Nathaniel Branden's first book, The Psychology of Self-Esteem, was published in 1969. In the quarter century since then, "self-esteem" has become trendy, particularly among educators; and in the process, it has inevitably been trivialized. Branden's new book on the subject sets out the difference between real self-esteem and the "feel-good" approach which attempts to substitute for it.
The key elements of self-esteem, Branden tells us, are self-efficacy, which is "a sense of basic confidence in the face of life's challenges," and self-respect, "a sense of being worthy of happiness." It is not an emotion which fluctuates from moment to moment, but a continuing disposition to experience a sense of efficacy and respect for oneself. Thus, it is something which is built over a long period of time, not just wished into existence. It is reality-based; undeserved praise, whether it comes from oneself or others, will not provide it.
He lists six practices or "pillars" on which self-esteem can be built: living consciously, self-acceptance, self-responsibility, self-assertiveness, living purposefully, and personal integrity. Some of these are comparatively easy to grasp; it isn't hard to see that responsibility, integrity, assertiveness, and purpose are necessary to self-esteem. "Living consciously" is more subtle; Branden explains it as being in a mental state appropriate to performing one's current activity responsibly. He summarizes self-acceptance as "my refusal to be in an adversarial relationship to myself." It is distinguished from uncritical approval of all one's feelings or desires: "I may not be in the mood to work today; I can acknowledge my feelings, experience them, accept them -- and then go to work."
The one really weak chapter in the book is "The Philosophy of Self-Esteem." What Branden gives us is nothing more than an outlined list of ideas, with no organization or derivation. Philosophy, perhaps more than any other area of thought, cannot be adequately discussed simply by listing ideas. Branden did a far better job in The Psychology of Self-Esteem of laying the philosophical foundations of psychology, probably because he was on speaking terms with Ayn Rand during most of its writing.
The chapters discussing the applications of these ideas to various areas of life are much more satisfying. Branden's consistent theme is the development of personal responsibility. In discussing the schools, he contrasts the responsible student with the obedient one. In discussing work, he stresses the need for creative, independent thought at all levels. "We have reached a moment in history," he states, "when self-esteem, which has always been a supremely important psychological need, has also become a supremely important economic need -- the attribute imperative for adaptiveness to an increasingly complex, challenging, and competitive world."
The idea of self-esteem deserves better than the pathetic idea that it requires freedom from failure or the offensive one that it derives from the achievements of other people in one's ethnic group. If honest people in the self-esteem movement read Branden's book, they may begin to direct their efforts in a more meaningful way.
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