Guest blogger: Belinda Drummond
‘The Big Ego Trip’ by Glynn Harrison traces the origins and history of self-esteem over the past century. Harrison is an experienced psychiatrist and Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry at Bristol University. He applies this knowledge of secular psychology to critique research into self-esteem. The book also offers some insightful gospel-centred alternatives to how how we view ourselves. In a series of blog posts, Belinda Drummond will discuss some of Harrison’s helpful analyses and findings.
William James was the first to use the term ‘self-esteem’ in his writings during the early twentieth century. James defined self-esteem as an individual’s assessment of himself or herself according to the ratio of achievement to expectation. The more achievements line up with dreams, the better people feel about themselves. Since the advent of the modern self-esteem movement in the 1960s various different definitions of self-esteem have been offered including: how much an individual likes him or herself, how significant an individual feels, and how much an individual believes in him or herself. Modern research programmes have agreed, however, that self-esteem is a define-able entity, that it is rate-able as ‘high’ or ‘low’, and that its level affects an individual’s everyday life.
The concept of self-esteem has become a powerful force in many disciplines, but most notably within psychology (the science of mind, thought and behaviour). In fact, since the term self-esteem was first explored within experimental psychology in the 1960s, over 23,000 academic publications on the topic have been written. Self-esteem is a popular research area, and is now among the top three most studied research topics in the whole of social psychology (p. 41). Findings of research in the 1970s and 1980s suggested that there was a link between low self-esteem and a myriad of negative outcomes: educational failure, panic attacks, anxiety, depression, anorexia, behavioural problems, poor social adjustment and poor relationship building. As a result of this research evidence, the US and UK governments commissioned programmes in schools, hospitals, mental health authorities and prisons to improve self-esteem. These programmes aimed to inoculate against, and even cure, the negative outcomes associated with low self-esteem by teaching strategies to increase it.
Glynn Harrison explores the trickle-down impact that the findings of self-esteem research has had on relational dynamics over the past half-century. Half a century ago, if someone complained about feeling down, a response would have been along the lines of: ‘Don’t think about yourself so much … think about other people … you’ll never get anywhere by contemplating your own navel.’ Today this has been replaced with lines like: ‘You need to believe in yourself more … stop thinking about others and love yourself more … build up your self-esteem’ (pp. 15-16). Harrison argues that people have changed the way they interact within relationships and the way they informally advise one another in conversations, and that this is because self-esteem is such a dominant concept. Society as a whole runs on the assumption that we need to massage one another’s self-esteem in order to keep each other happy and healthy.
Harrison’s conclusion is powerful: that self-esteem as a concept has great power over society both directly through the government’s interventions, and indirectly through societal pressures.
The next blog post will explore the history of self-esteem. In the meantime you can watch Glynn Harrison himself talk about The Big Ego Trip …