Self-esteem versus Self-respect

An interesting article sent to me by George: Theodore Dalrymple on Self-Esteem vs. Self-Respect.

In the essay Dalrymple criticizes the modern fetish with "self-esteem" which Dalrymple considers to be a form of egotism. His opening:

With the coyness of someone revealing a bizarre sexual taste, my patients would often say to me, "Doctor, I think I'm suffering from low self-esteem." This, they believed, was at the root of their problem, whatever it was, for there is hardly any undesirable behavior or experience that has not been attributed, in the press and on the air, in books and in private conversations, to low self-esteem, from eating too much to mass murder.

Self-esteem is, of course, a term in the modern lexicon of psychobabble, and psychobabble is itself the verbal expression of self-absorption without self-examination. The former is a pleasurable vice, the latter a painful discipline. An accomplished psychobabbler can talk for hours about himself without revealing anything.
In place of self-esteem Dalrymple calls for self-respect which, in his mind, is inherently social and other-focused:
Self-respect is another quality entirely. Where self-esteem is entirely egotistical, requiring that the world should pay court to oneself whatever oneself happens to be like or do, and demands nothing of the person who wants it, self-respect is a social virtue, a discipline, that requires an awareness of and sensitivity to the feelings of others. It requires an ability and willingness to put oneself in someone else's place; it requires dignity and fortitude, and not always taking the line of least resistance.
To illustrate this, Dalrymple considers how we might pay more attention to how we dress:
The small matter of cleaning one's shoes, for example, is not one of vanity alone, though of course it can be carried on to the point of vanity and even obsession and fetish. It is, rather, a discipline and a small sign that one is prepared to go to some trouble for the good opinion and satisfaction of others. It is a recognition that one lives in a social world. That is why total informality of dress is a sign of advancing egotism.

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4 thoughts on “Self-esteem versus Self-respect”

  1. That of course depends on the society one is living in. In many, polishing one's shoes IS the line of least resistance, and if a person is only doing it because of others' expectations, then is it a matter of self-respect or something else entirely?

    I don't think I agree with Dalrymple's definition of self-respect (or self-esteem for that matter) at all. To me, self-respect is what allows me to hold my head up and stand firm in what I believe, despite the court of public opinion, whether my shoes are shined or not ;)

  2. "That is why total informality of dress is a sign of advancing egotism."

    Is it?

    Personally I find most "appropriate" styles of clothing slightly pretentious. How is a business meeting helped by business casual? In fact, how is day-to-day office work helped by it? Is it somehow supposed to signify that we're 'serious' and 'grown-up' about our work enough to dress the part? I can't come up with a reason that doesn't involve appeal to tradition. I'm not arguing for tattered concert shirts and jeans, just a little more leeway for most settings.

    On self-esteem: it took me about 27 years to realize that lacking in self-esteem results in a feedback loop where people respect you less, so you respect yourself less. Others pick up on this. If you lack this sort of dumb confidence then you're seen as weak. It is pretty screwed up. You can either play these social games, or you lose.

    It also took me quite a while to realize that social settings in church follow these exact same rules. But that's another discussion.

  3. I liked this article and the comments. I wonder if when Jesus said "love your neighbor as yourself" if that doesn't give the right balance of the social aspect of self-respect. It puts the motive for our actions in the right place.


  4. This distinction reminds me of Kant's statement that the truly "Enlightened" person must both "think for themselves" and also "think from the perspective of others". I also recall several places where Kant writes that egoism has an important connection to metal health issues.

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