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Self-esteem for all

Natalie Moreno
/
Flickr

You won’t need to be reminded, I’m sure, that February is International Boost Your Self-Esteem Month, when we are encouraged to raise our morale, and to inspire ourselves and others to seize new challenges.

Personally, I haven’t caught up with the old challenges yet, and I don’t think that my morale needs boosting. I have just exactly as much morale as I need to get through the day, with nothing left over for luxuries like preening myself. If there is one thing in the world that we don’t need more of, it’s self-esteem.

The daily news is full of politicians and entertainers who are bursting with it. This is annoying of course, but also potentially dangerous. That’s why we have many negative words to describe self-esteem: pride (one of the seven deadly sins, along with gluttony, avarice and sloth); egotism; narcissism; smugness; conceit; vanity; vainglory; and of course hubris. They all lead to trouble, because they are all based on a mistake.

Most of us, once we grow up, know ourselves too well to be tricked into self-admiration. We hear about the “problem” of young people who lack self-esteem. But if they haven’t done anything or achieved anything, their low self-esteem is completely appropriate.

Anyway, they keep it well hidden: many young people seem to assume that they are the masters of the universe. They have been fed self-esteem like candy from an early age, and they have forgotten or were never told that it must be justified somehow, some time. That’s why tests and exams and unexpected challenges are so stressful. They are almost guaranteed to undermine our fragile self-esteem.

The ghost of Sigmund Freud hovers over this debate. He made a distinction between self-esteem and self-control, which he called the ego and the superego. A correspondent in The New York Times, P.M.Formi, expressed the distinction rather well: “Excessive self-esteem is a sort of drunkenness of the self. Self-control is our inner designated driver.”

What we need is an objective measure of self-esteem so that we could have it checked, like blood pressure. Zero would represent too much humility and self-depreciation, and a hundred would indicate a dangerous level of monomania, right up there in the Mara Largo range. The doctor will tell you that a moderate dose of embarrassment and humiliation every day is necessary to keep the rampant ego in balance.

Eventually, we may discover a medication for persistent high self-esteem, just as we have for high blood pressure. Meanwhile here are some emergency measures. You can get some perspective on yourself from the new James Webb space telescope, which has revealed fifty billion more galaxies out there, each one of which contain hundreds of millions of stars, and is hundreds of millions of light years across, which is more than the entire length of the New Jersey Turnpike.

If the contemplation of the universe doesn’t put you in your place, try reading a college physics textbook, or The Idiots Guide to Windows 11. If even this fails, get some cats. You can’t have both self-esteem and cats.

At least it’s only a month, and six days have already gone by. We need to admire ourselves for only 22 more days. Then we can all get real.

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.