Maturing beyond self-esteem
My parents used a phrase so often it became almost a joke, although deep down I understood its seriousness.
Every time I or one of my siblings left the house they’d say, “Remember who you are.”
In contrast, beginning in the 1970s, parents enthralled with the popular self-esteem movement gave their kids a much different message: “Remember to love yourself no matter what.”
No surprise, given that they were following the pervasive advice of “experts” like self-esteem pioneer Andrew Mecca, who preached that “virtually every social problem can be traced to people’s lack of self-love,” Berkeley sociologist Neil Smelser, who sermonized that “most of the major problems plaguing society have roots in low self-esteem,” and psychotherapist Nathaniel Branden, who lectured, “I cannot think of a single psychological problem that is not traceable to the problem of low self-esteem.”
If we would just love ourselves, proclaimed the prophets of the self-esteem gospel, we’d perform better and feel happier.
Research has proven those prophets to be false, their doctrines hollow and even destructive.
Psychologists Roy Baumeister and John Tierney report the results in their paradigm-shifting book, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. Self-esteem abounds in our culture, they’ve concluded, but it hasn’t produced positive results. As they explain,
Evidence showed that students’ self-esteem went up while their performance declined. They just felt better about doing worse.”
Their research-driven solution for better performance and more fulfillment is not self-esteem, but rather self-control. In short, we feel good about ourselves when we do good. And the more self-control we have, the better we perform.
I wholeheartedly agree with them, and I believe there’s a deeper principle still, which gives power to self-control: self-definition.
How you define yourself, not how you esteem yourself, largely determines your choices and behavior. The more empowering and compelling your self-definition, the greater your self-control.
A lofty self-definition isn’t to pat yourself on the back, but rather to give yourself a standard to aspire and live up to.
For example, defining yourself as a hero doesn’t mean you esteem yourself as one no matter what you do. Rather, it helps you judge your actions objectively, to see yourself from the outside to make better decisions. “What would a hero do in this situation?” becomes your guiding standard for all choices.
In short, a healthy, aspirational self-definition strengthens your conscience and your resolve to act with courage, virtue, and integrity.
Watch how this plays out. Among other things, I define myself as a:
1. Son of God: As a son of God, I know I have divine origins, worth, and potential. With that self-definition permeating my thoughts, I feel bad when I do wrong, and that feeling helps me correct my behaviors. When I’m tempted, my conscience, as amplified by my self-definition, tells me, “A son of God would not do this.”
2. Great Husband & Father: Great husbands and fathers are loving, patient, wise, and thoughtful. They put their family members’ needs above their own. Were I to simply esteem myself as such, I’d pat myself on the back regardless of how I treated my family. But by defining myself as such, I know when I fall far short of the ideal (which is fairly often). My self-definition — my standard — tells me when I’ve done wrong, compels me ask for forgiveness, and keeps me striving for the ideal.
3. Professional Writer: Unlike aspiring writers, professional writers don’t sit around waiting for inspiration to strike. They don’t talk about wanting to write. They don’t fool around on social media when they should be writing. Professional writers write. Defining myself as a professional writer doesn’t make me think highly of myself. Rather, it leaves me with no excuses, helps me conquer fear and resistance, and keeps my butt in the chair writing.
Want to feel better about yourself? It’s not about waving the wand of pop psychology over your emotions. It’s about acting in accordance with standards established by your self-definition.
True self-esteem is a product of knowing who you are, and remembering who you are.