The Self-Esteem Cult

Having previously established that being more virtuous makes one a better person, I would now like to turn my attention to an alternative point of view. There are those who suggest that each of us is an inherently good person, no matter what the particulars of our actual lives. More to the point, according to this other take on the matter, the particulars of life are a direct function of our ability to understand our inherent goodness. That is to say, we are all good people, period, and the only difference between a person who feels good and one who doesn't is little piece of psycho-babble called self-esteem.

How The Self-Esteem Cult Works
The self-esteem cult, otherwise known as all those people who tell you that the magic key to happiness and being a good person is just having self-esteem and loving yourself, rests the substance of its doctrine on two rather shallow deceptions.

Deception #1: You Are Something Other Than Your Actions
The first deception is to sever the relationship between one's actions and one's self-worth. Thus, if a person fails on the job, screws up his relationships, gains a large amount of weight, etc., he is still a good person. None of his failings or shortcomings in any way diminish his actual value as a human being. Despite all the social cues he gets from his family, friends, and colleagues, whoever that person is is not a direct summation of his actions. His "self" rather consists of his best thoughts and feelings, the stuff inside his brain that makes him feel better, the stuff that only those who truly love him can see in full - not because he tells them, but because they somehow detect his self-worth, and thus true friends.

This is an alluring prospect, but it does not withstand much scrutiny. Let's examine why.

First, think of someone you love with all of your heart: a family member, a friend, a partner. (Sorry, no pets.) Next, ask yourself why you love that person. If your answer is, "Gah, I don't know... I just do!" then you haven't thought about it hard enough. Don't be vapid here, I'd like you to actually think about it. Why do you love this person? Why?

The answer to that question is almost certainly a laundry list of positive character traits. That much is obvious enough, but we must press further: How do you know that person possesses those positive characteristics? The answer to that question shows exactly why the self-esteem cult is selling snake oil.

The simple fact of the matter is that you love your loved ones because they demonstrate their positive character traits. Being lovable isn't simply a matter of sitting in an armchair and, uh... being lovable. No, what it actually means to be lovable is that you do lovable things to the people who love you; and maybe even to perfect strangers.

I'm not here to tell you what types of character traits you should love, but it is important to remember that you don't simply love people in a vacuum. You don't love them because they possess a brain that engages in self-affirmative navel-gazing. You love them because they do lovable things. Our thoughts are only valuable insofar as we translate them into actions. Those actions could be anything: smiling warmly, writing a book, giving someone a hug, doing good work at the office, telling funny jokes, being a good mentor... whatever. Whatever you, personally, find lovable (or atrocious, or pitiful, or hilarious, or valuable, or deplorable, or...) is a set of characteristics that have been evaluated based on specific, observed behavior.

You don't know someone is funny until they say something funny. You don't know someone is intelligent until you see her mind in action. You don't know someone is athletic until you see his athleticism firsthand. Any way you shake it, we humans are beings that exist in a tangible universe, acting out our thoughts and desires. We are what we do. Actions matter. Actions define who we are. If you think you're an inherently good person, but spend all your time on the couch, crying and lonely, then guess what one thing the universe knows about you: You spend all your time on the couch, crying and lonely.

Want to be inherently good? Then do inherently good things.

(By consistently applying Stationary Waves principles, then, what I am suggesting is that the lovable is the virtuous, and virtue is an action not a moral state. Seen from that perspective, it's clear that when I talk about judging and being judged, I'm not talking about the quality of a man's soul; I'm talking about the quality of a man's actions.)

Deception #2: What You Do All Comes Down To How You Feel About Yourself
Once the self-esteem cult has succeeded in divorcing action and self-worth, they glue it back together, upside-down. As soon as they convince you that you are a good person despite any actions you have made to the contrary, they finish scrambling your brain by telling you the exact opposite of what you need to hear: they tell you that the reason your actions are bad is that you have low self-esteem. Solve your self-esteem problem, they say, and your actions will follow suit.

Under this theory, an overweight person isn't overweight because he eats too much and exercises too little. An overweight person also isn't ashamed because he is overweight. The self-esteem cult alleges the exact opposite: A person is ashamed, therefore he eats too much and exercises too little, therefore he is overweight. Shame causes over-eating, as opposed to over-eating causing shame. The actions are a product of how a person feels about himself. Analogous explanations can be thus applied to any area of misbehavior: Whether one is a liar, or a coward, or lacks self-control, or is selfish, or jealous, or anything else, the explanation is always the same. Improve your self-esteem, and observe how your behaviors "automatically" trend toward honesty, bravery, self-mastery, generosity, and so on.

