Self esteem is a
false promise. The cult of self-esteem is due to our fear of the relentless
dictates of public opinion.
We are addicted to
public opinion and self-esteem. Those are the first cravings we must break.
Public opinion is always variable. We will remain vulnerable as long as we
listen to its voice. We don’t overeat, get into debt, smoke or do anything else
because of a lack of self-esteem. Self-esteem is not a goal: it is a result.
We don’t need
better self-esteem, we need to reject society’s judgments and standards and not
to rely on the crutch of low self-esteem to excuse everything we believe is
wrong about us. Once we learn to ignore the misguided dictates of the culture of
self-esteem, once we learn to shut them out, we begin to cultivate some
wholeheartedly an entire set of rules that are not forced on you by your
government or by anyone else. You unquestioningly adhere to many ideas that you
follow scrupulously, even blindly. Some of this conformity is harmless, but some
of it eats away your personal freedom by asking you to march, lockstep, to the
rhythm of the same repetitive theme, in your quest for the same impossible
ideal. And no ideal is more corrupting than the misguided notion of self-esteem
as a cure-all.
The quest for
self-esteem has be-come the dictatorship under which many of us live. The gods
of self-esteem offer a host of false promises, and their apostles have
effectively spread the word: miracles do exist.
And self-esteem has
become the free world's late-twentieth-century miracle. Because with it, you no
longer need to take responsibility for your actions. The cult of self-esteem
eliminates the necessity for responsible behavior.
Like an essential
vitamin or mineral missing in a person's bloodstream, the apostles of this false
god propagate the notion that all anyone needs to cure any problem—craving or
addiction, emotional or physical—is a shot of self-esteem.
Eager to find a
scapegoat for their problems, longing for an understanding of what drives them
to self-defeating behavior, or unwilling to face reality, worshipers venerate
the cult of self-esteem. This cult says that if you have a lack of self-esteem,
your sins are excused.
any cult, is a false god, as false as the promises it offers its followers; as
false as the excuses and alibis used by its adherents to explain away their
self-defeating behavior. The religion of self-esteem doesn't offer —it
offers the status quo.
The Soviet Union
had the KGB to enforce the rules the politburo designed. In the West, public
opinion is the enforcer. It is the secret police that patrols your self-imposed
prison of addictions and cravings, and it is the army that commands you to obey
military is feared, it is because of its potential power and its willingness to
fight. It is the same with the army of public opinion. Its authority is based on
the power that conformity and "group-think" has over all of us. And we all know
just how eager public opinion—a.k.a. "everybody" or "they"—is to enlist us.
Anger the army of public opinion, and you will be excluded from the group.
But your fear is
misplaced. Public opinion cannot ostracize you. In fact, public opinion has no
real authority over you whatsoever. Its power is an illusion—just as the power
of the Soviet state proved to be an illusion once the people challenged it. Once
you rise against public opinion, it will crumble.
One of the weapons
of the army of public opinion is its insistence on your accepting unrealistic
expectations about yourself. By imposing false ideals and impossible standards,
public opinion fortifies the cult of self-esteem.
Let me show you how
this insidious pattern develops. By providing you with impossible goals, public
opinion, makes it all too easy to feel defeated and thus achieve nothing at all.
Then, public opinion makes it a snap to return to your bad habits and
For example, after
learning about the success or the glamour or the achievements of someone you
know or even a total stranger, you may tell yourself: "My life will never live
up to my expectations. I'll never be like that, or I'll never have this, or be
able to do that. In fact, what's the point of ever changing, since I'll always
be found wanting. So I have good reason to binge or smoke or whatever. At least
I enjoy that."
You can also see
how that creates fertile territory for scapegoating and how it gives you license
to indulge in all sorts of terrible behavior. You can see how unrealistic goals
lead back into our old friend self-esteem. It's the perfect excuse! This is how
the army of public opinion keeps you locked in the oppressive world of
addictions and cravings.
combination can create a prison that is entirely self-imposed. If you listen to
the propaganda, if you fall under the spell of these ruling passions, you can
become trapped in a prison of the self, a prison you have built yourself, brick
This prison may not
be as visible as the armed guards who patrolled the borders of the Soviet Union.
But it seems just as secure.
You don’t have to
accept the daily barrage of propaganda. Yes, it is easy to allow yourself to be
controlled by public opinion and become devoted followers of the cult of
If you are one of
those who are held in its grip, in order to free yourself from the vise-like
hold it has over your life, you must have a plan. Vital to this plan is
recognizing that the essential ingredient of conventional wisdom is an
unblinking acceptance of the dogma of self-esteem. It is the god we are all
asked to serve.
Self-esteem is not
the powerful, life-enhancing elixir it's cracked up to be. It is not an
essential nutrient. It is not a requirement for success. Rather, it is the
result of success. Feeling entitled to self-esteem takes away all the discipline
we have to use to actually earn it.
