Ch 3. Self-Esteem ☆

A man is a kind of inverted thermometer, the bulb uppermost, and the column of self-valuation is all the time going up and down.
--OLIVER WENDELL HOLMES, SR. (1809-1894)

At age 25, Jerry was tall and good-looking, with a broad-shouldered, athletic build. He was an expert surfer and water-skier. His Valentino suit hadn’t left him much change out of $3,000. He drove a BMW to work and a Porsche to the beach. Unlike some upwardly mobile achievers, Jerry had a polite and unassuming manner, and with his warm, contagious smile, he communicated instant likeability. He had recently become engaged to an intelligent and beautiful law student.

Jerry felt good about himself. He awoke each morning eager to face the challenges of the day, and took pleasure in the exercise of his own abilities. He successfully managed his own, rapidly-expanding real estate business, and was proud of his accomplishments. He undoubtedly possessed what is often called “high self-esteem.”

No one who knew Jerry suspected that he was an emotional time bomb, ticking away.

The Winner Becomes a Loser

Six months later, when Jerry came to see me, he was miserable and preoccupied with suicide. For the past month, he had been waking up at 4:00 A.M., with a knot in his stomach. He then felt anxious for the rest of the day and was often depressed. In his relations with his fiancée, he was experiencing erection problems and had begun to brood about becoming permanently impotent, a prospect he perceived as horribly shameful.

“I’m terrified that I’m going to lose everything, including my mind. I can’t sleep. Nothing is fun anymore. I cry every morning before leaving for work. I’m beside myself and I don’t know what to do. I’m at the end of my rope.”

The Problem Separation Technique

Whenever someone is suffering emotionally, as Jerry was, I have found that a simple procedure usually clarifies the situation:

  • First, identify the Practical Problem

  • Second, identify the Emotional Problem

  • Third, get the sufferer to look at the connection between his Emotional Problem and his Practical Problem

I explained to Jerry the difference between a Practical and an Emotional Problem: “It seems to me,” I told him, “that your Practical Problem involves the success of your business. How can you start making money in real estate again? Or would you do better to change your line of work?

“The Emotional Problem is that you’re upsetting yourself about your current setbacks. Why not do your best with the real estate, without ripping yourself up inside about it?”

“I wish I could. But I’d feel I wasn’t good enough, like a failure, if my business went down the drain. Todd just made a two million dollar sale—he picked up an unbelievable commission with that one. I’m just nowhere in comparison.”

I nearly always find that a person comes to me convinced that his Practical Problem automatically generates his Emotional Problem. My first job is to undermine this conviction, showing him that he causes his Emotional Problem by the way he thinks. His Practical Problem is defined by his preferences, but his Emotional Problem springs from his “musts.” Then, the Practical and Emotional Problems can be tackled separately.

This may not sound like great progress, but it really is. Once the person begins to seriously tackle the Emotional Problem separately from the Practical Problem, there is often a prompt improvement in the Practical Problem.

The Self-Rating Roller-Coaster

Without realizing it, Jerry had become caught in the “feel good about yourself” trap. When he was making lots of sales, he rated himself as a pretty fine person, and this gave him high self-esteem.

His mistake was not that he liked being successful. His mistake was that he rated himself highly—as a total person—because of his success. As a result, when he became less successful, he automatically gave himself a lower rating and began to feel miserable.

As I probed, Jerry admitted more and more clearly that he believed himself to be totally unworthy. Like many people in this frame of mind, Jerry believed that his own strong feeling that he was unworthy was somehow evidence that he was unworthy. This kind of reasoning reinforces itself in an endless circle: the more worthless he felt, the more “evidence” he had to prove he was indeed worthless!

I asked Jerry: “Assuming that your performance in real estate is inferior right now, how does this make you totally inferior? After all, you are an imperfect human, like everyone else, so it’s to be expected that you will sometimes act imperfectly. How does this prove that you’re worthless?”

“I don’t know,” he replied. “I can’t prove it. All I know is that I feel worthless, so I must be worthless.”

