Vincent Peale gave self-esteem (or "positive thinking") a religious dimension. His accounts of industrialists, golf pros and similar role models triumphing over adversity through faith sold millions of books in the 1950s. In the 1980s, the concept got its fullest expression from California television preacher Robert H. Schuller. From the pulpit of the Crystal Cathedral, Schuller preaches an explicit gospel of self-esteem, which he defines as "the human hunger for the divine dignity that God intended to be our emotional birthright. People who do not love themselves," Schuller asserts, "can't believe in God."
"Like a lot of other words, self-esteem is sort of religiously correct' today," agrees Father John E. Forliti, vice president of the University of Saint Thomas in Minnesota. The notion may put off anyone old enough to remember when "Christian" as an adjective was often followed by "humility." But American churches, which once did not shrink from calling their congregants wretches, have moved toward a more congenial view of human nature. The Roman Catholic parish of St. Joan of Arc in Minneapolis is packed every Sunday in part because it won't turn anyone away, including homosexuals and divorced Catholics remarried outside the church. "There's no sense that you broke some law or rule and that you're not good enough," says parish administrator Peter Eichten. In Warren, Mich., the nondenominational Church of Today preaches a doctrine of "empowerment," based on the belief that "the great sin is not the things that people typically see as sins, it's not living up to their own potential." At first glance this seems like a terrific deal for people who like doing "the things that people typically see as sins." But self-esteem has a catch to it: like "grace," if you're living an immoral life, by definition you don't have it. The point is not to abolish ethical distinctions. Wrong actions hurt oneself or others, and no one with real self-esteem would do anything like that. That's why chastising sinners is considered counterproductive: it makes them feel worse about themselves.
The man most responsible for putting self-esteem on the national agenda is not a clergyman or philosopher, but a California state assemblyman named John Vasconcellos, Democrat from San Jose. In his own life Vasconcellos, 59, is a walking advertisement for the importance of self-esteem. He was raised by strict, attentive parents who set high standards for him. This is one of the biggest risk factors for self-esteem problems, next to lax, indifferent parents who don't demand enough. He was college valedictorian, a successful lawyer and politician. Overachievement is a very common sign of low self-esteem, next to underachievement. Yet he was also a troubled legislator, going for three years without cutting his hair and engaging in hostile outbursts against colleagues. Self-esteem problems often contribute to aggression, except when they result in passivity.
Psychotherapy helped Vasconcellos correct his own self-esteem shortfall. Then one day in 1983 he stumbled on a theory linking teen pregnancy with low self-esteem. "All of a sudden, the pattern just loomed large," Vasconcellos said. "Maybe violence, drug addiction, crime and other problems were also a product of the same thing."
Eager to share this insight, Vasconcellos helped create a state task force on "selfesteem and personal and social responsibility." Its conclusion-that "lack of self-esteem is central to most personal and social ills plaguing our state and nation"-has inspired five states and nearly all 58 California counties to set up self-esteem task forces. Several groups are urging national legislation. This is a remarkable instance of adopting as a goal of public policy something that is quintessentially private and introspective. It is one thing for the state to discourage welfare dependency, for instance, by requiring recipients to get jobs. It is a big-and thus far unexamined-step for the state to try to do the same thing by tinkering directly with citizens' psyches.
And if it does, it ought at least to be sure it knows what it's doing. Most of what people believe about the public-policy implications of self-esteem come from the taskforce report, "Toward a State of Esteem." The report's "key finding" was that "selfesteem is the likeliest candidate for a social vaccine [emphasis in original], something that empowers us to live responsibly and that inoculates us against the lures of crime, violence, substance abuse, teen pregnancy, child abuse, chronic welfare dependency and educational failure."
A lot less attention has been paid to the scientific papers prepared for the task force, which were published separately as "The Social Importance of Self-Esteem." Can self-esteem cut drug abuse? The scientists concluded that "there is a paucity of good research, especially studies that could link the abuse of alcohol and drugs with self-esteem." Is it implicated in child abuse? "There is insufficient evidence to support the belief in a direct relation between low self-esteem and child abuse." Crime and violence? "Self-esteem may be positively or negatively correlated with aggression." Teen pregnancy? Somewhat embarrassingly, two studies linked high self-esteem with increased sexual activity by teens. But there was evidence that girls with high selfesteem were more likely to use contraceptives. Admitting the findings were inconclusive, the authors went on to write that "our approach is to make the strongest case possible, given the research, for the existence of a causal link between self-esteem and teenage pregnancy. We conclude, therefore, that low self-esteem does contribute to the risk of an adolescent pregnancy."
That does seem a remarkable admission in an academic paper, and at least one of the task-force members refused to sign the final report in part because of the gap between the research results and the report's sweeping conclusions. Vasconcellos regards this as pettifoggery. Such criticism comes from "those who only live in their heads, in the intellectual." The research, he says, did what it was supposed to do; it "confirms our intuitive knowledge."
So why be a pedant? How much better it is to think positive thoughts. If you don't have any, the Public Broadcasting pamphlet can supply some, including a list of eight body parts (arms, nose, teeth ... ) and 22 attributes (funny, mature, awesome ... ) it's possible to feel good about. Think of the Halsey Schools, where the word "bad" is never spoken, where everyone gets an award every year, where kindergarten children learn to count by being handed pictures of objects and told how many there are instead of figuring it out themselves. Ask yourself. wouldn't it be nice if life were really like this?
And what's going to happen to those kids when they find out it's not?