Feeling Good (About Yourself)

The Book of Human Emotions: From Ambiguphobia to Umpty - 154 Words from Around the World for How We Feel - Tiffany Watt Smith 2016

Feeling Good (About Yourself)

There were no affirmations in the mirror. Or pep talks, willing yourself to be the best you could possibly be. In the 1890s, when the phrase “self-esteem” was first introduced into the psychological literature, feeling good about yourself was really a question of reconciling yourself to your own inadequacy.

The philosopher and psychologist William James is thought to have been the first person to use the term “self-esteem” and wonder how it might be harnessed. He thought that by giving up our fantasies of great success, and focusing our energies on the things we know are within our grasp (mastering lasagne, or remembering to meet our friends in the pub), we would feel that elusive “lightness about the heart” that comes when we surrender to exactly who we already are. “How pleasant is the day when we give up striving to be young—or slender! Thank God! we say, those illusions are gone,” he proclaimed. A happy side effect might be that we would also feel emboldened to do more in the future, since self-esteem dictates what we “back ourselves to do,” as he put it, but this was a sort of bonus. James summed up his insight in an elegant equation:


The beliefs about our future achievements (pretensions) should more or less match up with what, based on a cold assessment, we are actually capable of doing (success). If the expectations we have of ourselves outweigh our abilities, then we condemn ourselves to a lifetime of inadequacy and dissatisfaction. However, this did not mean that no one should strive for anything ever again: work harder to achieve a greater competency (or success), and you can set your sights on bigger and better goals. For James, then, self-esteem was a careful calibration, a question of checks and balances aimed at ensuring that one’s aspirations and achievements inched along in line with one another.

James’s theory of self-esteem was forgotten about for much of the first part of the twentieth century, since psychologists at that time found the topic of security more pressing (see: COMFORT). But as a result of the interest in positive psychology that emerged in the 1960s, “self-esteem” was revisited by a new generation of researchers. They tentatively suggested there might be a link between feeling good about yourself and behaving in more socially responsible ways. And though there was little hard evidence, the idea caught the eye of politicians. In the late 1980s, a government task force was set up, and by the 1990s schools in California were being urged to offer self-esteem-building activities to their students. These exercises were based on the idea that self-esteem could be artificially inflated using a generalized positive reinforcement. But in the excitement that self-esteem might be the secret to solving all social ills, James’s elegant equation was forgotten. Rather than lowering the children’s pretensions to match their skills, or raising their skills to match their pretensions, self-esteem was made a goal in itself, which then had to be succeeded at. (And those who didn’t succeed—the loners, the “rude,” the easily frustrated or timid—were diagnosed with a further “problem” to contend with: they “lacked self-esteem.”)

In the last ten years, the self-esteem movement has come under attack, in particular by Jean Twenge, a psychologist at the University of San Diego, whose research has shown that attempting to build self-esteem creates not more, but significantly lower levels of CONTENTMENT. An inflated belief in one’s own abilities can result in narcissism and, in turn, the LONELINESS that comes from believing—or feeling you ought to believe—you are “above average” and stand apart from the crowd. Moreover, we might be more likely to feel dissatisfied and confused if we do not manage to meet our inflated expectations. Yet, we are also less likely to meet those expectations when we are poorly equipped to seek help in developing our skills: asking for the mentorship of others requires a certain humility.

Most of all, trying to secure self-esteem might make you feel bad because it is an almost impossibly difficult goal to achieve. Since being rolled out in schools on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1990s, self-esteem has been framed as a kind of permanent attribute, like knowing how to play the piano or being able to speak French. However, for James, feeling good about yourself, though it was something one could work at, was ultimately an “emotion” (specifically: he called it an emotion of the “social self”). He thought self-esteem could never be a permanent state of affairs, but that it waxed and waned. Some days we might feel optimistic and capable (“yes, I NAILED that lasagne!”). And on others, when every attempt we’ve made in our work or private life has crumbled, utterly hopeless. Seeing self-esteem as a fluctuating emotion rather than an accomplishment in its own right, then, might relieve us of the burden of yet another impossible task to measure up to. Give up on achieving self-esteem, and you might just find you feel much better (about yourself) as a result.