Now, of course, it’s easy for an outsider, someone not involved in Jerry’s life, to see that Jerry is being unreasonable. It’s obvious that there’s something irrational in this dogmatic insistence that he is an inferior worm. But it’s just as irrational for someone to maintain that he is a great person because things are going well for him.

Psychotherapists who preach “high self-esteem” overlook this logical connection. They encounter miserable people and observe that these people frequently have a very low opinion of themselves. These “Dr. Feelgood” therapists then conclude that the appropriate treatment is to encourage their clients to give themselves a higher self-rating. But self-rating—any self-rating, high or low—is often the root of the problem.

Deluded Dunces and Self-Satisfied Psychopaths

Trying to improve people’s rating of themselves runs into numerous problems. One of the more pathetic of these arises when people who, objectively considered, perform poorly at some specific task, are encouraged to view themselves as outstandingly good, and information about their poor performance is downplayed.

In a recent study, 13-year-olds in six countries (the U.S., Britain, Canada, Ireland, Korea, and Spain) were given a standardized math test. In addition, they were asked to rate the statement: “I am good at mathematics.”

The Americans judged their abilities the most highly (68 percent agreed with the statement!). But on the actual math test the Americans came last.

Some educators think that these two results were related. These poor to average students, who felt buoyed by the fantasy that they were superbly competent, were victims of the “self-esteem curriculum,” designed to make the kids feel good about themselves no matter what.

High self-esteem can involve self-delusion. It’s not true that people who feel good about themselves always perform better. It’s a cruel deception to convey the impression that success comes easily if you have a “positive” attitude. Performing well is in fact closely related to High Frustration Tolerance—the ability to cope serenely with difficulties and setbacks. Outstanding accomplishments usually require immense dedication, continuous, painful investment of arduous effort over a long period of time. They also require some inborn talent, which is not equally distributed.

It may be comparatively harmless for some people to go through life under the delusion that they’re good at something when in fact they are not. However, if they derive self-esteem from this fantasy, they may be set up for a shattering disappointment if ever they decide to face reality.

This isn’t the only problem arising from high self-esteem. Many theorists have supposed that violent criminals suffer from low self-esteem and can be rehabilitated by having their self-esteem raised. But a careful review of the evidence by three psychologists (Roy Baumeister, Joseph Boden, and Laura Smart) found that most violent people think very highly of themselves; their unrealistically high self-evaluations predispose them to be violent. As these authors point out, treating rapists, spouse batterers, or murderers by trying to convince them that they are superior beings is pointless, since this is what such people already believe.

Your Successes Aren’t You—Your Failures Aren’t You

Jerry had difficulty seeing my point. “What was wrong with feeling so good about being successful? Wouldn’t I be better off if I could get back to the way I felt six months ago?”

“Well, that option isn’t available,” I pointed out. “If you could snap your fingers and start making money again, you would do so. There’s nothing wrong with feeling good about being successful. What creates problems is to rate yourself highly when you are successful, and to feel good only because you have given yourself a high rating. It would be better never to rate your self, merely rate your specific behavior.”

“That seems to make sense,” he conceded. “But it’s not the way I think.”

“But what does your thinking accomplish?”

“Well, when I was successful, feeling pretty great.”

“Feeling great about your self. But you can still feel happy and content by feeling great about your accomplishments, without dragging your total self into it. And then you wouldn’t set yourself up for feeling like a worm when the real estate market crashes.”

“Hmm. Very interesting. So it’s unwise to put myself up on a pedestal or, on the other hand, look down on myself. You know, I feel a little less depressed already, just viewing it from that perspective. It’s very different from how I’m used to thinking.”

Jerry’s Three Minute Exercise

Jerry was beginning to get the message. I explained the method of written Three Minute Exercises, which he began to practice every day. Here is a typical one:

  1. (Activating event): My business is losing money.

  2. (irrational Belief): I MUST be making money or else I’m no good.

  3. (emotional Consequences): Depression.

  4. (Disputing): Why MUST I make a lot of money? How does it make me no good if I don’t have a high income?

