Pascal's Pensées: Week 21, The Poison of Self-Esteem


Self love. The nature of self-love and of this human self is to love only self and consider only self. But what is it to do? It cannot prevent the object of its love from being full of faults and wretchedness: it wants to be great and sees that it is small; it wants to be happy and sees that it is wretched; it wants to be perfect and sees that if is full of imperfections; it wants to be the object of love and esteem and sees that its faults deserve only dislike and contempt...


Without God all you have is yourself. So we try to build a foundation of happiness upon ourselves. Trouble is, we're a mess. And we know it. 

In Hunting Magic Eels, in the chapter "The Good Catastrophe," I echo Pascal in describing how the modern pursuit of self-esteem has become a mental health disaster. I write:
Our culture keeps turning us inward, telling us that self-esteem is the pathway to mental health. We’re told that cultivating a healthy self-esteem is critical to emotional well-being. So we try to instill self-esteem in our children, our loved ones, and ourselves, attempting to nurture a healthy self-concept. 

But let me ask you some questions: How’s this working out for you? How healthy is your self-esteem? What about your children and loved ones? How are they feeling about themselves? The data here is pretty clear. While America is the most affluent nation in the history of the world, our rates of anxiety, depression, suicide, and addiction are all skyrocketing. We’re not doing very well. We are a deeply unwell society. 

What’s gone wrong is that the marketed cure is a poison. Our problem is self-esteem. Because at its heart, self-esteem is an evaluation: How am I measuring up? We answer this question in one of two ways. First, we compare ourselves to others...This is why social media is such a curse. Through Facebook and Instagram, we compare our sad lives to the curated images of happiness from our friends, family, and coworkers, triggering massive amounts of envy and dissatisfaction. Our lives don’t measure up. 

Second, when we’re not comparing ourselves to the lives of others, we judge our self-esteem by assessing our performance in meeting our goals and expectations...Self-esteem informs you, emotionally, how successful you have been in reaching the goals you’ve set for your life. If you’re achieving your goals, you feel increased self-esteem. If you’re falling short of the life you want for yourself, you experience lower self-esteem. 

Few of us, though, have the life we’ve desired, planned, or dreamed for, at least not 100 percent of that life. Most of us are living with unfulfilled or even broken dreams. Life hasn’t quite turned out the way we planned, not completely. So we experience all the symptoms of low self-esteem: depression, anxiety, feelings of inadequacy, shame, envy, and resentment. 

Stepping back, it’s really no wonder we’re all so unhealthy and unhappy. We’ve told ourselves that a healthy self-esteem is the surest route to happiness, but self-esteem is rooted in evaluation, comparison, and performance. Linking our psychological health to our ability to compare well to others and succeed has been a complete disaster. Our emotional well-being has become a tragic roller-coaster ride. We feel good about ourselves when things are going well but fall into depression when things are not. We’re up, and then we’re down. Self-esteem isn’t a thermostat, set and steady; it’s a thermometer, rising and falling in response to the events in our lives...It seems pretty clear: self-esteem can never be a stable and durable foundation for joy. If we’re building our happiness on self-esteem, we’re building that house on a foundation of sand.

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply