Feel good about yourself

Culture | The war over self-esteem and self-control

Issue: "Clinton: Time to resign," Aug. 29, 1998

Why does a young man turn to crime? Many people would say that he has a self-esteem problem. He doesn't feel good about himself, so he indulges in negative behavior to bring on guilt and punishment. Why does another young man grow up to be popular and successful? According to conventional wisdom, because his parents and teachers instilled in him a positive self-image, giving him the confidence and self-love needed for success and happiness. The notion that mental health and social success are tied up with a person's self-esteem has dominated popular psychology for decades. Books and therapists have urged people to "feel good about themselves." Corrections officers have been attempting to rehabilitate criminals by improving their self-esteem. Child-raising techniques have focused on developing a positive self-image in children. Schools are eliminating the possibility of wrong answers, giving only positive feedback and eliminating competitive sports so that everyone can win-all in the name of enhancing their students' self-esteem. Now evidence is piling up that self-esteem does not deserve such a positive self-image. In the latest Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, a study shows that people with an unusually high self-esteem are more prone to aggression and violence. Psychologists Brad Bushman of Iowa State and Roy Baumeister of Case Western Reserve studied 540 college students. Those who had the highest self-esteem were more likely to get aggressive when they were insulted, whereas those who were more humble about themselves kept on an even keel. In an interview with Reuters News Service, Mr. Baumeister took issue with a number of parenting and teaching techniques, including the cultivation of "especially exaggerated or unfounded self-esteem or the desire to think you're better than others, this thing of telling kids that they are doing great no matter how well they do, giving trophies to everybody, having children write stories or lists of all the great things about themselves." Others have pointed out how some of the highest rates of self-esteem can be found among criminals, who tend to be convinced that they are "above" the rules that apply to everyone else. Columnist Betsy Hart notes studies showing "that young children consistently have very high opinions of themselves and that they feel they should have priority over others." It's easy to see why children who consider themselves wonderful no matter what they do might not worry about doing what is right. School children who are taught that wrong answers are just as commendable as the right answers, that they are perfect just the way they are, and that they will be considered winners just for participating might logically conclude that there is no reason why they should try to do well in school. There are also theological problems with the gospel of self-esteem-as Don Matsat shows in his book Christ Esteem-such as the reality of sin and the moral danger of pride. Though children and adults obviously need a healthy sense of themselves, there is a better way to achieve this than simply telling them how great they are, whether they are or not. Mr. Baumeister told Ms. Hart that parents and teachers should "forget about self-esteem and concentrate on self-control." The virtue of self-control is the ability to say "no" to oneself. Self-control involves mastering the passions, rather than always giving in to them. It has to do with discipline, self-denial, resisting temptation, and the development of a sensitive conscience. America's founders, whatever their religious beliefs, agreed that religion is essential for a free society. This is because free people must, by definition, be "self-governing." The founders understood this term not just in the political sense-people governing themselves by choosing their own leaders-but also in the moral sense. Individuals must govern themselves, controlling their own actions and voluntarily doing what is right. Otherwise, the democratic republic will degenerate into the anarchy of mob rule. Plato observed how an "excess of freedom" inevitably gives way to an "excess of tyranny." As shown by the fall of the Athenian democracies, the French Revolution mutating into Napoleon's Empire, and countless other debacles, those who will not govern themselves morally will be governed by others. America's founders believed that religion was the key to making a free society work-an internalized religious faith could give individuals the moral self-government that would enable them also to govern themselves politically. Some people have to be deterred from stealing by the threat of arrest, video monitors, and security guards looking over their shoulders. Others can walk through a convenience store and never dream of stealing. Or buying those pornographic magazines. Those who can govern themselves morally have no need of coercive police or governmental power. Mere laws and restrictions are not enough. International students who come from Islamic societies, whose lives were regulated by strict external laws, sometimes go wild when they come to the seemingly wide-open United States. When the external laws are removed, anything goes. Something similar sometimes happens with Christian families, when a child goes off on his own, away from his parents' moral protection. Somehow, the moral law has to be internalized. Today, Christian families are rightly worried about the temptations that assault their children from television, movies, and, increasingly, the Internet. This new technology in particular is proving impossible to censor and very, very difficult to filter. The best way to protect children from harm and temptation from the Internet is to instill in them the virtue of self-control. The goal should be to bring up children so that they do not want to bathe in pornographic Web sites. This is, of course, no easy task. There is plenty of curriculum to promote positive self-esteem; we need curriculum to promote positive self-control. Of course sinful human beings of every age will fall short of the moral law, which means that physical protection from temptation will still be necessary. More profoundly, it means that the internalizing of the law can only come from the inner transformation worked by the gospel of Christ. This transformation begins not with high self-esteem but with an honest awareness of one's sin and need for forgiveness. Then the message of God's grace in Christ becomes good news indeed, and the basis for a spiritually genuine positive self-image. We continue to sin, but failures in self-control are less frequent as Christ assumes control.

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Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith


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