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Jewish Journal

Self Esteem

by Dennis Prager

February 27, 2013 | 2:55 pm

I will use my old friend Richard Gunther’s accompanying letter as a jumping-off point for a discussion of the self-esteem movement.

First to some specifics in his letter, which can be read in full on page 7.

“True self-esteem comes from a personal recognition of a job well done — of a life well lived.”

Agreed. But the self-esteem movement is about self-esteem that has nothing to do with “a job well done.” Kids are given sports trophies for merely playing, not for a job well done. That is phony and unearned self-esteem. And self-esteem that is unearned is as worthless as happiness that is unearned (people who earn $60,000 a year are happier than people who win millions in a lottery).

“This aim of doing good works is the goal (of the self-esteem movement).”

That was the announced goal of the self-esteem movement. It is also its key fallacy. The movement is based on the false premise that self-esteem leads to good works. It doesn’t. 

If you don’t believe me, here are some experts.

Writing in The New York Times, one of its science writers, Erica Goode, wrote: 

“ ‘D’ students, it turns out, think as highly of themselves as valedictorians, and serial rapists are no more likely to ooze with insecurities than doctors or bank managers.”

Goode further notes: “Jennifer Crocker, a psychologist at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, argues that ... ‘The pursuit of self-esteem ... ultimately divert[s] people from fulfilling their fundamental human needs for competence, relatedness and autonomy and lead[s] to poor self-regulation and mental and physical health.’ ”

Self-esteem not only doesn’t lead to good acts, it often leads to bad ones. Roy Baumeister, a Florida State University professor of psychology who has devoted much of his professional life to studying violent criminals, told me on my radio show, and has written repeatedly, that violent criminals have particularly high self-esteem.

And in an extensive review of relevant studies, Nicholas Emler, a social psychologist at the London School of Economics, found that high self-esteem, “was positively correlated with racist attitudes, drunken driving and other risky behaviors.” 

In short, the self-esteem movement is based on nonsense when it posits that self-esteem leads to responsible behavior. On the contrary, thanks to it, we are producing a generation of self-satisfied, unproductive narcissists.

I suspect none of this will matter to Richard Gunther or to any of the millions of others who believe in the importance of self-esteem. But those who believe in the importance of self-esteem might want to engage in this experiment: Ask the individuals whose ethical and moral character you most respect, the people you most admire for their integrity and goodness, if they had high self-esteem when they were children. When virtually none of them answers “yes,” will you still believe that self-esteem in children is morally significant?

Based on the scientific evidence and on my own experiences in life, I have become convinced that self-esteem in children is actually a bad sign. When I meet a child or a teenager with high self-esteem, I worry for them and, more importantly, I worry for those who will come into contact with them.

In this regard I will briefly — and, admittedly, self-consciously — respond to Richard Gunther’s assessment of me: “I have known Dennis for many years, and he has an ample supply of self-esteem.”

The truth is that I never suffered from high self-esteem. I have long had self-confidence with regard to specific abilities. But I had little self-esteem as a child, and as an adult, I have earned whatever self-esteem I have. Moreover, in the depths of my soul I believe that the janitors in my building are not one whit less worthy or valuable than me. From the earliest age, I assimilated the Jewish view that we are all created in God’s image, all infinitely precious. And I see myself as being as answerable to the same God and to the same Torah as any of my fellow Jews. 

The Torah describes Moses as “more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth.” Clearly Moses had the self-confidence needed to confront the Pharaoh, and lead the Jewish people. But, as the verse suggests, it is doubtful that he had high self-esteem.

The self-esteem movement has caused great damage. It has been just one more expression of an age that values feelings more than behavior. And, yes, just one more example of another naïve and therefore destructive progressive idea.

If you want to make good human beings, ignore their self-esteem and be preoccupied with their self-control. Another good Jewish and conservative idea. 

Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk show host (AM 870 in Los Angeles) and founder of PragerUniversity.com. His latest book is the New York Times best-seller “Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph” (HarperCollins, 2012).

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