I met an experimental psychologist on the train to Princeton. We eventually touched on the question of what humans need to thrive.
Of course, everyone has a different take on the subject. Some propose that we need high self-esteem, while others propose the opposite – a low self-esteem. I know that this sounds strange, so let me try to explain the rationale of the latter group.
The proponents of a low self-esteem do not call it “low self-esteem,” but that’s what it is. It involves the denial of freewill and moral accountability. They believe that we are just a sophisticated biochemical machine. As such, all of our thinking and deciding is pre-determined by the laws of chemistry and biology. Consequently, everything that we think has already been determined by physical forces. Therefore, there exists absolutely no basis for free choice or even thinking.
How can such a view of humanity be desirable? Isn’t it demeaning to think that we are nothing more than a wet machine, a mere result of chemical-electrical reactions? Psychologist James Hillman warns against adopting a deterministic view of ourselves:
· “We dull our lives by the way we conceive then…By accepting the idea that I am the effect of…hereditary and social forces, I reduce myself to a result. The more my life is accounted for by what already occurred in my chromosomes, by what my parents did or didn’t do, and by my early years now long past, the more my biography is the story of a victim. I am living a plot written by my genetic code, ancestral heredity, traumatic occasions, parental unconsciousness, societal accidents.” (“The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling,” Random House, 6)
Why then would some psychologists promote such a demeaning self-image? In the short run, it does relieve shame and guilt. How? Well, if the client is convinced that he couldn’t have acted in a way contrary to his biological programming, then there is no real basis for shame and guilt. These feelings are reduced to inappropriate reactions and can be ignored.
An atheist friend had confided that he adopted this self-identity at an early age, and this enabled him to reject these very bothersome feelings. Also, if we believe that we couldn’t have acted otherwise, this view enables us to dismiss feelings of regret and other burdensome feelings. It reduces life to this attitude, “I am just along for the ride. What will be, will be.”
Well, what’s the matter with this comfortable ride? Much! First of all, it contradicts our experience and perceptions that we do have freewill and could have behaved otherwise. To doubt something as basic as our experience of making free choices, is also to doubt all of our perceptions about self. It is also to fail to make sense of this world, where we see that freewill is a relative thing. Some have less freewill than others – the heroin addict and the comatose. However, from the perspective of the above materialistic denial of all freewill, there is no way that we can say that some are more free than others.
For another thing, if we cannot act otherwise, then punishment is no longer justified. Why not? There is no longer any basis for guilt and culpability.
Lastly, if we cannot make changes, why try? Why attempt to learn, improve our job performance, or confront relational problems? Why not take the easy way out – denial and avoidance of anything uncomfortable? In short, this self-concept represents a tragic denial of reality.
High Self-Esteem (HSE): Well, if this form of low self-esteem is a dead end, does this mean that we should aim towards inflating our self-esteem, believing, “I can do it.”
This is the “normal” and more common strategy. HSE gives us a confidence and enables us to get out of bed in the morning and to proactively face life. This strategy had enabled me to face threats. I told myself that nothing could stop me and that I could endure anything that life would throw at me, and it worked, at least until I faced some threats that were bigger than me.
Western society had made HSE into a cult, claiming that it could heal all of our hurts and failures. However, this faith hasn’t been able to withstand scrutiny. 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.
HSE also represents a flight from reality into what feels good for the time being. However, how can it be a source of problems? In order to manage our lives effectively, we must first understand our lives and their long-term needs. However, HSE represents a rejection of understanding and reality in favor of short-term comfortable feelings.
For one thing, building HSE is always comparative. It is not enough to improve our performance. Instead, HSE requires that we see ourselves as superior. I had taken a test that I feared I had bombed. However, I delighted to find out that I had been given an “A,” until I found that most of the class had received an “A+.” Consequently, this need for HSE brings us into harmful competition with others.
HSE is also a refusal to engage the truth about ourselves. It refuses to look at our painful aspects. As a result, HSE increasingly cannot take criticism and needful self-examination.
HSE spells death to relationships where humility and forgiveness are key. Those afflicted with HSE are increasingly unable to apologize, because they see no need to apologize. Why not? They are assured that it is the other person’s fault.
HSE is seldom grateful for their partner. Why not? They are convinced that they deserve better. As I have learned to confront some ugly truths about myself, the more grateful I became for my wife who would love and tolerate me. However, before I couldn’t and wouldn’t see this. It was just too demeaning.
Both of these options are reality denying. They serve as a comforting addiction, but we find that we need increasingly high doses of this HSE drug. The richest man in the world, John D. Rockefeller had been asked, “How much more money do you need to be happy?” His answer – “Always a little bit more.”
Is there a third reality-affirming alternative? As Jesus had taught, our normal response is denial:
· And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. (John 3:19-20)
We avoid discomfort and run from the painful truths about ourselves. Is there anything that can break this cycle to enable us to live in the truth and yet not be crushed by it?
We need confidence and hope. However, I have found that Christ has provided for my needs. How? He has loved, assured, and forgiven me to the extent that I can now face my failings confidently and healingIy. Consequently, I no longer need to lie to myself and rely on HSE. I now have Him to rely upon.
And this self-image is ennobling. There is no greater privilege than to know that I am serving the source of all life, truth, and love.
My psychologist acquaintance was listening. I pray that this will become a seed that will germinate.
Taking this case a step further – If psychologists and other professionals are really concerned about human thriving, they have a responsibility to consider Christ, the ultimate among change-Agents.