  5. (Effective new thinking): No law of the universe states that I MUST make a lot of money. Reality is reality, independent of my views about it, so I may as well fully accept the vicissitudes of the real estate market, along with my own imperfections. I don’t magically turn into a worm even if I lose all my money. It’s not my disappointing income, but my own self-downing about it, that makes me feel depressed. Likewise, it’s not the success itself, but rather my view of it, that makes me feel like a wonderful person. Success does not change my essence and make me “good,” just as failure doesn’t change me into a wretched no-good. My goal in life is to enjoy myself, not to prove myself.

  6. (new Feeling): Concern and steady determination rather than intense anxiety or depression.

A Self-Defeating Syllogism

Jerry’s case is a striking one in that he had changed, inside a few months, from high self-esteem to low self-esteem. But Jerry’s thinking is commonplace:

  1. I WANT TO FEEL GOOD. (Nothing wrong with this!)

  2. To feel good, I have to feel good about myself. (But this is a blunder.)

  3. Feeling good about myself means thinking that I am a worthy person.

  4. I can prove to myself that I’m a worthy person by doing well at x (making money, passing my exams, keeping fit, attracting members of the opposite sex, being good in bed, keeping my family happy).

  5. Oops! I’ve done badly at x. So now I’m worthless. I FEEL BAD.

Your Income Isn’t You

Jerry’s problem also illustrates a highly popular but erroneous belief—the belief that our money income measures our worth or our success in life. This false belief is a source of anxiety and depression to millions.

Our money income represents only what other people choose to pay for the services we choose to supply them. It’s not a judgment on our “souls” or on our dignity as human beings. There’s nothing demeaning or insulting in having a low income. It’s not even a final judgment on our abilities—Mozart died poor.

If we can increase our money income, then we can afford more goods and services, enabling us to accomplish our aims more completely and perhaps to lead a fuller life. That’s wonderful, but we may value our free time or our avoidance of pressures too highly to do what’s required to raise our income beyond a certain point. In that case, it would be a foolish mistake to suppose that we have to pursue a higher money income as an end in itself.

Running Into Trouble

Ned was a 46-year-old successful veterinarian with his own animal hospital. He consulted me for help with his marital discord, but toward the end of our first session, the discussion took a different tack.

“I may have discovered a way to feel better—to escape my usual depression—when my wife berates me or nags me,” he volunteered, unexpectedly.

“How’s that?” I queried.

“By running,” Ned responded. “I used to jog once in a while, but lately I’ve taken up running more seriously. I consistently jog at least five miles a day, and I’ve started running competitively. So now, when Kristan bugs me, I can ignore her. Running makes me feel better about myself, instead of down in the dumps from being nagged by Kristan. I feel proud that I can discipline myself, and after a long, hard run or a good race, I feel really elated.”

“So you consider yourself a better person for becoming self-disciplined and getting yourself in such terrific shape. And you think that if Kristan can’t appreciate you, that’s her tough luck!”

“Exactly!”

“But this is adding to your problem!”

“Problem?” Ned was taken aback. “At least I haven’t felt so rotten lately. Isn’t that improving upon my problem?”

“No. A problem drinker may feel better after a drink, but the drink doesn’t necessarily improve his problem. You may in fact be making the problem worse.” Since Ned was still somewhat baffled, I explained that he started out delighted at his newfound self-discipline and running ability. That delight was altogether appropriate. But then he mistakenly rated his total self as good because of his running. He was manufacturing and nurturing his elation by judging his whole self in terms of a few of his behaviors.

“All right,” he said. “So I’ve been rating my total self in terms of my running. So I’ve been elated and I’ve been pleased by my elation. I still don’t see how that hurts me.”

“It hurts you because it sets you up to feel hurt or depressed. You don’t realize that it works as a double-edged sword.”

“No, I guess I don’t.”

“Well, when you run well you feel elated. But when you run or race badly, or Kristan criticizes you, you get depressed.”

“That’s right. I do get depressed then!”

“But as long as you insist on rating yourself, you’re turning yourself into an emotional yo-yo, at the mercy of your latest performance.”

“I think I see. I put myself ‘up’ when I run well and consistently. But then I’m all the more inclined to put myself ‘down’ when things go badly.”

