You Can’t Lie Your Way to Self-Esteem

Most people assume that self-esteem is a very important thing; they’re right about that. Most people assume the definition of self-esteem is “feeling good about oneself;” they’re wrong about that.

Evaluating self-esteem by feelings alone is kind of like evaluating personal happiness by drug or alcohol intake. “I feel lighter, happier, less burdened when I’m drunk [or stoned.] Therefore, I’m happier.”

It’s pretty obvious to most people that a drunken or stoned state, while leading to a false or exaggerated state of happiness, is not happiness itself. But it’s not nearly so obvious that a state of merely “feeling good about oneself” fails to meet the standard of self-respect.

Case in point:

I worried about my son’s inability to read. He seemed far behind other second-graders. When I brought my concerns to his teacher, she brushed my fears aside. ”He is the highest in his reading group.” With her assurance, sprinkled with condescension that hinted education is best left to professionals, my parental instincts were put aside. After all, what parent argues with a teacher who insists a mother should be proud of her child’s hard work and dedication?

Imagine my surprise when at the end of the year, the decision was made to hold the boy back and repeat the grade. The reason? You guessed it–-reading. When I pushed-back, reminding Mrs. Professional educator of her own words of assurance, she added one small detail previously left out. He was indeed at the top of his reading group–-the lowest group in the class.

When he reached the top, she did not advance him to the next level for fear of hurting his self-esteem. He would no longer be the top dog. He would be at the bottom in the new group–-with better readers. He would have to struggle to climb back to the top. For this reason alone, the preservation of the boy’s self-esteem, that he was not pushed to the next reading level.  [Excerpt from, Rhonda Robinson, 4/16/14]

In this example, the teacher lied to the parent. It was arguably the worst kind of lie: the half-truth. The parent naturally felt manipulated, deceived and betrayed.

When applied to oneself, this sort of self-deceit or rationalization is just as bad. For example, one can have a mistaken standard of self-esteem, implicitly and without realizing it. “Others like me. So I must be a good person.” So what if others like you? For what reasons do they like you? Do you even know? Are those standards objectively provable as valid? Do facts back those standards up? What do you think of those standards?

This is why feelings alone cannot determine your self-esteem. If the reasoning behind those feelings of “goodness” about yourself are mistaken or vague, then you really have pseudo-self-esteem, not the real thing. Your esteem about yourself must be based on facts of reality and conclusions of which you are actually convinced. Once convinced, the opinions of others (positive or negative) won’t matter nearly as much, or even not at all.

Educators have been sucked into this false theory, as this example shows. They think they’re helping a child by lying to him. Think about how insulting and offensive this is. Naturally the parent in this example is outraged. But it’s even worse for the child. The child has been duped into underperforming, all for the sake of his feelings. Now what kind of message is that? What business does anyone have being surprised or puzzled when, several years down the road, the adolescent or young adult person this child grows into becomes anxiety-laden, depressed, substance-abusing or otherwise attempting to shut down his consciousness and psyche?

As adults, I think anyone would be offended if someone told you a half-truth (i.e., a lie) and then later justified it by claiming, “I was doing it to spare your feelings.” This adds massive insult to injury. Not only did the person lie to you (which is something nobody likes, not even liars); the person made a decision about what’s best for you based on false assumptions or standards you had no role in choosing.

I recognize that adults sometimes make decisions on a child’s behalf, because a child does not yet have the capacity or understanding to make those decisions on his or her own. But to lower the bar on expectations for one of the most important skills a child can learn — reading, which is the single most important avenue for thinking — is one of the worst things a teacher can do. It’s like declaring war on a child’s mind. The smugness with which some teachers do it only makes it worse.

Self-esteem isn’t a feeling, at least not fundamentally. Self-esteem is more of a rationally-based conviction. It’s a conviction based on a mind’s observable conclusion that one is both fit for, and deserving of rewards in, reality. You can’t lie your way to it.

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