Best of 2023: The Crisis of Self-Esteem
Last week, I counted down the top stories of the year. This week, I’ll be posting a few highlights from 2023—some of my favorite articles that I wrote this year that I would like to bring back to your attention.
Below is an article from January 20 addressing the nature of self-esteem—and the widespread misconceptions about it.
I would also like to recommend to your attention to my review at Discourse of Tim Sandefur’s book Freedom’s Furies: How Isabel Paterson, Rose Wilder Lane, and Ayn Rand Found Liberty in an Age of Darkness. I found it especially interesting as a look at a world with different political alignments and cultural associations than what we are used to today.
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Over the past decade or so, a mix of shameless self-aggrandizement and self-confident charm has served certain people extraordinarily well, turning them into venture-capital darlings, licensed-merchandise magnates, Forbes cover models, social media superstars, Oprah confessors, business-conference keynoters, new-money plutocrats and, in one case, president. Elon Musk, Sam Bankman-Fried, Ye (né Kanye West), Elizabeth Holmes, Meghan Markle, Donald Trump: All of them used attention as currency and ego as fuel, and were rewarded, for a time, with what they craved. We’re drawn to people who love themselves.
Weiss probably got the most attention because she included in her list the attention-seeking Duchess of Sussex, thus getting swept into the maelstrom of the Great Harry and Meghan Culture War. But other articles sounded similar themes with many other examples.
I don’t think the compulsive attention-seeker is anything new. We will always hear a lot about these people because they do whatever it takes to make sure we hear about them. But it certainly seems as if many of these characters have come crashing down to earth recently, exposing the gap between their delusions of grandeur and reality.
Yet what really caught my attention was the crucial error in the common interpretation of this phenomenon. Do these compulsive attention-seekers actually “love themselves”? Because it seems obvious to me that their whole problem is that they don’t.
We are experiencing a crisis of self-esteem, all right, and part of the crisis is that people can’t tell the difference between too much self-esteem and too little.
Echoes of Narcissus
I am not a psychiatrist, and if I were, I wouldn’t violate the Goldwater Rule and start trying to diagnose public figures from a distance. Yet whether or not they meet the clinical criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder, there are plenty of examples of narcissism in the ordinary public understanding of the word.
“Narcissism” is a term that came into widespread use in the early 20th Century, derived from the ancient myth of Narcissus, an exceptionally good-looking young man who is punished for his arrogance by being cursed to fall in love with his own reflection. That’s the key to what we mean by the word. The narcissist isn’t in love with his self so much as he is with his image—crucially, his image in the eyes of others.
Consider the Mayo Clinic’s description of the characteristics of the narcissist, which hinges on an “unreasonably high sense of their own importance.” Notice the word “unreasonable.” What fuels the narcissist is not a sense of his own importance, but the contrast between an internal desire for importance and what he fears to be the actual reality. To make up for this gap between wish and reality, narcissists “need and seek too much attention and want people to admire them.” But “behind this mask of extreme confidence, they are not sure of their self-worth and are easily upset by the slightest criticism.”
Hence the signature characteristics of the narcissist: a neurotic need for flattery, a “constant quest for eyeballs and acclaim,” and a touchy, thin-skinned response to criticism. As Weiss puts it, “They go to great lengths to protect and defend their egos.” But doesn’t that say it all? To obsess over protecting and defending one’s ego is to confess its fragility.
As a very good overview of narcissism in Psychology Today puts it, “Despite having a seemingly strong personality, narcissists lack a core self. Their self-image and thinking and behavior are other-oriented in order to stabilize and validate their self-esteem and fragile, fragmented self.”
Twitter’s Main Character
Self-esteem is a term so widely abused and encrusted with dubious pop psychology that it is worth taking a step back to ask what it actually means. It means a positive evaluation of one’s self in one’s own eyes and by one’s own standards.
Think what it would mean to be OK with your self in this way. It would mean that you survey who you are—your choices, your preferences, your habits, your actions, your accomplishments—and you like what you see. This does not have to mean that you are perfect and have never made any mistakes, which is an unrealistically high standard. It means that you regard yourself as being capable of meeting your own standards, and that you do so far more often than not.
But to hold this evaluation of yourself would imply a kind of confident, self-contained satisfaction which is the opposite of the restless neediness of the narcissist.
