“On Self-Esteem vs. Self-Respect”
“One has only to go into a prison, or at least a prison of the kind in which I used to work, to see the most revoltingly high self-esteem among a group of people (the young thugs) who had brought nothing but misery to those around them, largely because they conceived of themselves as so important that they could do no wrong. For them, their whim was law, which was precisely as it should be considering who they were in their own estimate. 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. . . When people speak of their low self-esteem, they imply two things: first, that it is a physiological fact, rather like low hemoglobin, and second, that they have a right to more of it. What they seek, if you like, is a transfusion of self-esteem, given (curiously enough) by others; and once they have it, the quality of their lives will improve as the night succeeds the day. For the record, I never had a patient who complained of having too much self-esteem, and who therefore asked for a reduction. Self-esteem, it appears, is like money or health: you can’t have too much of it.
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. Here I hope I will be forgiven for obtruding a little autobiography by way of illustration. For many years I believed that how a man dressed was unimportant; it was the man within that counted, not the man without. My belief excused me for being myself rather scruffily dressed, which was very easy and convenient for me in terms of effort required. But I now think that I was mistaken, for it does not follow from the fact that outward appearance is not all-important that it is of no importance at all. 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. Self-respect requires fortitude, one of the cardinal virtues; self-esteem encourages emotional incontinence that, while not actually itself a cardinal sin, is certainly a vice, and a very unattractive one. Self-respect and self-esteem are as different as depth and shallowness.