What the Heck is Self-Esteem, Anyway?

A fellow psychotherapist writes, “I am wondering what your thoughts are with regard to famous cognitive psychotherapist Albert Ellis and his expressed hostility toward the concept of self-esteem, at least as he understands (or misunderstands) the term. As a psychologist, I make good use of many aspects of Ellis’ REBT [Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy]; however, I find his attacks on self-esteem distracting and an unwelcome deviation from his otherwise sober approach.”

For some clues, let’s examine some quotes of Albert Ellis on the subject of self-esteem:

“REBT attempts to help humans eliminate all self-ratings and views self-esteem as a self-defeating concept that encourages them to make conditional evaluations of self. Instead, it teaches people unconditional self-acceptance.”

And: “Is self-esteem a sickness? That’s according to the way you define it. In the usual way it is defined by people and by psychologists, I’d say that it is probably the greatest emotional disturbance known to man and woman.” He goes on to write, “This, perhaps, goes to show that conditional self-esteem, as I have said for many years, is an insidious, real sickness, so much so that even Buddhists carelessly sneak it in and sometimes encourage their clients to achieve it.”

Clearly, Ellis equates self-esteem with mistaken or distorted value judgments one has about oneself. It sounds like it’s standards he’s against. All standards; on principle. According to this line of thinking, if you expect something of yourself, you have automatically put a condition on your self-worth. Instead, you ought to value and love yourself “just because,” without any conditions whatsoever. Ellis assumes here that all standards and conditions are, by definition, unreasonable. Such an assumption is, in itself, a slap at your self-esteem. You might as well be saying or thinking, “Who am I to have standards? Who am I to think that I can live up to some kind of improvement, skill development or moral principle that I seek to uphold?”

Albert Ellis claimed to be a champion of rationality and rational living. Indeed, many of his approaches to psychotherapy and psychology uphold this very principle. He contributed some excellent thinking and approaches to psychotherapy, and deserves a lot of credit. But when he rejects self-esteem on principle – as automatically conditional and therefore automatically destructive – he’s throwing reason out the window.

You don’t have to throw reason out the window when developing standards. You can determine reasonable and rational standards of conduct and achievement in a given area of life. You can hypothesize and see what you’re capable of, and you can look to other people for information and even inspiration. Standards are part of life. Setting standards rationally and conscientiously not only gives you something to do; it gives you a sense of purpose, a whole reason for living.

Ellis seems adrift from any objective definition of self-esteem. He’s simply saying that making your happiness or self-worth conditional on any particular standard or achievement is automatically and always bad. But what if you define self-esteem as a sense of fitness for living? In possession of self-esteem you can tell yourself, for example, “I am fit for living, I have a mind, I can think, I can take intelligent action to further my life and I deserve to do this.” Would the noted therapist and author take issue with this? I don’t think he necessarily would.

As I said, his whole approach to psychology and therapy seems based on the principle and standard of reason. To identify your beliefs as true or false presupposes that you have the capacity to think, judge, conclude and identify. Implicit in the very action of doing cognitive therapy or any introspection of this kind is the premise, “I am fit to think, I am fit to draw objective and true conclusions.” Ultimately, at the root of cognitive therapy is the premise, “I am fit to live, I can alter my emotions, I deserve to be happy.”

Perhaps Ellis would say, “You shouldn’t put conditions on your self-worth.” For example, you shouldn’t say, “Until I attain my degree in chemistry, I’m not worthwhile.” Or, “Until I find my mate, I’m not worthwhile.” Or, “Until I own my own house, I’m not worthwhile.” These sorts of conditions are erroneous. Their error lies in tying your fitness for life and existence to consequences which can possibly come from exercising that fitness.

In other words, it’s mistaken to say, “I’m not fit for life until I do or have such-and-such.” But it is right to say, “I know how to think, I can use my knowledge to improve my thinking, and I can use my knowledge and thinking to continuously improve in life.”

You’re not saying that your fitness for living depends on something. You’re saying that you’re already fit for life and existence, because you know how to think and you’re willing to continuously exercise that virtue throughout life.

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