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Is Self-Esteem The Problem With This Generation?

If we are a product of our culture, then it is important to know how our culture has influenced us, and how we can counter this often-hidden influence.

The New York Times columnist, Jeff Haanen, asked fellow Times columnist, David Brooks what it would take to build character in a ‘Big Me’ culture. Brooks’ latest book had just been released, The Road to Character, A Shift in the Cultural Conversation, Brooks answered that our culture has taken us in the wrong direction.

“We’ve encouraged generations to think highly of themselves. In 1950, the Gallup organization asked high-school seniors, ‘Are you a very important person?’ Back then, 12 percent said ‘yes.’ Gallup asked the same question in 2005, and 80 percent said ‘yes.’

“There are surveys called, “The Narcissism Test,” which ask whether respondents agree with statements like, ‘I like to be the center of attention because I’m so extraordinary,’ or ‘Somebody should write a biography about me.’ The median narcissism score has gone up 30 percent in 20 years. Our economy encourages us to promote ourselves with social media, to brand ourselves and get ‘likes.’ In theory, we know humility is important, but we live in a culture of self-promotion.”

For decades, “believing-in-yourself” has become an unquestioned mantra. It has been touted as a cure of all of our psychological problems. Psychologist Roy Baumeister extensively researched the relationship between high self-esteem and performance and now questions this mantra. He writes:

“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.”

However, Baumeister now acknowledges that subsequent studies have failed to validate this assumption. He surmises:

“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 theAmerican 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.”

Because of the constant drone of cultural affirmations of the cult of self-esteem, what had once been unquestioned has now been exposed as fallacious. Baumeister explains, “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.”

Building self-esteem might actually be digging ourselves into a hole. However, we should have understood this before. In all other respects, we know that when we proceed with inaccurate data – whether it’s a matter of driving a car or laundering clothing – there is generally a price to pay. The washing machine can ruin clothes better washed elsewhere. Why wouldn’t the same principle also pertain to how we understand ourselves!

Brooks mentions former president Dwight Eisenhower, who had accurately assessed that he had an anger problem and, consequently, was able to guard against this weakness.

Whatever we manage well, we must well understand. This should include even ourselves. We too need the humility, the presence of mind, to understand ourselves and our limitations.

However, humility does not come naturally. It is painful to confront our weaknesses and failures. Brooks, who calls himself a “cultural Jew,” maintains that true character, characterized by humility, require grace. He says, “You may be able to build character and greatness through disciplined effort, but I don’t think you can experience the highest joy without grace. Nor can you experience tranquility. That only comes from gratitude, the feeling that you’re getting much more than you deserve.”

If we are not to believe in ourselves, then we must believe in Another – One who can fill the gap left vacant as we begin to see ourselves as we truly are and as our self-esteem plummets. In fact, believing in this Other frees us from obsessively trying to prove ourselves, as the Apostle Paul declared:

“Yes, all the things I once thought were so important are gone from my life. Compared to the high privilege of knowing Christ Jesus as my Master, firsthand, everything I once thought I had going for me is insignificant—dog dung. I’ve dumped it all in the trash so that I could embrace Christ and be embraced by him. I didn’t want some petty, inferior brand of righteousness that comes from keeping a list of rules when I could get the robust kind that comes from trusting Christ—God’s righteousness.” (Philippians 3:8-9; The Message Bible).

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Daniel Mann

Daniel Mann has taught theology, Old Testament, and Apologetics at the New York School of the Bible for 24 years and has written several books, including Embracing the Darkness: How a Jewish, Sixties, Berkeley Radical Learned to Live with Depression, God’s Way. He is a contributing writer for the Christian Research Journal. Follow him: MannsWord.blogspot.com, or join his Facebook groups, Apologetics for Today, Seekers with Questions about Christianity, Christians with Vexing Issues Seeking Truth and Straight Talk.

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