A June 2019 Vice magazine online article entitled “The pursuit of High Self Esteem is Making us Miserable” mentions that the term “self-esteem” comes from 1890, but the theory that it could be tied to success in life dates to 1969. The article adds that the modern “self-esteem movement” truly began with a task force in California in 1986 and grew from there. The promoting of self-esteem assumed that better self-esteem in society would help solve social problems like poor student performance, drug abuse, and even child abuse.
I recall being bombarded by the self-esteem message beginning in junior-high and was skeptical even at the time. Newly hired puppet wielding therapists told us students that we were entitled to respect and how we should have a sense of inherent self-worth. The message was well intended of course, yet there was no basis for it because it required no value or achievement from us. Self-betterment, character development, and humility were ignored in favor of entitlement to self-esteem. Over the next couple decades our country even saw the “participation trophy” find its way into youth sports. Ultimately, society wanted to eliminate losing and the resulting sad emotions. The Vice article mentions that our culture still “puts an exaggerated amount of emphasis on self-esteem itself.” A phenomenon called “self-handicapping” now occurs wherein many people sabotage themselves, make excuses, or otherwise avoid challenging situations. Their motivation being that when a person fails at something it creates low self-esteem, which is intolerable to that individual and hence challenges are avoided. This is learned helplessness, and some of us parents might be further perpetuating it still.
A December 2011 article in Psychology Today magazine entitled “The Gift of Failure”, is a gut punch to parents. Writer Steve Baskin says parents seeking to protect their kids from pain, disappointment, and difficult experiences end up fighting their kids' battles. This robs children of their struggle and consequently the development of resilience they need to function when they grow into adults. I suspect the people we view as successful have overcome many challenges and failures in their past. Sadly, helicopter parents and snowplow parents ultimately cause their kids to be less capable by clearing the challenges from their kids’ path. Baskin adds, “confidence comes from competence - we do not bestow it as a gift.”
By the late 90s and early 2000s researchers were finding that self-esteem does not actually lead to success. Not many listened and nearly twenty years later self-esteem is normalized into the fabric of our culture where it continues to cause damage. Self-confidence is generally low; people do not want to risk failure yet simultaneously desire reassurance and acknowledgement regularly. We end up with the “approval seeking” that is stereotypically considered an issue with millennials, yet I see it as more widespread. Dr. Jordan Peterson says that “failure is the price we pay for standards”. Having standards, societal or personal, means sometimes we will come up short. Our feelings might get hurt but it is vital that we get tougher and move past the mediocre.
We can learn new behaviors; invest in the 2013 book Evolution by actor Joe Manganiello (the werewolf character from the True Blood HBO series). It is a virtual bible of masculine badassery. Manganiello has a strong clear message about embracing failure, overcoming setbacks, and “why potential sucks”. His philosophies on discipline of diet, physical training, and self-development are truly inspiring, a little intimidating, but completely actionable.
It seems the population overall has little interest in those philosophies and is interested more in embracing personal mediocrity. Perhaps as a result of the self-esteem movement some even resent or are threatened by those that perform at a higher level. To feel better, people often use the self-delusional stance that driven individuals have some sort of genetic or financial advantage while they themselves are somehow at a disadvantage. My observation of the self-esteem phenomenon is that it has socialist or communist aspects; nobody “should” be a loser, consequently nobody can be a winner either.
Of course, in real life we cannot deny there are winners, so we are envious of the successful and make excuses as to why we ourselves are not. This is protecting the sensitive ego. People want to think highly of themselves, so create some weird justifications. Folks tend to believe that so long as they are not behaving arrogantly, then they themselves have no ego. Naturally, along with that comes the judgmental thinking that those who exhibit self-confidence and are successful are somehow egomaniacs and must be scorned by those without it. Perhaps the self-esteem movement fostered this confusion.
Buddhism, Jungian philosophy, and users of psychedelics use the term ego-loss or ego death when examining the human ego; each has extremely valid perspectives on the topic that could fill a separate book. For the sake of this simple writing, we can likely agree that in everyday society the term ego usually has a negative connotation. I appreciate author Jack Donovan’s observation that typically we use ego “as a synonym for arrogance, hubris, narcissism”. Instead, he suggests that “you have a healthy ego which is confident but open to criticism and the possibility of acknowledging error or room for improvement”. Damn, that sounds like confidence and personal accountability to me and nothing like socialist self-esteem. He adds that it would be wise to consider who exactly wants you to not have an ego; how they would benefit from that circumstance.
I also agree with Donovan that the ego is in fact the “self” and for true self-improvement to manifest we must first think highly enough of ourselves to want to become “more” and “better”. We then begin to take action to bring it into reality. When a man subjects himself to the process, he will become more decisive, choose self-reliance over helplessness, and gain confidence. Author Steven Pressfield, the writer of numerous books including Gates of Fire, The War of Art, and The Warrior Ethos, makes a similar point as a guest on the Art of Manliness podcast number 692. Pressfield articulates how necessary it is for a person to be strong and overcome resistance, particularly as a risk-taking creative person. He says that artists and entrepreneurs “need a warrior mindset or an ego mindset” in order to take on the world and bring their vision into reality.
Andy Frisella, entrepreneur and host of the Real AF podcast, nails this same idea on episode 97. Frisella says the world will reward people that embrace adversity. It will not do so with those that follow the social expectation that one must not excel too much or experience a level of success that makes others uncomfortable by comparison. Because of the prevalence of this expectation, he says guys tend to “humble themselves to death”. Because we do not want to stand out too much and risk ridicule or embarrassment, we self-handicap to maintain our “humble” persona. Frisella goes on to explain how those around us may actively try to hold us back or otherwise try to keep us from performing confidently. This is the “crab pot” social phenomenon wherein we strive upward, yet others will attempt to “pull us back down”. He adds that you must not let others keep you from believing in yourself.
Believing in oneself can go hand in hand with a degree of humility. Men can both seek to improve themselves while at the same time recognize their insignificance in the universe. I insist that men can greatly improve the quality of their lives by…making it happen. And damn right we will also develop ego, confidence, and leadership skills. Let no one hold you back.
Be sure to check out the Ethos of Men Podcast wherever you source your podcasts. The Ethos of Men book series is available on Amazon and Audible too. More content can be found at ethosofmen.com