Last month I received an email from a woman who found me on the Internet. She wrote: “I just want you to know that I recently reread your book from a long time ago, Is Anyone Out There Building Mother’s Self-Esteem? Her email continued with facts about herself and her family and concluded: “I’m weather-worn and very imperfect. This identity crisis has thrown me for a loop. I doubt my self-worth and feel confused about aging and the purpose of life. I definitely didn’t see this bump in the road coming. I would appreciate any advice and experience you would be willing to share.”
As you can imagine, I was surprised to receive an email about Is Anyone Out There Building Mother’s Self-Esteem because it was published thirty-five years ago. I felt uncomfortable since my feelings about self-esteem have changed dramatically. What I thought was self-esteem has evolved into practices I believe are contrary to basic gospel and mental-health principles. I’m not alone in these feelings.
Dr. Kristin Neff, in a 2013 TED talk, said: “It has almost become a truism in our culture that we need to have high self-esteem in order to be happy and healthy. Psychologists have conducted thousands of studies touting the benefits of self-esteem. Teachers are encouraged to give all their students gold stars so that each one can feel proud and special…. But as research is now starting to demonstrate, the need to continually evaluate ourselves positively comes at a high price” (https://self-compassion.org/why-we-should-stop-chasing-self-esteem-and-start-developing-self-compassion).
What is that “high price”?
1. Self-esteem has become a preoccupation with “self.” How I feel, what I think, what I want, what I fear, what I love, what I wear, how you should treat me, what I own, where I travel, what I did today. I, I, I, my, my, my, me, me, me.
2. Self-esteem feeds on comparison and competition. President Ezra Taft Benson spoke of the fixation on self and warned: “Beware of Pride“. In this classic address President Benson counseled: “The proud make every man their adversary by pitting their intellects, opinions, works, wealth, talents, or any other worldly measuring device against others. In the words of C. S. Lewis: ‘Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man. … It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest. Once the element of competition has gone, pride has gone’ (Mere Christianity, New York: Macmillan, 1952, pp. 109–10).”
3. Self-esteem gone wrong leads to increased narcissism and bullying. “One of the most insidious consequences of the self-esteem movement over the last couple of decades is the narcissism epidemic. Jean Twenge, author of Generation Me, examined the narcissism levels of over 15,000 U.S. college students between 1987 and 2006. During that 20-year period, narcissism scores went through the roof, with 65 percent of modern-day students scoring higher in narcissism than previous generations. Not coincidentally, students’ average self-esteem levels rose by an even greater margin over the same period…. (Furthermore,) bullies generally have high self-esteem …, since picking on people weaker than themselves is an easy way to boost self-image” (https://self-compassion.org/why-we-should-stop-chasing-self-esteem-and-start-developing-self-compassion).
4. Self-esteem in education:
“The prevailing wisdom in education was that high self-esteem would lead to high achievement. The theory led to an avalanche of daily affirmation, awards ceremonies and attendance certificates—but few, if any, academic gains” (www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/in-schools-self-esteem-boosting-is-losing-favor-to-rigor-finer-tuned-praise/2012/01/11/gIQAXFnF1P_story.html). “Few, if any, academic gains” should have invalidated the self-esteem movement, but it lingers and lingers as evidenced by the email quoted above.
“Daily affirmation, awards ceremonies and attendance certificates” have another downside. When everyone who participates receives a gold star, it is the same as if no one received a gold star. This principle is taught in the movie, The Incredibles. Syndrome, a wannabe superhero, wants to give everyone super powers to make real superheroes ordinary. He sneered: “And with everyone super, no one will be.”
5. The self-esteem theory claimed that parents and teachers would damage children’s self-esteem by telling them “no.” I once saw an article titled, “Ten Ways To Say No Without Saying No.” Children need to be taught that unacceptable behavior is unacceptable with a simple but firm “no.” Certainly “no” should be used judiciously because if children are told “no” a hundred times a day, it means nothing. But when parents say “no” and stay firm, their children learn the power of “no.” This example may help them have the courage to say no to friends who pressure them to take a dare, try an addictive substance “just this once” because “no one will ever know,” or to give in to subtle and/or blatant temptation whatever the source.
6. Attempts to artificially build self-esteem rewards mediocrity. If you are praised for the unexceptional, you may feel that others think that is the best you are capable of achieving. If you are praised when you don’t do your best, you learn you don’t have to do your best to receive praise. Personally, efforts at making me feel successful when I know I can or want to do better is a negative, even though “building self-esteem” sounds positive.
7. Parent and child’s self-esteem are closely linked to the child’s success. If the child doesn’t make the team, for example, the child has to bear the pain of not making the team and the pain of disappointing his/her parents. The double whammy can discourage motivation to try again.
