Accentuate the Negative?

  Lawyers for a man accused of taking part in a triple- murder had his defense all ready: They planned to say that twenty-two-year-old Darwin Godoy had a defective personality. He suffers from low self-esteem. This is just another example of how deeply the self- esteem movement has infiltrated our culture. But according to a prominent psychologist, there's no real evidence that self-esteem, or lack thereof, has any such impact on behavior. Paul Vitz is the distinguished author of the book Psychology as Religion: The Cult of Self-Worship. Low self-esteem, he says, has been blamed for everything from drug abuse, to teen pregnancy, to murder. Self- esteem programs have deeply infiltrated our schools, where educators believe that if they can just raise the self-esteem of our kids high enough, their problems will go away. So, teachers tell students (over and over again) how important and special they are. And the curriculum reinforces this sugar-coated message. Students are told to say and write positive things about themselves. The only problem is, it doesn't work. Self-esteem, Vitz says, is "a complex notion, defined and measured in many different and ambiguous ways." But no matter how you define it, the evidence does not support the idea that high self-esteem, by itself, benefits anything. In fact, psychologists often find that an inferiority complex is a much greater motivator for high achievement. Gloria Steinem, for example, a high-achieving leaders of the feminist movement, freely admits that she suffers from low self-esteem. But self-doubt didn't slow her down any more than it has slowed others who've achieved success. And then there's the study that compared mathematical skills of children from different countries. As reported in the national media, the kids who ranked the highest -- the Koreans -- scored lowest in self- esteem, while the kids who scored highest in self- esteem -- the Americans -- ranked lowest in math skills. Clearly, all those self-esteem lessons didn't help the American kids add and subtract better. The fact is, the best ways to raise self-esteem is through genuine accomplishment. That's because, according to Vitz, self-esteem is "primarily an emotional response to what we have done, and to what others have done to us." If you want to feel good about yourself, Vitz writes, then "Do good to others and accomplish something for yourself." As Christians, we ought to have a high sense of self- worth, because we know God made us in his image, and sent his own Son to die in order to save us. Worth, or self-respect is one thing, but the self- esteem movement is something altogether different. It promotes self-worship. It teaches that, unless we love ourselves, we will be unhappy. But this assumes, Vitz warns, that God will not love us as we need to be loved. It's a form of "practical atheism" -- and can lead to some sobering consequences. As Samuel Johnson once said, "He that overvalues himself will undervalue others, and he who undervalues others will suppress them." We need to be wary of the phony praise choruses that come from the self-esteem movement. Remember, our talents and abilities come from God -- and it was Christ himself who taught us, "Blessed are the meek" [Matthew 5:5]. For further reference: Vitz, Paul. Psychology as Religion: The Cult of Self- Worship. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1994.


Chuck Colson


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