Again, the appeal is quite obvious. If all you need to do to lose weight and be a better person is engage in personal cheer-leading, then life gets a lot easier for everyone. The reason this concept is a clear deception is painfully obvious: there is no causal relationship between self-affirmation and appetite reduction, or honesty, or kindness, or etc.

The reason no such causality exists is because of what I said above: It is our actions that determine who we really are. Consider a man who, despite being terrified, dives into an icy river to save a drowning child. Ask yourself whether you think such a man is a coward, because he feels terrified, or a courageous hero, because he took action to save another human being. Isn't the answer obvious? It doesn't matter how he feels, it matters only what he does.

Despite our sensitivities, this same logic, if true, must also apply to someone who is dishonest. It doesn't matter how a liar feels about himself, it only matters whether he actually tells lies. It doesn't matter how a timid person feels, it only matters how timid he behaves. Actions are what define us, not feelings.

This second deception hinges on an unstated middle term. This middle term, included by assumption, is that the only reason anyone ever acts contrary to their personal values is because they have low self-esteem. That might sound plausible enough as a shotgun theory, but can you prove it? Isn't it at all likely that people engage in bad behavior for a wide variety of personal reasons that may or may not be mapped to their internal self-evaluations? Does an overweight person always overeat because he is ashamed? Does a coward always run away because he deems himself unworthy of the battle? Does a liar always lie because he thinks people will dislike him if the truth were revealed? Does an addict always go on benders because he doesn't feel good enough to be sober?

Who are we kidding?

Okay, You're Not Convinced. But How Has All This Self-Esteem Stuff Panned Out For You?
I have little doubt that sending oneself positive messages feels good. On that level, the self-esteem cult is always in the right. Of course, by the same argument, so are the hedonists. The relevant point of analysis is not a single, therapeutic point-in-time, but the long-run quality of a person's life. Do self-affirmations actually result in a long-term improvement?

Anecdotally, I have noticed that there tend to be two kinds of people out there: Those who feel that they must "work on" their self-esteem, and those who don't talk about it at all. Phrased another way, all of the people who talk about self-esteem don't seem to have enough of it. Coincidence?

The problem is not anecdotal, but rather methodological. If you needed, say, a new pair of pants, and I told you that all you really needed to do was love yourself more, and you would suddenly find yourself shopping for pants, you'd think I were stark-raving mad. So why do we so readily accept that same methodology when applied to weight loss or career success? If you want new pants, go out and shop for some pants. If you want to lose weight, eat less and exercise more. If you want more career success, work harder and smarter than your competition.

Certainly having a high regard for yourself will make you feel more satisfied along the way, but it doesn't really have anything to do with the work that needs to get. Even worse, if you happen to feel bad about the fact that you're wearing old pants, or carrying some extra pounds, or going nowhere at the office, the self-esteem cult is telling you that your problem is not the work that needs to be done but the fact that you are dissatisfied at all!

One byproduct of this is that it creates an infinite loop in which people who fall short of their aspirations end up feeling bad about feeling bad about themselves. It turns a rational response into a sin. What I mean is, if you feel guilty about lying to someone, then congratulations: you have a conscience. That's a good thing. If you feel bad about being overweight or not getting good grades, congratulations: you're normal. Feeling down about things that would legitimately make anyone feel down is the very definition of having a normal, well-functioning human brain.

But the self-esteem cult turns this on its head by telling you that the reason you're not climbing the corporate ladder is that you don't love yourself adequately. So a person stuck in a dead-end job first feels rationally bad about her predicament, and then fires up the self-esteem mantras. When these mantras don't actually result in career success (after all, how could they??), the self-esteem cult advises the poor woman that she just doesn't see her true worth. So she doubles-down on the mantras, and again they don't work, and she realizes that her self-esteem problem must be far worse than she feared!

If someone told me that every time I failed, I'd feel worse, not better. Wouldn't you?

Another byproduct of this is that it replaces genuinely virtuous behaviors - you know, the things that actually make you feel like a good person - with introspective navel-gazing and self-actualization diatribing. Think about it: While you're spending all your time giving yourself little internal pep-talks, what is the one thing you're not doing? If you guessed, "Any of the things that will actually make you feel better," you're absolutely right. 

