Self-esteem is, of course, a term in the modern lexicon of psychobabble, and psychobabble is itself the verbal expression of self-absorption without self-examination. The former is a pleasurable vice, the latter a painful discipline. An accomplished psychobabbler can talk for hours about himself without revealing anything.
Insofar as self-esteem has a meaning, it is the appreciation of one's own worth and importance. That it is a concept of some cultural resonance is demonstrated by the fact that an Internet search I conducted brought up 14,500,000 sites, only slightly fewer than the U.S. Constitution and four times as many as "fortitude."
When people speak of their low self-esteem, they imply two things: first, that it is a physiological fact, rather like low hemoglobin, and second, that they have a right to more of it. What they seek, if you like, is a transfusion of self-esteem, given (curiously enough) by others; and once they have it, the quality of their lives will improve as the night succeeds the day. For the record, I never had a patient who complained of having too much self-esteem, and who therefore asked for a reduction. Self-esteem, it appears, is like money or health: you can't have too much of it.
Self-esteemists, if I may so call those who are concerned with the levels of their own self-esteem, believe that it is something to which they have a right. If they don't have self-esteem in sufficient quantity to bring about a perfectly happy life, their fundamental rights are being violated. They feel aggrieved and let down by others rather than by themselves; they ascribe their lack of rightful self-esteem to the carping, and unjustified, criticism of parents, teachers, spouses, and colleagues....
Self-respect is another quality entirely. Where self-esteem is entirely egotistical, requiring that the world should pay court to oneself whatever oneself happens to be like or do, and demands nothing of the person who wants it, self-respect is a social virtue, a discipline, that requires an awareness of and sensitivity to the feelings of others. It requires an ability and willingness to put oneself in someone else's place; it requires dignity and fortitude, and not always taking the line of least resistance.
You might have noticed in recent years that the overwhelming emphasis in our narcissistic culture has been to emphasize self-esteem at the expense of self-respect and personal responsibility.
For years now, pop psychology and its gurus have mesmerized the culture at large. All their self-help tenets have percolated through K-12 educational curricula; and been accepted wholeheartedly by the cultural elite of Hollywood and the intellectual elite of academia.
The triumvarate of contradictions that claims to be based on "scientific" psychology includes the hyping of (1) self-esteem (increasing your self-worth without having to achieve anything); (2) hope (achieving your goals without any real effort) and (3) victimhood (it's not your fault that you haven't achieved anything or made any effort). See here for more discussion.
These three fundamental axioms of leftist thought have risen to prominence in our society even as concepts such as self-respect and personal responsibility have been mocked and denigrated.
Indeed, the very use of words like "personal responsibility", for example, have become politically incorrect--racist, even--primarily because personal responsibility is not compatible with the three fundamental leftist axioms noted above.
After several decades, the intellectual impoverishment brought about by faux self-esteem, fairy-tale utopian fantasies, and eternal victimhood--all pseudoscientific psychological deceptions designed to maintain dependence on leftist ideology-- are now becoming apparent:
Over a 20-year span beginning in the early 1970s, the average SAT score fell by 35 points. But in that same period, the contingent of college-bound seniors who boasted an A or B average jumped from 28% to an astonishing 83%, as teachers felt increasing pressure to adopt more "supportive" grading policies. Tellingly, in a 1989 study of comparative math skills among students in eight nations, Americans ranked lowest in overall competence, Koreans highest — but when researchers asked the students how good they thought they were at math, the results were exactly opposite: Americans highest, Koreans lowest. Meanwhile, data from 1999's omnibus Third International Mathematics and Science Study, ranking 12th-graders from 23 nations, put U.S. students in 20th place, besting only South Africa, Lithuania and Cyprus.
Still, the U.S. keeps dressing its young in their emperors' new egos, passing them on to the next set of empowering curricula. If you teach at the college level, as I do, at some point you will be confronted with a student seeking redress over the grade you gave him because "I'm pre-med!" Not until such students reach med school do they encounter truly inelastic standards: a comeuppance for them but a reprieve for those who otherwise might find ourselves anesthetized beneath their second-rate scalpel.
The larger point is that society has embraced such concepts as self-esteem and confidence despite scant evidence that they facilitate positive outcomes. The work of psychologists Roy Baumeister and Martin Seligman suggests that often, high self-worth is actually a marker for negative behavior, as found in sociopaths and drug kingpins.
