Lacking in Self-Esteem? Good for You!

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In his lachrymose self-eulogy last week, Senator Robert Torricelli did something quite remarkable. In the space of a relatively brief statement bowing out of the New Jersey Senate race, he managed to use the word I some 99 times. "I want to live life again," he explained. "I want to notice the passing of the seasons ... I even want to notice the aging of my friends and family." It must be a tough life being such a selfless public servant, so busy helping others that you don't even notice that it's fall or that your kids have birthdays. But the Torch was about to put all that behind him. "It is time for me to reclaim my life," he went on. "I have done my duty to my country."

Notice, on top of all those I's, all those my's. There were indeed times in Torricelli's farewell soliloquy when the entire world seemed merely an extension of his own benevolence: "Somewhere today in one of several hospitals in New Jersey, some woman's life is going to be changed because of the mammography centers I've created for thousands of women," Torricelli croaked. "Somewhere all over New Jersey some senior citizen who doesn't even know my name lives in a senior center that I helped build ... That's my life. Don't feel badly for me. I changed people's lives." Swept away in the majestic self-regard of the speech, you might be forgiven for forgetting the reason for Torricelli's withdrawal: he had been severely admonished by his Senate and House colleagues for unethical acceptance of all sorts of perquisites from a wealthy ally and his poll numbers were plummeting. Such details were obscured by the blinding brightness of the man's self-love.


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It was therefore a delicious coincidence that the next day the New York Times ran a story on the fate of the concept of self-esteem. You know what self-esteem is: according to decades of psychological and educational theory, it's the essential building block for a successful life. A few generations of children, especially minority kids, have been educated according to the theory that they lack self-esteem, that this deficiency is central to any problems they may have in making their way in the world and that the worst thing you can ever do to a child is to tell her that she isn't all that.

Well, guess what? Self-esteem isn't all that it's cracked up to be. In fact, as a brief recounting of Bob Torricelli's career would usefully illustrate, it can be a huge part of the problem. New research has found that self-esteem can be just as high among D students, drunk drivers and former Presidents from Arkansas as it is among Nobel laureates, nuns and New York City fire fighters. In fact, according to research performed by Brad Bushman of Iowa State University and Roy Baumeister of Case Western Reserve University, people with high self-esteem can engage in far more antisocial behavior than those with low self-worth. "I think we had a great deal of optimism that high self-esteem would cause all sorts of positive consequences and that if we raised self-esteem, people would do better in life," Baumeister told the Times. "Mostly, the data have not borne that out." Racists, street thugs and school bullies all polled high on the self-esteem charts. And you can see why. If you think you're God's gift, you're particularly offended if other people don't treat you that way. So you lash out or commit crimes or cut ethical corners to reassert your pre-eminence. After all, who are your moral inferiors to suggest that you could be doing something, er, wrong? What do they know?

Self-esteem can also be an educational boomerang. Friends of mine who teach today's college students are constantly complaining about the high self-esteem of their students. When the kids have been told from Day One that they can do no wrong, when every grade in high school is assessed so as to make the kid feel good rather than to give an accurate measure of his work, the student can develop self-worth dangerously unrelated to the objective truth. He can then get deeply offended when he's told he is getting a C grade in college and become demoralized or extremely angry. Weak professors give in to the pressure — hence, grade inflation. Tough professors merely get exhausted trying to bring their students into vague touch with reality.

Of course, in these therapized days, reality can be a touchy subject. It's hard to accept that we may not be the best at something or that we genuinely screwed up or that low self-esteem can sometimes be fully justified. But maintaining a robust self-image while being able to absorb difficult criticism is surely worth the effort. It could lead to all sorts of strange occurrences: kids working harder, adults exercising self-control, thieves experiencing — yes — guilt, even grownup politicians taking full and painful responsibility for their actions and words. It's a pity that Torricelli still doesn't get it. But it's a deeply hopeful sign that the voters of New Jersey did.