Friday, April 16, 2010

Self-Esteem and Believing in Myself

We are not aware of the extent to which the surrounding fads and cultural biases take our thinking captive. In a 2005 Psychology Today magazine, Dr. Robert Epstein exposed some of psychotherapy’s fads and “Misguided Ideas.” He considers the “cult of self-esteem” to be the worst offender:

“Hundreds of studies have failed to show that self-esteem training produces lasting positive results. To put this another way, merely feeling good about yourself doesn’t necessarily make you more effective. What’s more, recent studies suggest that self-esteem training may be harmful — that it leads many students to overestimate their abilities, for example. One study even shows that people with high self-esteem are more likely to be violent or racist.”

Here’s another example -- Scientific American reports that teenagers "with high self-esteem are less inhibited, more willing to disregard risks and more prone to engage in sex" ("Exploding the Self-Esteem Myth," Jan. 2005;, as quoted by

The erroneous association of low self-esteem with violence and criminality has long been pervasive within the West. However, in my years with the New York City Department of Probation, we were encouraged to read recent studies regarding this fallacy. I had been supervising a unit of Probation Officers who oversaw domestic violence (DV) cases. Prior to these studies, the prevailing wisdom – thinking that violence was a matter of low self-esteem – required us to refer domestic violence perpetrators to psychotherapists. However, it was repeatedly found – more often than not – that this one-on-one relationship was instrumental in perpetuating DV! Why? It merely reinforced the DV perpetrator in his rationalizations. Instead, it was his spouse who had backed him into a corner. DV perpetrators are often intelligent and charming, and – already believing in themselves – they had little difficulty co-opting the psychotherapist into their web of carefully knitted rationalizations.

Fortunately, now the treatment of choice is DV groups, where their rationalizations aren’t reinforced, but exposed. Understandably, few like going and had to be coerced by the courts.

However, we need to feel good about ourselves in order to get out of bed in the morning and this means thinking good things about ourselves. Consequently, the truth is usually the last thing we want. We prefer to think about ourselves what feels right, not what is right. As a result of this ubiquitous tendency, I’ve never seen a therapist advertise, “Come to me and learn the truth about yourself!”

But if we need to feel good about ourselves, and if this also means that we have to believe in ourselves, what other options do we have? Perhaps there’s only one – if we are assured that God loves and accepts us – warts and all – perhaps we can begin to accept ourselves. If we are confident that He has forgiven us eternally, perhaps then we can begin to face the truth about ourselves! If we know that we are safe in Him and that our ultimate needs are being met, perhaps we can begin to learn how not to manipulate others. All of this means freedom in the most intimate sense:

To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, "If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." (John 8:31-32)

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