In his wonderful book “The Myth of Self-Esteem” (published in 2005), the great American psychologist Albert Ellis talks about the disadvantages of pursuing self-esteem and why there are better alternatives to feel good about ourselves.
When we hear the words “self-esteem” and “book” in one sentence, we usually think about the self-help section at the bookstore. This is not one of “those” books, however.
In fact, it can be best described as a non-random walk throughout history. In a rather unorthodox way, Albert Ellis examines the great minds of mankind—Nathaniel Branden, Carl Rogers, Jesus, Spinoza, Nietzsche and Dalai Lama, to name a few, and shows how their teachings support the main idea of the book.
Namely — that the pursuit of self-esteem is flawed. Instead, Albert Ellis proposes unconditional acceptance—of ourselves, others and the world—as a better way to feel good and have a fulfilling life.
The reasoning? — Because self-worth is often conditional—on others’ approvals, on our performance, and on success. And when we start basing our self-esteem on various dependencies, we often feel anxious, stressed and unhappy.
However, it would be unfair to state that high confidence doesn’t have any advantages.
“It tends to motivate you to succeed and to win others’ approval. It gives you an interesting, preoccupying game of constantly comparing your “deeds” and your “self” to those other people. It often helps you impress others—which has practical value, in many instances. It may help preserve your life—such as when you strive to make more money, for egoistic reasons, and thus aid your survival by means of money.”
It can, arguably, improve our productivity and achievements, urge self-actualization, drive us to improve and develop. At a cost.
But trying to gain self-esteem has many more disadvantages than perks. It can become an “obsession that tends to pre-empt a large part of your life. You seek status instead of seeking joy. Even when you impress others, you tend to realize that you do so partly by acting and falsifying your talents. You consequently look upon yourself as a phony.”
When we focus on seeking self-worth, we tend to magnify our defects, liabilities and failings. We become overly critical and judgemental, self-centered vs. problem-centered, and hence—unhappier. We focus on the “pseudo-problem of proving yourself instead of finding yourself.” It all may push us into depression, aggression and substance abuse.
In other words, seeking to boost our self-esteem tends to interfere with our life and happiness.
The silver lining, according to Albert Ellis and the great thinkers, whose works he examines throughout the book, is that there is an alternative. Unconditional acceptance, which simply means that “the individual fully and unconditionally accepts herself whether or not she behaves intelligently, correctly, or competently and whether or not other people approve, respect, or love her.”
With low self-esteem, we often evaluate ourselves negatively. If we do something bad, we regard ourselves as bad people. “Blaming or praising yourself, the whole individual, for few of your acts is an unscientific overgeneralization.”
With self-acceptance, if we do something bad, we just understand that we have acted badly. That’s it. No unfavorable judgement. No feeling bad. Hence, no fluctuation in self-worth.
Based on the above presumptions, Albert Ellis introduces his famous Rational Emotive Behavioral Theory (REBT) which “recommends that people better resist the tendency to rate their “self” or “essence” and stick with only rating their deeds, traits, acts, characteristics, and performances.” The distinction between judging our behaviors and rating ourselves makes all the difference in the world.
Therefore, the main principle of REBT is linked to the realization that we don’t really need what we want. If we don’t get what we want, we still will be ok.
So, don’t obsess with self-esteem, as it is a flawed goal, Dr. Ellis tells us, because it is built on dependencies and doesn’t produce the promised outcomes. With unconditional acceptance, however, we focus on mending just the behavior, not “your totality, your you-ness.” And that’s a more constructive way to be happy, fulfilled, less anxious, or just be…you.
Wonderful article. You captured the essence of what Dr. Ellis wrote. Served me as a good reminder when I needed it. Thank you 🙂