When postmodern preoccupations, progressive politics and public health collide, the result is always ugly, especially when this toxic creature campaigns under the vaunting promise of “saving lives.” The noble goal instantly renders any criticism of its means beyond the pale. So what do we do when our wilful blindness to unintended consequences ends up costing not just social cohesion but lives?
Such is the horrific damage that the cult of self-esteem has wrought on society, and on young people most of all.
Driven by the kumbaya-sodden positive psychology of the 1970s, “low self-esteem” soon became an explanation for everything from anxiety to dysfunctional relationships to serious crime. Therefore, better self-esteem equals a better world. Apparently.
In Australia, the self-esteem movement pushed itself to the fore in the early 1990s against a backdrop of widespread alarm at rising youth suicide rates. Its beguilingly simple philosophy was wholeheartedly embraced by schools, the mental health industry, scared parents, and politicians who wanted to be seen as cutting edge.
The argument runs that by building self-esteem, you produce mentally robust individuals who are better equipped to face the ups and downs of life, and less prone to stress, anxiety, and depression. Fast forward, and today’s young people have spent a lifetime bombarded with messages and programs meant to bolster self-worth, reduce negative emotions, and “empower” everyone to “be their best self”.
Even if a little of this may be useful, it does not mean that more is better. Unfortunately, encouraging children to feel good about themselves rapidly turned into every child wins a prize, not comparing against others, giving effusive praise for the most minor tasks, dumbing down curricula to emphasise subjective feelings that are always right rather than logical arguments where somebody might be wrong, treating every utterance with complete seriousness regardless of its absurdity, and demonising any form of criticism.
This has bred a generation who are so firmly imbued with belief in their own absolute rightness that they are unable to cope with the world around them. They are so fragile that they insist they must at all times be shielded from anything that may “harm” them: disagreement, words, ideas, situations, and any inkling that human endeavour can thrive without mandatory diversity, inclusion and equality.
Multiple different data sources show that their mental health is plummeting, regardless of widespread anti-depressant use. Suicide rates have again been rising. These trends pre-date Covid by several years. If the self-esteem movement was successful in producing resilience, logic suggests that we would be seeing the exact opposite of this.
Social media gets the blame, but this is lazy and simplistic. When we look more deeply, we see that self-esteem worship is tightly welded to a relentless mental health bandwagon that has pathologised even the mildest of bad feelings. Together, this has promoted a system where the safety net of infanthood continues indefinitely.
People are constantly “validated”, taught that they are surrounded by others whose job it is to do things to make them feel better about themselves, and led to believe that it is someone else’s responsibility to protect them from their own emotions and decisions. Parents have become more concerned with being their offspring’s friend than their instructor, and useful advice like “get over yourself” and “the world doesn’t revolve around you” has become tantamount to abuse.
Researchers are now finding that the ideas their ilk once zealously pushed, may have done more harm than good. As psychologist Jean Twenge’s work argues: more positive self-views have not made people happier. Nor have they made people capable. Increasingly, studies show that while people raised under the cult of self-esteem think very well indeed of themselves, they are more likely to have unrealistic expectations of success, disproportionate sensitivity to perceived or actual criticism, and a striking lack of independent problem solving abilities.
A separate body of research clearly shows that mismatch between expectations and reality, heightened responsiveness to negative feedback, and limited capacity to tackle difficult circumstances, place people at a higher risk of experiencing helplessness and hopelessness. These are long-established, and often crucial, contributors to depression and suicide.
Mental ill-health and suicide are complex, with no one cause or solution, but there is no dispute that how a person is raised shapes their susceptibility. Despite this, there is a head-in-the-sand attitude to the possibility that warm fuzzy fads meant to help, can instead become part of the problem.
Social psychologists observed in 2003 that the self-esteem movement “might just as easily promote narcissism, with its less desirable consequences.” Years later, there are whispered suggestions that the cult of self-esteem should be quietly consigned to history and children should once more be allowed to fail, get criticised, and learn that the world does not centre around catering to their opinions and demands. For the sake of lives, it is time to start listening.