It is natural to take some account of the views of others, to want recognition for what you think is good about yourself, to feel the sting of criticism, and occasionally to ask yourself, AITA? But ultimately you have to rely on your own best judgment, and it is frequently important to have the courage to stick to what you think is right in the face of disapproval from your peers.
But what if you let self-doubt consume you? What if you felt the need for constant reassurance that you really are worthwhile, in answer to a gnawing feeling in the pit of your stomach that maybe you aren’t? Well, you would do what the narcissist does. You would constantly seek out other people’s praise and approval. Failing that, you would want at least to be the constant center of everyone’s attention—and you would spend countless hours on social media seeking that out.
Consider the most baffling cases of all, the high-functioning narcissists. These are people like Musk and West who can claim some genuine and significant achievements—West’s music is not my cup of tea, to say the least, but it is highly regarded among the people who like that sort of thing—yet somehow this is still not enough. Being able to say “I started a company that launches rockets into space” is not a sufficient foundation for self-esteem and has to be supplemented by making oneself the main character on Twitter every day. It is a compulsion that can only be explained by the need to fill some deep hole in one’s psyche.
And of course, these high-status narcissists encourage many imitators. Young people, especially young men, take the neurotic posturing of these public figures as if they are examples of real self-esteem and attempt to seek a sense of meaning and importance in the same manner. And then the commentators and magazine writers come along to tell them they are right.
But these behaviors are proof, not of excessive self-regard, but of a frantic overcompensation for self-doubt.
Who Stole Self-Esteem?
How did this become our prevailing conception of “self-esteem”? By precisely this same process of overcompensation for self-loathing. Years ago, I came across a fascinating profile of the man chiefly responsible for the modern fad of “self-esteem” education. California lawmaker John Vasconcellos foisted these programs on the state’s public schools, setting off a global fad, because he was engaged in his own personal psychodrama of rebellion against Catholic guilt, an upbringing in which “I’d been drilled never to use the word ‘I’, never to think or speak well of myself.”
His answer to this was to embrace a crudely popularized version of the theories of a psychologist who held that self-esteem is achieved through “unconditional positive regard” from others—i.e., precisely the narcissist’s backward concept of self-esteem. In practice, this meant an approach to education that showered children with positive affirmations and shielded them from any criticism, with the result that their actual educational achievement plummeted. Ironically, but not surprisingly, this leads to lower self-esteem.
This approach to self-esteem was pretty effectively parodied years ago by comedian (and future senator) Al Franken, in the character of the 12-step program addict Stuart Smalley. The more fervently he stared into the mirror and proclaimed, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me,” the more pathetically it was driven home that he didn’t really believe it.
There is another, very different tradition on this issue, one in which self-esteem is regarded as crucially important—how could it not be?—but where it is recognized that genuine pride can only be developed through hard work and real achievement, not empty affirmations. Ayn Rand placed self-esteem as one of the “supreme values” of her philosophy, though she warned that “no value is higher than self-esteem, but you’ve invested it in counterfeit securities.”
In one of the essays collected in The Virtue of Selfishness, one of Ayn Rand’s followers, the psychiatrist Nathaniel Branden, explained it this way:
Self-esteem is not a value that, once achieved, is maintained automatically thereafter; like every other human value, including life itself, it can be maintained only by action. Self-esteem, the basic conviction that one is competent to live, can be maintained only so long as one is engaged in a process of growth, only so long as one is committed to the task of increasing one's efficacy.
More to the point, Ayn Rand offered a very different artistic vision of what self-esteem means in actual practice. In her breakout novel, The Fountainhead, her hero is a man with no need for flattery at all and a certain placid indifference to what the rest of the world thinks of him. He has no “ego” to be stroked in the conventional, superficial sense, but this is only because he has so much ego—so well-defined a self and so much confidence in his own ideas—that he has no neurotic need for validation from others.
This should put the current worry about “narcissism” in perspective. The failure to properly understand self-esteem is a crucial contributor to many of our other problems, from the supposed “meaning crisis” to the crisis of masculinity—which, when you think about it, is really just self-esteem for guys.
This crisis is not about excessive self-esteem, but about too little. More deeply, it is about the need to understand what self-esteem is—and isn’t—in the first place.