In order to break
free of the prison of addictions and cravings, you need to mobilize all your
powers. To do this you must free yourself first from the tyranny of public
opinion and say good-bye to the gods of self-esteem.
Let me give you a
perfect example of the absurd but tyrannical power public opinion holds in our
society and how it helps to fortify the cult of self-esteem.
I read in a
magazine article that, for example, 26 million American people who have diplomas
from high school don't know how to read or write. I once spoke to a
schoolteacher in America about this, asking her, "You give diplomas to
twenty-six million idiots who after twelve years in school can't read or write!
How can this happen?"
She explained it
this way: "If you pass the whole class from one grade together, and one guy has
to stay a second year, and some-times another year, because he's stupid or lazy,
he'll lose self-esteem."
marvelous! "Are you saying," I asked the teacher, "that this means that it's
better to have twenty-six million complete idiots with self-esteem, than to
have twenty-six million well-educated people without?"
She nodded, "Yes.
American public opinion says that it's better."
"Then that American
way is stupid," I said.
Now don't get me
wrong. I have nothing against self-esteem. But it seems to me that self-esteem
doesn't exist by itself. Self-esteem is not like blue eyes or blond hair. Unlike
the gene that determines whether you're dark or fair, tall or short, there is no
gene for self-esteem.
You are not born
with a reserve of self-esteem. Self-esteem must be earned. If you do everything
well, you get self-esteem. If you do everything terribly, you're not supposed to
get it. Self-esteem is the result of living well—not the prerequisite.
Let me give you
another example. When I watch television—which admittedly is not often, but when
I do—I experience the feeling of a person who's arrived here from another
planet, not just from another country. I can see why so many people are so
easily confused and unable to break free of their addictions and cravings. I can
also understand why they offer the same excuses or rationales for behavior that
they know is bad for their health.
become a cliche. It has become an international mantra, chanted a hundred times
a day in the media. Self-esteem is confirmed daily as the prerequisite for
success in the popular wisdom spun out by the daytime talk shows. It is
worshiped by millions of devoted followers of what passes for self-help books.
It is the hidden message in commercials as well as made-for-TV movies.
sparkling windows? Signs of healthy self-esteem. Teenagers dabbling with drugs
o promiscuous sex? Lack of self-esteem.
The armies of
popular opinion are everywhere, selling it like a miracle drug. This notion has
been greedily lapped up by people starving for an explanation for their
problems. Whatever the problem – be it overeating or smoking, emotional or
physical, bad behavior or downright criminality – the diagnosis is the same:
armies of public opinion are clever. They know just how to feed that hunger for
an explanation. But, like the empty calories consumed by the junk-food addict,
public opinion on feeds a hungry public empty promises. And the result? People
remain imprisoned, manacled to their addiction.
The popular wisdom
goes even further. It proclaims that self-indulgent behavior – smoking,
overeating, and even abusive behavior, behavior that hurts not only yourself but
others – is easily explainable.
because of the damage wrought by an unloving parent or the injury inflicted by
an over-adoring one, the cause is the same: lack of self-esteem. Whethr you
endured the trauma of being lost among too many siblings or the terror of being
an only child, whether you are unable to fear anger, or suffer the consuming
rage of feeling too much of it, the problem is – quite simply – a lack of
self-esteem. A little more self-esteem and – poof! – everything’s solved.
We don’t want to
hear anything unpleasant, even from a teacher, or a doctor. We don’t want to
hear about discipline and self-control. We don’t want to recognize the fact that
WE are the only ones with control over our own lives. In short, we don’t want to
be self-disciplined. This attitude restricts our power over our own lives. This
way of thinking keeps us imprisoned – feeling powerless, but blameless.
yourself to live under the dictatorship of self-esteem. It can destroy you in
the end. Don’t use low self-esteem for behavior that is obviously dangerous to
your health. Accept that you are responsible for your misery, not low
self-esteem. I repeat: self-esteem is not a goal: it is a result.
The past is gone.
It’s history. If you continue to talk about the past, or your low self-esteem,
you will end up with no future worth speaking of. People don’t b benefit from
being infantilized and indulged. They can never solve their problems that way.
Neither the love
you lacked in the past nor the love you miss in you current life has anything to
do with your miseries of today. But if you tell yourself a story, you’ll soon
believe it. So if you tell yourself that it’s old pains – the scar tissue of
past emotional injuries – that give you stress and cravings (for food, drugs,
alcohol, shopping, money, jewelery, travel, whatever), you will believe it. And
you will stay locked in your prison.
If you tell
yourself that your stress is the source of all your pain, you will believe it
and that will become the target of your blame. My point is: neither past nor
present emotional pain or stress means you are doomed to whatever you don’t
happen to like in your life today.
Break out of the
prison of public opinion and self-esteem. Discipline and self-control need to be
worked at, but they always produce worthwhile results.