Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Self-Esteem, Reality and Performance

The way we regard ourselves determines so much about our lives – our feelings about ourselves and others, how we regard and treat others, performance, and even criminality. This broadly accepted understanding had spawned the “self-esteem movement” in the 1970s for just about every social and psychological problem. However, many have departed from this previously unquestioned orthodoxy. Psychologist Roy Baumeister has extensively researched the relationship between high self-esteem and performance:

  • For three decades, I and many other psychologists viewed self-esteem as our profession’s Holy Grail: a psychological trait that would soothe most of individuals’ and society’s woes. We thought that high self-esteem would impart not only success, health, happiness, and prosperity to the people who possessed it, but also stronger marriages, higher employment, and greater educational attainment in the communities that supported it.
  • Recently, though, several close analyses of the accumulated research have shaken many psychologists’ faith in self-esteem. My colleagues and I were commissioned to conduct one of these studies by the American Psychological Society, an organization devoted to psychological research. These studies show not only that self-esteem fails to accomplish what we had hoped, but also that it can backfire and contribute to some of the very problems it was thought to thwart. Social sector organizations should therefore reconsider whether they want to dedicate their scarce resources to cultivating self-esteem. In my view, there are other traits, like self-control, that hold much more promise.
  • There are now ample data on our population showing that, if anything, Americans tend to overrate and overvalue ourselves. In plain terms, the average American thinks he’s above average. Even the categories of people about whom our society is most concerned do not show any broad deficiency in self esteem. African Americans, for example, routinely score higher on self-esteem measures than do European-Americans.
However, other psychologists have understandably pointed out that without high self-esteem – and it’s just about always strongly associated with grandiosity and self-delusion - people can become dysfunctional. Psychologist Harold Sacheim had argued that minor self-deceptions can even be profitable:

  • Through distortion, I may enhance my self-image, not because at heart I am insecure about my worth but because no matter how much I am convinced of my value, believing that I am better is pleasurable. Such self-deceptions may prove to be efficient in constructing or consolidating a solid and perhaps even “healthy” identity.
How can self-deception contribute to a “healthy identity?” Doesn’t the healthy life and advantageous decision-making depend upon having accurate data and facing it, even if it is uncomfortable? We certainly need this accurate feedback when we are driving a car. Distortion and self-deception leads to wrecks. Shouldn’t this same principle also operate in other areas of our lives?

Not necessarily, according to psychologist Shelley Taylor. However, she readily admits that “the mildly depressed  appear to have more accurate views of themselves, the world, and the future than do normal people” (Positive Illusions, 213):

  • On virtually every point on which normal people show enhanced self-regard, illusions of control, and unrealistic visions of the future, depressed people fail to show the same biases. (214)
Despite the many evidences in support of this, Taylor argues that we cannot do without our “positive illusions”:

  • Those with an exaggerated sense of their own mastery tend to have inflated views of their self-worth and likelihood of future success. It is unusual to find a person who is so overly optimistic about the future but lacking in self-esteem or mastery, beliefs that would seem to be essential to the implementation of a rewarding future. (234)
According to Taylor, self-deception and success go together. Nevertheless, she readily admits that our positive illusions all come with “inherent risks” (236).

What then is the solution to this dilemma? If we evaluate ourselves realistically, we become depressed and fearful. If instead, our self-concept is grandiose - not in harmony with reality - we will crash. However, we need to be optimistic in order to live proactively, and we need to believe in our worth if we are to venture forth into this competitive world.

Is there any solution? Not if our optimism and sense of self-worth is based upon ourselves! If it is based on self, then we are compelled to inflate self to make it worthy of self-trust and self-righteousness. This necessarily requires a flight into grandiosity and denial of anything that interferes with our grandiose self-construction. How then can we not deny all of the negative things that we see about ourselves!

However, if we derive our confidence and personal significance from an unchanging external, all-wise and all-loving source, then we can face the often painful reality about ourselves and also live proactively. And this is exactly what we have been promised in Christ:

  • But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things--and the things that are not--to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God--that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. (1 Cor. 1:26-30)
This means that it’s okay to be “weak” and “despised,” because we have Christ who now has “become for us wisdom from God--that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.” We can live with our failures and inadequacies because Christ has become our identity, as Paul had confidently asserted:

  • I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20).
What a relief! It is therefore no longer about me but about my Lord!   


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