My father drank. On those rare occasions when he was sober, he’d often dispense what alcoholics call a moment of clarity.
I say “rare,” he was—every morning without fail—sober. I say “sober,” I mean that unenviable state of limbo that alcoholics call “morning.”
The pub toward which he was magnetically drawn like iron filings to a magnet had both an official and unofficial opening time, during which the regulars, as they exalted themselves, settled their shakes away from the glares of the semi-normals who clotted outside to sink a few sharp ones before they slunk back to work.
Work, as Oscar Wilde wrote, is the curse of the drinking classes. But the wisdom of the drinking classes is often superior to the wisdom of the thinking classes.
Back in the 1990s, experts ascribed alcoholism, teenaged pregnancy, crime, violence, and even pollution to the specter of “low self-esteem.”
My school soon got rid of the outdated idea of winners and losers. In his moment of clarity, my father asked: “What happens when they grow up?”
In the 1980s, an eccentric Californian Democrat (Of course it was California . . . ) named John “Vasco” Vasconcellos set up a self-esteem task force. Vasco believed that believing in oneself was the cure for social ills.
For Vasco, so powerful was positive thinking that he implored his followers to imagine themselves as tiny toothbrushes scraping away the plaque which plagued his heart. To the tune of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”:
Now let’s swim ourselves
up and down my streams
touch and rub and warm and melt
the plaque that blocks my streams.
Reader, I’m serious.
Anyway, after weathering an onslaught of media ridicule, Vasco’s task force memed itself into the cultural consciousness. One member of the 25-strong panel made a rather bold prediction: the group’s work would cause the sun to rise in the West.
Reader, I am serious.
In his book, Selfie, from which I quote liberally, Will Storr traces the self-esteem movement’s Californian origins to today’s culture of selfie-snapping narcissism. He writes:
As the months became years, the self-love movement spread. Defendants in drug trials were rewarded with special key chains for appearing in court, while those who completed treatment were given applause and doughnuts. Children were awarded sports trophies just for turning up; a Massachusetts school district ordered children in gym classes to skip without actual ropes lest they suffer the self-esteem catastrophe of tripping. Meanwhile, police in Michigan seeking a serial rapist instructed the public to look out for a thirtysomething male with medium build and ‘low self-esteem.’
As Storr investigates this movement, it becomes apparent that Vasco’s claims were wrongheaded at best and, at worst, a total fabrication. In 1988, the task force claimed professors from the University of California had sifted through reams of data and confirmed Vasco’s beliefs.
In the book, we learn this didn’t quite happen. Storr tracks down Vasco’s right-hand man, and task force chairman, the aptly named Andrew Mecca. Despite the final report’s mixed bag of conclusions, in true self-esteem-style, Vasco and Mecca took the good bit and ignored the rest.
“The thing is, John was an incredible politician,” says Mecca. “He was pragmatic enough that he felt he had what he needed, and that was a scholarly report that pretty much said, ‘Self-esteem’s important.’ At least, that’s the spin we got in the media.”
When someone says, “Yeah, it’s pretty much what we said,” it’s not at all what they said.
Was anything Vasco and Co. said true? Did it work? Not really. Later studies show the dictums of the self-esteem movement often had the reverse effect.
In the mid-2000s, researchers sifted through 15,000 studies on self-esteem. They found just 200 matching their rigorous standards. Of those 200 studies, few, if any, backed up the claims of the self-esteem movement.
By then, it was much too late. The faulty concept of self-esteem informed our culture, media, institutions, and everything else.
When I was a teenager, the prevailing psychology was to ensure everyone felt good about themselves.
Our parents and our teachers eschewed all criticism and saturated us in unconditional praise. The self-esteem movement swept away alarming red pens, instead marking our ever-inflating grades in hues of soothing teal green. They traded grade “F” for “U,” “a bit dense” for “minimally exceptional,” knowing useful things for “knowing yourself.” The brutalism of correct answers gave way to the sentimentalism of no correct answers.
The right answers didn’t matter. Neither did grammar. The right answers were passé. What mattered was how one felt inside.
Rather than learn how to write declarative sentences, how to think critically, or how to sift the rational from the emotional, we learned how to love ourselves.
This monstrous miscalculation created generations of praise-addicted, validation seekers frozen by their fear of failure—millions crippled with anxiety and depression—alongside legions of narcissists convinced of their destiny with fame.
Visit any social media feed to witness the results of this experiment.
Perhaps the greatest tragedy of the self-esteem movement is that the evangelists got backward its very concept.
Nathaniel Branden, the “godfather” of self-esteem, didn’t say what the evangelists claim he said.
Branden thought the cultivation of self-esteem was a hard-headed pursuit built by effort and failure and the slow building of competence. You try something unfamiliar, you fail, you try again, and you improve. Self-esteem, then, is internal, not external.
You’ll notice that is the opposite of what the self-esteem movement said, and the very opposite of what our modern feelings culture says.
The great irony is that modern experts would find Branden “problematic” or “shaming.”
In his 1994 work, The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem, Branden attacked the mongrelization of his work, and lamented the “oversimplifications and sugar-coatings of the pop psychology” of the time.
“I do not share the belief that self-esteem is a gift we have only to claim (by reciting affirmations, perhaps). On the contrary, its possession over time represents an achievement,” he said.
Branden was especially disturbed by the explosion of a creed that mistook the pedals for the steering wheel: “We do not serve the healthy development of young people when we convey that self-esteem may be achieved by reciting ‘I am special’ every day, or by stroking one’s own face while saying ‘I love me’ . . . ”
Branden stressed that “feel-good notions are harmful rather than helpful.”
Yet if one examines the proposals offered to teachers on how to raise students’ self-esteem, many are the kind of trivial nonsense that gives self-esteem a bad name, such as praising and applauding a child for virtually everything he or she does, dismissing the importance of objective accomplishments, handing out gold stars on every possible occasion, and propounding an ‘entitlement’ idea of self-esteem that leaves it divorced from both behaviour and character.
Branden said self-esteem must root itself in reality.
Professor Carol Dweck, the author of Mindset, found praising intelligence over effort led to the opposite of what was intended.
Through her experiments with elementary school children, Dweck identified two mindsets: a growth mindset and a fixed mindset.
Children with a growth mindset see their talents, their intelligence, and their abilities as malleable. They’re unafraid of failure. To them, challenges are opportunities. Children with a fixed mindset see their talents, their intelligence, and their abilities as fixed. They’re terrified of failure. To them, challenges are pitfalls.
In Dweck’s experiments, she gave each child a simple task. Researchers praised one group on their ability: “Wow. You did so well on this. You must be smart.”
To the other group, researchers praised their effort: “Wow. You did so well on this. You must have worked really hard.”
The next challenge proved much more arduous than the last. What happened? Those praised for their ability got frustrated, gave up faster, and claimed they weren’t “smart enough” to do the challenge. Those praised for their effort stayed the course, enjoyed the challenge, and put in the work.
Just one sentence of unearned praise froze those children into a fear of failure. So, what did decades of the very same thing do to the rest of us?
Editor’s note: A version of this article appeared originally at Christopher Gage’s Substack, “Oxford Sour.” Click here to subscribe.