When you feel down about yourself, telling yourself "I think I can, I think I can" sounds like the ideal prescription. It might even be the right prescription, if the problem you're trying to address is the fact that you keep telling yourself that you can't. But note well: just because you can't do something doesn't mean that you have been secretly telling yourself that you cannot. The difference between the gold and silver medals was not a matter of self-esteem, it was a matter of training, and training consists of more than just daily affirmations. It consists of hard work.

Okay, Smart Guy, Then What's Your Suggestion?
There are two distinct possibilities here: Either a person genuinely has a self-esteem problem, or they don't. 

In the latter case, reframing your shortcomings as being some sort of underlying self-evaluative problem is not going to help you reach any of your objectives. You won't be a better person by falsely accusing yourself of having low self-esteem. It's a lie, a ruse, a deception, snake oil, false diagnosis, etc. Many people who are accustomed to self-help language default to a pantomime of the low-self-esteem narrative any time their fail to meet their highest aspirations. As I've described above, this is counter-productive. If you don't have a self-esteem problem, then forget about constructing a false self-help narrative and start applying yourself to engaging in more virtuous activity.

That means: If you want to be more successful, work harder; if you want to lose weight, eat better and exercise more; if you want to be more attractive to the opposite sex, give yourself a make-over and start acting more like a sexy potential suitor; if you want more friends, be more friendly; if you want to be braver, confront your fears one-at-a-time; and so on. Whatever virtues are required to achieve your goals, those are the ones to which you should be applying yourself. And if you never really "get there" because your goal is a little pie-in-the-sky, then work on those virtues anyway, and just enjoy the ride.

In the other case, you might genuinely have a self-esteem problem. If this is the case, then what good is it to give yourself daily, verbal affirmations? As I have described, that's not productive. At best, it's a waste of your time, and at worst it's a daily reminder of what little regard you hold for yourself.

Think of it this way: How does constant, melancholy navel-gazing differ from plain old narcissism? Both represent self-obsession. The traditional narcissist's life revolves around himself so completely that he is unable to perceive of the worth of other people. The insufferable low-self-esteem cultist is similarly imprisoned in a world at which they are the center; only they have such terrible luck or awful power to have poisoned their chance in the world. Low self-esteem is nothing more than narcissism applied to sadness.

How do you build self-esteem, except by pursuing virtue? 

If you feel powerless, try engaging in a little charity work. Not only is this scientifically proven to make people feel better, it's also a perfect demonstration of how your own personal actions can transmit a direct, positive impact on other human beings. I defy anyone to think of themselves as "powerless" while they're volunteering at a soup kitchen.

If you feel like no one likes you, do something nice for somebody. This isn't bribery: people respond to what you do, not what you think. You can't wish appreciation onto yourself, you have to go out there and earn it. Buy someone you love some flowers, or a coffee, or a book, or whatever. Mow their lawn or wash their car. Do something nice for someone, and observe how quickly you will see that people like you.

If you feel unaccomplished, go accomplish something. You don't have to gain a promotion at work to accomplish something in life. Go bungee jumping or sky diving. Raise $1500 for charity. Solve a logic puzzle. Start learning a new language. Doing something that you haven't done until today is always an accomplishment. Seven consecutive days of such things will constitute the most productive week you've had in years. (Hell, I sure haven't tried seven new things in a week before!)

The point here is that in order to build self-esteem, you have to engage in virtuous activities. Virtue and action, not navel-gazing and introspection, are how people end up feeling better about themselves. So stop thinking about building your self-esteem and start thinking about building virtue.

And note well: The advice for those with high self-esteem is the same for those with low self-esteem. Virtue is for everyone.

The cult of self-esteem wants you to believe that simply being born entitles you to a sense of self-worth. When we get out into the real world, many of us are shocked to find out that the rest of the human population is not exactly as tickled-pink by our wonderfulness as we thought they were supposed to be. We feel judged. We feel misunderstood. We feel maligned.

Listen, the world owes you no automatic esteem. Society is not obligated to think you are great. Self-esteem isn't something you get through birthright. Self-esteem is something that you earn by making yourself into a virtuous person.

To be a worthwhile person, you have to do something worthwhile. That doesn't mean you have to climb Everest or invent cold fusion. What it means is that you have engage in actual activities that produce tangible results. When those results are assessed by you and everyone you care about, you will quickly see their worth, and guess what - that's virtue! That's what's going to make you feel good about yourself.

You are not your thoughts. You are your actions.