The Cult of Self-Esteem

There is an elephant in the self-esteem living room.  It has been there so long that many of us consider it a fixture but the truth is, elephants don’t belong in the house.  We need to show it the door and before we do that, we have to name it. 

My name for this elephant is Cult:  An obsessive devotion or veneration for a principle or ideal.  For the last 30 years hundreds of therapists, counselors, authors, T.V. hosts and motivational experts have convinced us (the general public) that our emotional and physical health, our relationships and our overall success in life is dependant on one thing: High Self-Esteem. 

Like innocent lambs and wolves without wisdom, we have offered ourselves up for sacrifice in the many rituals of the Cult of Self-Esteem.  Above all we have sought to increase our self-esteem and thus be more like the self-appointed saints of the movement.  Yet if the nasty truth be told, that elephant has left a smelly mess in the living room. 

Here is an incredibly honest quote from one of the best elephant identifiers I know.  His name is James Hollis and the quote comes from his book Creating A Life. 

“What we call self-esteem is a relative matter.  We are supposed to have high self-esteem, and if we do not we feel inadequate.  Most of us look at others and admire not only their accomplishments but also their presumed higher position on the self-esteem ladder.  Personally, I do not have high self-esteem, and I do not know a single person who does.”

I pride myself on being a person who is rarely shocked however, I have to admit that Hollis’ last statement stunned me for a moment.  Not because it wasn’t true and not because I didn’t know it.  I was stunned by his honesty.  You see I know James Hollis.  We are not close friends but I have had personal contact with him in seminars and a one day small group event.  He is a highly respected Jungian analyst and author and here he is admitting to his own elephant.  I have to love him for that.

“Personally, I do not have high self-esteem, and I do not know a single person who does.”  Amazing, the kind of amazing that indicates one (me in this case) has just heard someone cut through a whole pile of BS with a simple statement of what is real.  But Hollis just doesn’t stop there.  He goes on.

“Perhaps this self-esteem business is over rated (now I am standing up and applauding).  A person with high self-esteem is often one with a narcissistic personality disorder whose whole persona is devoted to hiding from others his or her secret emptiness. (I could name names here, but you already know them.  You buy their books, watch their TV shows and go to their seminars.  You know who they are.  Now back to the quote.)

“Anyone with a modicum of consciousness and a mild dollop of integrity will be able to enumerate a very long list of screw-ups,  short-comings, betrayals, moments of cowardice and generalized incompetence.  Anything less than a very long list suggests either an undeveloped awareness or an act of great self-deception.” 

Hollis is definitely right about me.  I could easily make a long list of my screw-ups.  Yes, I could also make an equally long list of my attributes and accomplishments but I cannot and will not disappear, deny or avoid my dark side. 

What am I saying?  I’m saying that self-esteem is not what it is cracked up to be.  Almost nobody has high self-esteem.  Some people might appear that way but most, if not all of them, are actually narcissists dressed up in their Sunday best.  Inside, behind the mask, they are as messed up as the rest of us.

What else am I saying?  I’m saying that there are values, attitudes and ideals that are far more important and powerful than self-esteem.  We would do well to seek them, to commit ourselves to them and make them a part of our daily life and work.  What are they?  I will get to that in a moment. 

I’m not saying that self-esteem is a bad thing.  I’m saying that we have become far too obsessed with it and thus have given it almost a Divine status.  Then we suffer and feel more inadequate when we look in the mirror of self-reflection and admit that on the cult-scale of self-esteem we are still only at a 3 or a 4.  Does that mean our life is screwed?  Does that mean we will never have success or love or meaningful weight loss or even get into Heaven?  No, it means none of this.  But many of us devoted cult members certainly believed it. 

So today we begin the process of naming the elephant.  Once he is out of the living room we can begin to replace him with those values and ideals I promised to describe for you.  What are they? 

We would be far better off in this life if we turned our energy towards a search for personal meaning and purpose, vocation and calling, creative expression and contributing/giving to others.  Self-esteem, like happiness, may eventually be a derivative of this search but it certainly cannot be our primary goal. 

One more quote from Hollis, same book.

“So, accepting ones failings and limitations seems to constitute the most modest level of conscious endeavor.  If one is busy pursuing what needs to be pursued, is interested in something worthy, and finding it all getting more and more interesting, than one has scant time to brood on the pseudo-issue of self-esteem.  Boredom points to a bankruptcy of imagination.  The excessive pre-occupation of one’s self....denotes a poverty of priority.”

I suppose you can see already why you haven’t heard of James Hollis.  An Oprah candidate he is not.  However, he is sharing a powerful truth from us and we can learn from it.  Let’s take a look at this together. 

What is it that needs to be pursued?  I mean in you.  What is it in you that draws you?

What is something that is both very interesting and very worthy that calls you, daily, nightly, consistently?  How would your life, and especially your focus changed if you answered the call?  Would you possibly discover as James Hollis is so emphatically asserting, that you have become so involved with your passion and your purpose that you simply forgot that sometimes you really don’t like yourself?  What do you think about that? 

I want to be very clear about something at this point.  Most of us have real wounds related to our past that need our attention.  Sometimes those wounds are so intense and deep that they do need our attention, at least to some degree, before we can get on with the business of purpose and meaning.  I am not suggesting that you use the idea of seeking your personal purpose and meaning as a way to avoid or deny your real pain.  Actually I am suggesting, along with James Hollis, that you take the hard road, it may be the hardest road there is but I see little alternative. 

I am suggesting that you do both.  This means face your pain and attend to your healing and at the same time throw yourself fully and completely into something purposeful and worthy.  There you may discover a paradox that doing this with consciousness causes your pain to support your purpose and your purpose to help heal your pain. 

I want to say that again.  There you may discover a paradox that doing this with consciousness causes your pain to support your purpose and your purpose to help heal your pain. 

Since the name and the theme of my show is Spirituality For Grown Ups I want to share one more perspective on this topic.  This idea of paradox.  This idea of standing between the tension of two apparent opposites, your wound and it’s pain on one side and your life’s purpose and work on the other, is an idea and an approach to life and to spirituality that requires the kind of courage that is only available to a grown up. 

The pre-adolescent and the teenager in you will not be able to face life this way.  They have neither the depth nor the breadth for it.  This is the path of crucifixion.  It is not for children.  It is very difficult to stand up and hold your wound in one hand and your purpose in the other but it seems to be the only path to redemption and finally resurrection. 

If you become myopically and narcissistically obsessed with the pursuit of self-esteem, you will never see the path that will lead you to your true self.  Therefore, I invite you today to open yourself to a new possibility and a new level of consciousness and courage.  I invite you to take hold, as uncomfortable as it may be, of your wound and at the same time grasp firmly your life’s passion and purpose.  God knows what will happen after that.



Matthew Anderson, D.Min.

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