Self-Raters Are Born But Can Be Unmade

We’re all like Ned: we are born and raised to rate ourselves. Understandably, we have difficulty thinking in any other way. But there’s an alternative. You can analyze how well you do without rating your total self. You can accept yourself no matter what—whether you do well, poorly, or don’t do anything at all. You are never forced to judge yourself as great or as unworthy—to put yourself up or down.

Self-rating is unnecessary, and it causes serious emotional and practical problems:

  1. If you insist on rating yourself, your thinking becomes self-centered instead of problem-centered. If you don’t rate yourself but acknowledge there is a problem, it becomes easier to analyze that problem, and an agreeable solution may be found. Considering yourself a “hopeless loser” or a “disgusting worm” is not a problem that can be analyzed and tackled. It is a conviction that points in only one direction: endless preoccupation with what a hopeless loser or disgusting worm you are! This is simply not helpful. It doesn’t prompt any constructive action.

  2. If you rate yourself as good or bad, you tend to suppose that this is your unchanging essence, that if you did badly yesterday, you’re likely to do badly today or tomorrow. You tend to become frozen in your own self-rating. Everyone has a great many good and bad traits; we’re all imperfect yet capable of improvement. But self-rating causes us to fasten on a few traits and then make an over-simple judgment about ourselves.

  3. A low self-rating makes you feel miserable, and a high self-rating sets you up for a poor self-rating whenever things go wrong. High and low self-ratings are not symmetrical—there’s an inherent tendency for self-raters to move toward a low self-rating. Most human intentions don’t work out quite as planned, and there’s a natural tendency to focus on disappointments and shortcomings.

  4. Self-rating leads you to compare yourself pointlessly to other people. Feelings of superiority and inferiority then get in the way of pursuing your aims.

If You Rate Yourself, You’ll Berate Yourself

We all know people who continually criticize themselves—the attractive woman who continually apologizes for her imperfect appearance, or the man who comments about his own unreliability or lack of achievement. Part of the intention of making such remarks is to admit your faults to other people so that they won’t criticize you or will award you points for humility. But, in practice, issuing these public confessions:

  • Is often found irritating by other people

  • Usually doesn’t persuade other people that you’re a better person

  • Needlessly draws their attention to faults of yours, which they might overlook; and most importantly of all

  • Tends to reinforce your own picture of yourself as unworthy

This verbal “self-downing” is an obvious manifestation of low self-esteem. It’s natural to suppose that it can be fought by techniques for “raising self-esteem.” But the best solution does not lie in learning how to squelch self-criticism or in practicing self-praise. While this may occasionally be useful, generally, raising self-esteem is counter-productive. It’s better to uproot any amount of self-esteem—low or high. In other words, to stop self-rating.

Secondhand Self-Esteem

Frequently a person’s craving for self-esteem is linked to the approval of another person, often a spouse or parent. Tara, a strikingly attractive 41-year-old, was an executive secretary for a Madison Avenue advertising firm. She had a daughter in high school and a son in elementary school. She was tall, thin, and might have been taken for a model. Although she mentioned that she enjoyed going out with her husband and another couple on Saturday nights, she mostly just read me a litany of problems and gloomy feelings.

“I get nervous about everything and then I get depressed. I worry about illness and also I worry about work situations. I’m eaten up with envy for other people who have certain things better than I do. I hate meeting new people. I cry easily at movies and weddings, and always hate myself for crying. I constantly wish I were someone else. I feel like a weakling. I just despise the way I look. I can’t relax, and I feel intimidated by my boss.”

The tone of Tara’s voice suggested that she was giving herself a good scolding, which she seemed ready to continue at some length.

“Sounds like a lot to deal with,” I interrupted. “Out of all that, what seems to bother you the most these days?”

“Hard to say. I guess it’s putting up with my mother when she comes to stay with us. She’s very critical, and it’s usually directed at me. Like last night, she was complaining that the house was a mess. I know I could do a better job at keeping the house clean, but I just can’t find the time. My mother never went out to work, so she had all the time she needed to keep a spotless home. But somehow I feel that she’s right: I really should keep the house neat and clean. I’m always uncomfortable in a messy house.”