We see the people who have inhaled this "psychology-lite" everywhere around us, and in all levels of society. Particularly we can notice it in the elites of Hollywood and Academia; who alternate between acting out their narcissistically empowered superiority -- demanding to be noticed, admired and loved (by you); and playing the narcissistically empowered victim -- demanding their inalienable rights and priveleges (at your expense).
But the real victims of all this hype are our children, because these foolish notions, without a scintilla of scientific evidence (but they make some people feel very very good about themselves) have become the pop psychology dogma of public policy in education.
And, the corollary of their implementation has been an equal and opposite de-emphasis on taking personal responsibility for one's actions and behaviors and accepting the consequences, both good and bad. As a result, self-respect, which must be earned remains elusive; but self-esteem is everywhere--every two-bit thug and bureaucrat has an excess of it. But, as Dalrymple notes, it is never enough.
Since a person's character is not only determined by successes in life, but by how failures are dealt with; healthy self-esteem is the by-product of negotiating those successes and failures with integrity and honesty. By doing so, one gains the much more important quality of self-respect.
"Hope" is meaningless unless it escapes the land of fantasy and conforms with reality; and "victimhood" should only be a transient state that motivates a person to change behavior--not a celebration or a way of life.
For many on the left side of the political spectrum, the concept of "personal responsibility" is inextricably linked to conservative moral principles; to business success and capitalism; and--the bugaboo of collectivists everywhere-- individualism. It is no secret that the political left has idealized certain social and political systems because they suppressed the individual and elevated the state, insisting that individuals have no right to exist for their own selves, but only to serve others.
Those on the left mistakenly believe that it is individualism and "evil" capitalism that is linked to narcissistic behavior. But as I have explained in previous posts, there is a flip side to "selfish" or "grandiose" narcissism-- and that is narcissism rooted in idealism, rather than selfishness; or "idealistic" narcissism (discussed at some length here if you are interested). This second kind of narcissism (the flip side of the coin, if you will) is less obvious to an observer, since it is disguised with a veneer of concern for others. But it is equally—if not more—destructive and causative of human suffering, decay, death and misery. Both kinds of narcissism are a plague on the world; and both are well-traveled avenues for limiting freedom and imposing tyranny. The "grandiose" narcissism is the stimulus for individual tyrants, while the "idealistic" narcissism leads to groups imposing their will on others.
The idealistic narcissist is invested in utopian fantasies. Their self-esteem is derived from the power they feel in controlling the lives of others, and they desperately need to maintain a constant supply of "victims" they can pretend to champion. In general, they are extremely resistant to taking responsibility for their own behavior or the implementation of their utopian dreams--all of which have been emotionally catastrophic for the individuals in the system. Is it any wonder that the political left identifies personal responsibility as a dangerous and radical concept? In a world where personal responsibility and accountability for one's behavior is expected, they themselves would have to answer to that thing we call "reality."
This they cannot and will not do. That is how little self-respect they have to go along with their inflated sense of self-esteem.
Thus, they have constructed a whole system ("political correctness") to stigmatize and intimidate those who believe that self-esteem must be earned by achievement and is dependent on one's choices and actions; that "hope and change" come about not by wishing and lovely rhetoric, but by doing; and that your current bad situation may not be (entirely) your own fault, but by constantly externalizing blame for that situation, you miss opportunities to make necessary changes in your own behavior that keep you down. By taking responsibility for your own life, you stop waiting to be rescued and do what you have to do to rescue yourself. You can stay a "victim" and wallow in "victimhood", but the essence of maturity and adulthood is taking charge of your own life and not letting others dictate who you should be, or what you should do.
Unhealthy narcissism (yes, a certain amount of narcissism not only can be healthy, it is essential to function optimally in life) is encouraged by the "self-esteem gurus" in education, whose nonsense continues to reinforce the inappropriate grandiosity of young children by facilitating a faux self-esteem; just as the radical environmentalists and politically correct, kumbayah types (among other groups) continue to reinforce the malignant selflessness that comes from fervently believing in the perfectibility of human beings.
Between the two influences unleashed on the vulnerable minds of our children, is it any surprise that by the time they get to college, kids are either dysfunctional, self-absorbed narcissists; naively malignant do-gooders; or (at best) completely and irrevocably cynical about the pervasive indoctrination and anti-intellectualism they have been subjected to in their educational careers?
Dalrymple correctly notes that, "Self-respect requires fortitude, one of the cardinal virtues; self-esteem encourages emotional incontinence that, while not actually itself a cardinal sin, is certainly a vice, and a very unattractive one. Self-respect and self-esteem are as different as depth and shallowness."
Or as different as achieving maturity versus remaining childish.