8. Self-esteem can miss the importance of hard work and determination. Encouraging children to achieve the highest and finest within them is beneficial, but not everyone can all get A’s, achieve NFL or even high school fame, win a Nobel Prize, or own a private jet. I heard a grandpa say to a grandchild, “I bet you are the smartest in your class.” The seven year old dropped her head and said, “No, but I can write my letters.” How much better it would have been if the child had been encouraged to do what James A. Michener said. “Character consists of what you do on the third and fourth tries.” No matter our native talents, with hard work and determination, we all can achieve more than we realize.
9. Self-esteem doesn’t have your back. It offers no backup for failure. No amount of positive affirmations that you are smart enough to get an A will make it a reality unless you study, learn the material, turn in assignments, and do well on tests.
So, what works better than trying to build your own or others’ self-esteem?
Self-worth is not how you feel about yourself, nor is it how others feel about you. Self-worth is NOT a synonym for self-esteem. Self-worth is the never-changing value you have as a person. You may have noted in the email above the woman said, “I doubt my self-worth.” Doubting self-worth doubts God’s love. Self-esteem is how you feel about yourself. Self-worth is how God feels about you. Self-worth is the value every human life has in a burning building. Self-worth cannot be diminished or augmented. In the beginnings of COVID-19, I said to my thirty-year-old grandson, “I think whatever treatment they come up with should be given to the young. We older ones are expendable.” He said, “Grandma, I am a right-to-lifer from the unborn to the nearly dead.”
Self-respect is based on fact and summed up in a statement attributed to Abraham Lincoln: “When I do good I feel good, when I do bad I feel bad” (Herndon’s Lincoln: The True Story of a Great Life, volume III, chapter XIV). A teacher can help a child feel good about him- or herself with comments such as: “You got 80% on your spelling test, your personal best!” “I notice you were kind to the child who fell on the playground today.” Self-respect grows when a parent praises with an approving smile, an extra hug, a thanks for helping a sibling find a lost shoe, entertaining a fussy baby, and doing homework and chores without being asked. When giving compliments or praise, a good principle is to notice effort, resiliency, progress, self-control, honesty, selflessness, patience, and generosity.
Self-compassion is treating yourself as respectfully as you would treat a dear friend. Chapter two in Jordan B. Peterson’s Twelve Rules for Life is: “Treat Yourself Like Someone You Are Responsible for Helping.” Self-respect and self-compassion give you confidence and space to be imperfect, as we all are. Self-respect and self-compassion are honest assessments of strengths and weaknesses wherein you compare yourself only to yourself. Self-compassion and self-respect help you open your heart to your own and others’ needs.
Fortunately, the negatives of self-esteem are receding. “Now, an increasing number of teachers are weaning themselves from what some call empty praise. Drawing on psychology and brain research, these educators aim to articulate a more precise, and scientific, vocabulary for praise that will push children to work through mistakes and take on more challenging assignments” (www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/in-schools-self-esteem-boosting-is-losing-favor-to-rigor-finer-tuned-praise/2012/01/11/gIQAXFnF1P_story.html).
Self-worth, self-respect, and self-compassion are very helpful concepts, but there is something even better. Joseph Smith taught a truth of great import, concerning how to better understand oneself. He said: “If men do not comprehend the character of God they do not comprehend themselves” (Joseph Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, comp. Joseph Fielding Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976), 345). Learning about God and His eternal plan helps you identify what He expects of you and what you are capable of achieving.
A common fallacy is that God’s love for you is measured by the ease of your earthly sojourn. Many expect life to be a luxury cruise. C. S. Lewis said: “What would really satisfy us would be a God who said of anything we happened to like doing, ‘What does it matter so long as they are contented?’ We want, in fact, not so much a Father in Heaven as a grandfather in heaven—a senile benevolence who, as they say, ‘liked to see young people enjoying themselves’ and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, ‘a good time was had by all’” (https://www.cslewisinstitute.org/God_is_Love).
Our Eternal Father loves us too much to make mortality only about a good time, continually cruising around in luxury. The Savior said: “Whom I love I also chasten that their sins may be forgiven, for with the chastisement I prepare a way for their deliverance in all things out of temptation” (D&C 95:1). We are on Earth to become like the Savior who is like His Father. The mortal journey is designed with bumps, bruises, disappointments, and failures to facilitate growth by experiencing and overcoming hard things. If we rely on the worldly way of building our own self-esteem, we lean on our own understanding (Proverbs 3:5) and haven’t incorporated into our lives Joseph Smith’s prophetic counsel.
When you come to understand that God is your loving Father in Heaven, that you are of infinite worth to Him, and that He gifted you with your life, intellect, body, talents, and everything you have, are, or ever will become, you esteem Him and allow Him to prevail in your life. “Men and women who turn their lives over to God will discover that He can make a lot more out of their lives than they can. He will deepen their joys, expand their vision, quicken their minds, strengthen their muscles, lift their spirits, multiply their blessings, increase their opportunities, comfort their souls, raise up friends, and pour out peace” (Ezra Taft Benson, Ensign, Dec. 1988, 4).