“Let’s assume, as you claim, that your house is a holy mess.”

“That’s easy.”

“And you’re depressed about it.”

“Yes, I am.”

“This means you have a MUST in there somewhere.”

“You mean like ‘I MUST have a clean house’?”

“Exactly!”

“I do put myself down when I see dust or papers around the house,” Tara confessed. “I do feel crummy about myself.”

“But assuming the worst, that you really are a slovenly housekeeper, that’s only one of many things in your life. So it doesn’t follow that you, as a total person, are no good.”

“But I’m not good at anything. I’m a lousy mother, my kids are not as personable as Marita’s kids, and I’m always making faux pas at work and putting my foot in my mouth.”

“But even if that’s all true—and I suspect you’re being perfectionistic in your self-judgments—you still have the potential to change. And your potential is an aspect of you. If you actualize your potential and improve in some of these areas, then we’ll have additional things you’re good at. Furthermore, in the future you might discover endeavors you never tried before that you find you have some talent for.”

I pointed out to Tara another reason that making mistakes does not prove she is completely rotten. Just that she has succeeded at keeping herself alive, not gotten killed in a car accident, poisoned herself, or walked in front of a truck, proves that she doesn’t always and only make mistakes or perform badly.

Some of Tara’s “musts” were:

  • I MUST have my mother approve of my housekeeping or else I’m worthless

  • I HAVE TO get all my cleaning done or else I turn into a worm

  • I SHOULD keep my house looking better than it does, otherwise I’m a lesser person

  • I have GOT TO do it immediately, or it proves I’m a total failure

After disputing her “musts,” Tara replaced them with these conclusions:
  • Although my mother’s approval is PREFERABLE, I can fully accept myself with her criticism

  • I WOULD LIKE to get all my cleaning done, but if I don’t it mainly shows that I’m just an imperfect person acting imperfectly

  • I WISH my house looked better, but a less neat house doesn’t mean I’m less of a total person

  • I PREFER to shape up my house right now and at worst I’ve failed in the housecleaning, but that failure does not measure my total essence

Tara’s Three Minute Exercise

Tara quickly saw the point, and we soon began working on Three Minute Exercises. Here’s one that she found particularly helpful.

  1. (Activating event): My mother criticizes me and says the house looks as if I hadn’t cleaned for a month when, in fact, I cleaned yesterday.

  2. (irrational Belief): I MUST keep a spotlessly clean house and avoid my mother’s criticism, or else I’m no good!

  3. (emotional Consequences): Hurt and depression.

  4. (Disputing): What’s the evidence I MUST keep a spotlessly clean house and avoid my mother’s criticism or become no good?

  5. (Effective new thinking): Although I strongly prefer to keep a spotless house, I can find no reason why I MUST. Being an imperfect human, I will act imperfectly in many ways, so it’s understandable that I may not have a perfectly clean house.

    And if my mother thinks I’m no good, that’s sad, but that’s her opinion and doesn’t magically turn me into a worm. I’m still me, not what she thinks is me. My mother isn’t perfect either—nobody is. I’m never less of a person no matter how badly I do and no matter who disapproves of me.

    I can fully accept myself and get a lot out of life, even with a flawed house. Here’s a golden opportunity to practice working on accepting myself unconditionally, in spite of my flawed behavior and in spite of criticism from others. It’s unfortunate that my house is deficient, but it’s not awful, terrible, or horrible.

  6. (new Feeling): Concern and mild disappointment rather than hurt or depression.

From Self-Rating to Self-Acceptance

The goal of feeling good about your self is a trap: if people criticize you or if you don’t live up to your standards, you see yourself as worthless and start to feel hopeless. And when you perform well in the eyes of yourself or others, you tend to think you must continue to prove yourself to maintain your self-esteem; so you feel insecure even when you’re doing well.

You can use the techniques described in this chapter to root out your basic problem—self-rating. Instead of rating yourself, accept yourself just as you are—a fallible human who can enjoy life no matter how poorly you perform, and no matter who disapproves.