Every other Wednesday in Fads!Crazes!Panics!Luke T. Harrington looks at one of the random obsessions to have gripped the public mind in the recent past, and tries, in vain, to make sense of it all.

In 1966, a man named John Vasconcellos was elected to a seat on the California state legislature. Previously, he had graduated magna cum laude from Santa Clara University, before serving in the military, earning a law degree, and serving in Governor Pat Brown’s administration. Still, despite all his success, Vasconcellos was suffering from what most would term impostor syndrome

“I’d been drilled never to use the word ‘I’, never to think or speak well of myself,” he later said. “I found my identity and my life coming utterly apart. I had to go and seek help.” At the core of his problem was the conflict between the respect he was getting and the self-loathing he claimed to have learned from his Catholic upbringing; it was somewhat ironic, then, that he found the solution (?) to his problems in the teaching of a (somewhat offbeat) Catholic priest, Father Leo Rock. The author of Making Friends with Yourself: Christian Growth and Self-Acceptance, Rock taught that human nature was fundamentally good and that true human potential was only realized by recognizing that goodness. Vasconcellos took him to heart—maybe a little too much. He stopped caring what anyone thought about him and began showing up for work in aloha shirts and gold chains, letting his hair grow past his shoulders. It was California in the 1970s, though, so nobody noticed.

While people sometimes make bad decisions because they feel bad about themselves, the truth is that people make bad decisions for all sorts of reasons, including because they feel excessively good about themselves.

Soon Vasconcellos had discovered the many benefits of thinking of himself as awesome, and he wanted to share them with the world. He had been handing out tracts and pamphlets to anyone in the state capitol who would listen, but that wasn’t enough. This stuff was needed all over the state—possibly all over the world.

In 1986—after two failed attempts—Vasconcellos convinced the state legislature and Governor George Deukmejian to spend $735,000 to fund the “Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility.” From the very beginning, Vasconcellos was making lofty promises about what bolstering self-esteem could do: enhance academic and professional performance, lower delinquency and teen pregnancy, and put an end to crime. According to one member of the task force—which, according to journalist Jesse Singal, included everyone from New Agers to fundamentalist Christians—they were going to “make the sun rise in the west.” Clearly, the self-esteem task force had no self-esteem issues of its own.

As the task force did its work, the idea that self-esteem could save us all somehow went from “crazy California hippie idea” to “idea that swept the nation.” It’s hard to imagine any idea at all having this kind of widespread appeal now, but there were actually a number of factors in the late eighties and early nineties that set the stage for the self-esteem craze. In addition to the general post-hippie desire to believe in the good of everyone, there was a massive crime wave that had swept the nation starting in the sixties, and—at the time—showing no signs of abating. California alone had been forced to build more than a dozen new prisons, and those things don’t come cheap; to fiscal conservative types, the possibility that a comparatively minor investment in boosting self-esteem might reduce crime was too good to resist. It also didn’t hurt that it was the era of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, and equipping children to compete individually in the sort of cut-throat economies they advocated struck many as a necessity.

Meanwhile, the results from the task force’s research proved extremely promising. In 1990, the task force, together with a handful of professors from the University of Southern California, released Toward a State of Self-Esteem, their final report. “Self esteem,” the report claimed, “is the likeliest candidate for a social vaccine, something that empowers us to live responsibly and that inoculates us against the lures of crime, violence, substance abuse, teen pregnancy, chronic welfare dependency, and educational failure.” And, no doubt, it would wash your dishes and mow your lawn as well.

Despite initial skepticism from many on the right and in the center, the report won over nearly everyone. Even people who had publicly mocked the self-esteem movement before, like Bill Clinton and Barbara Bush, became vocal supporters. Soon, more than eighty percent of California schools had implemented self-esteem programs, and schools around the country followed suit. Some schools banned red pens to avoid hurting kids’ feelings; other schools banned jump ropes for fear that tripping would make kids feel bad about themselves. Those much-talked-about participation trophies were handed out at every competition, and accused criminals were given awards just for showing up in court. Banners reading “You are now looking at one of the most special people in the whole wide world!” were hung above mirrors in schools. We were headed toward a brave new world of low crime and high achievement.

Except, that never materialized. Because the whole thing (surprise!) was nonsense.

In 2005—long after everyone had forgotten the self-esteem movement because, 9/11—psychologist Roy Baumeister published an extensive literature review that showed there was just no compelling evidence for the rosy claims of the task force’s original report. (It turned out that Vasconcellos had pushed his co-authors to falsify the data.) While there was something of a weak correlation between self-esteem and achievement in certain cases, it turned out that that the causal relationship there worked in the direction that actually made sense: achievers had a high opinion of themselves because of their accomplishments, not the other way around. And as for crime? It turned out violent criminals were actually more likely than average to have high self-esteem. So, whoops.

Like the punchlines, the Christian morals sort of write themselves here, especially if you’re writing for a website dominated by Calvinists. While people sometimes make bad decisions because they feel bad about themselves, the truth is that people make bad decisions for all sorts of reasons, including because they feel excessively good about themselves. People make bad decisions because they’re people, and if preventing those decisions really were as simple as making them feel good about themselves, we would have solved the problem the second How to Win Friends and Influence People was published. There is no quick fix, and while I know some of you will shout “Jesus!,” Jesus himself portrayed following him as an arduous, demanding process—and, as it happens, not wholly disconnected from exorcising the demon of liking yourself. Stuff like “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” makes this sort of thing pretty clear.

That said, C. S. Lewis hits on an insight in Mere Christianity that I think nearly everyone would benefit from considering. True humility, he writes, “is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.” There’s a sense in which those who love themselves and those who hate themselves are both unhealthily obsessed with the question of how they feel about themselves—which in the grand scheme of things just isn’t all that important. If you’re the most talented, witty, charming person in the world (which—you’re not, because I am), it means nothing if you’re not using what you have to serve God and others. Likewise, even if you’re a talentless, luckless schlub, beating yourself up about that gets you nothing; but you can use whatever you have to serve those in need.

The world will be saved—if it is saved—not by self-love, nor by self-hatred, and not by some arbitrary “happy medium” between the two. It will be saved when we all stop gazing so rapturously into our own navels.

1 Comment

  1. It’s remarkable how many universally accepted ideas turn out to be b.s. One wonders what “truths” we champion today will turn out to be poisonous lies tomorrow.

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