Voices: The facade of self-esteem
By Topper Steinman
Self-esteem: the notion of how one feels about oneself. It gets a lot of play on our present-day landscape. Life is good for us and others, we are told, when we feel good about ourselves. Life can be bad for us and others when we feel bad about ourselves. The issues around self-esteem seem to lie at the crux of many mental health studies. We read about victims and perpetrators in light of "their self-esteem." This article is not a statement about the product of self-esteem. This article is a statement about the process of how we get there.
Check out this abbreviated history lesson on self-esteem. It has been around since the beginning of time. Not much was written or said about self-esteem in early, popularized literature. We knew it existed but it received little attention.
Here's my personal history on the topic. I was born in 1948. I didn't hear much about self-esteem from my parents, my educators, my neighbors or my place of worship. At home, I was expected to pitch in with a series of chores and acceptable behaviors. Most of the time, I did the right thing. When I messed up, I was served some consequences. Slowly, I learned not to mess up quite so much. At school, I was expected to do the right thing. Most of the time I complied. When I messed up, again I was consequated. Few times did my parents get involved in my school mess-ups except to expect that I would "get it right" the next time. The formula of do good things, receive some "atta boys"; do bad things, receive some "not that, boys!" seemed to work. I was taught to handle the "thrills of victory" and the "agonies of defeat" as life experiences. We all go through them. I like to think that formula provided me with a proud yet humble sense of self with which to function. Although times have changed, I still think the formula has merit. Perhaps without knowing it, I grew up with self-esteem.
Somewhere in the early 1970s, self-esteem became a popularized societal and educational term. The focus on self-esteem grew to be a hallmark for growing healthy children into functional and healthy adults. Literature for parents and for educators began to stress the importance of the value of a strong sense of self. You get it, we thought, when you do well and are acknowledged for your goodness; you lose it, we thought, when you do badly and are criticized for your badness.
In my 43-year experience as an educator and my 33-year experience as a parent, I think we have overstated the case on both of the above fronts. We have bastardized the process of self-esteem and, in turn, have compromised the product of self-esteem. The following seems to me to be today's realities about the process that produces the product of self-esteem.
As stated earlier, our self-esteem is increased when we are affirmed, so more must be better. Our self-esteem is decreased when we are criticized or corrected, so less must be better. This recipe has limited our ability to deal with the complexities and realities of life. A "trophy" for every occasion, an "atta boy/girl" for every behavior, a rescue from every failure produces weak, fragile people who many times grow up feeling entitled so life will work or victimized when life doesn't work. Folks of this ilk have great difficulty dealing with the realities of failure, of falling down, and of getting back up again. Life through this narcissistic lens becomes a series of "that's not fair" hoops instead of a series of ups and downs with both trips offering great life-lessons toward self competence, confidence and esteem.
Here are a few behaviors that I would suggest we start or continue:
— When people do well, let's acknowledge it — neither overly nor underly so;
— When people mess up, let's acknowledge it — neither overly nor underly so;
— When people are helped to understand and focus on their strengths and are helped to understand and develop methods for dealing with their weaknesses, life becomes more productive for them and for those around them;
— When people are presented with boundaries and some sense of structure, life works better;
— When people hear "yes" AND "no," sometimes in equal doses, and deal with each effectively, a strong sense of self can follow.
It's not easy to do — or more of us would be doing it. Life is a journey. I offer these thoughts as not simply the work of adults with children but the work of all of us with all of us. Start or continue the work today. We will feel better in the process of producing the product of a healthy sense of self and others.
Topper Steinman is an educational consultant in Champaign. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.