Bursting the Self-Esteem Bubble once and for all? Glynn Harrison on a Big Ego Trip
It’s easy to forget the psychobabble jargon that is now so part of everyday parlance had its origins in serious academic discourse. It’s pretty obvious when you stop to think about it, because all terms, metaphors and concepts must have their origins somewhere. It only takes a few decades or even years before what starts confined to the lecture room ends up on the street (whether the discipline be philosophy, theology, or psychology). What is scary is how many of the psychological assumptions that we take for granted today are built on such flimsy foundations. That is the main thrust of the first half of Glynn Harrison‘s important new book, The Big Ego Trip.
In summary, the situation that modern western culture finds itself in is the result of decades of a rather devastating experiment:
We overdosed on self-admiration, and, as a result, the self-esteem movement gained a powerful foothold in the Western mind, and reshaped secular and Christian cultures alike. (p18)
If low self-esteem is people’s basic problem, then the solution is obvious:
Low self-esteem came to be seen as everybody’s problem and then linked with a wide range of psychological and social issues. And so… as a result, ‘boosterism’ was born. If low self-esteem formed in early life is the problem, then boosting self-esteem must be the solution. Thus the idea was born that everybody, everywhere, will benefit from a liberal dose of self-admiration. (p37)
However, the reality calls the project into question at almost every turn, from diagnosis to prognosis and therapy. This is what seems to fascinates and appal Harrison in equal measure – and well it should. The first 2/3rds of the book, or so, explore the prevailing theories and expose their many flaws. It is finely and well argued, with what I might call a polite feistiness. He has an academic’s grasp of the subject and all its key contributors (he is Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry at Bristol) and a pastor’s passionate compassion for the vulnerable. It is this combination (it seems to me) that makes this such a compelling and important read.
Flawed Before It Began
To take one example, here is his response to Carl Rogers’ humanistic assumptions behind how to help people become more themselves.
These are staggering assertions. Why should our human potential be inherently disposed towards good? Where is the evidence that the process of acceptance itself somehow unlocks to the change for the better? This isn’t science; it’s philosophy. As an article of faith, we may choose to believe that humans are in some way intrinsically patterned towards goodness, but there is little in the way of plausible evidence in scientific psychology to support such an assertion. And there is plenty of evidence in human history for believing otherwise. In his cogent analysis of the movement, the author and psychologist Paul Vitz called this ‘psychology as religion.’ (p46)
Nevertheless, the influence of this approach is extraordinary – on both sides of the Atlantic. It affects education theory and politics in particular, with the result that whole programmes are reoriented on its foundations. Hence:
The key was prevention, delivered as early and as effectively as possible. So the California Task Force invented the concept of a ‘social vaccine’, in which boosterism would be delivered through systematic educational intervention. (p55)
We know of the results: “everyone’s a winner” approaches to school life, which as a friend pointed out today as we were chatting fools everyone except for the children themselves. The pecking-order mentality is far deeply ingrained. But after decades of this, what’s the result? After extensive, exhaustive even, research which draws from as much of the self-esteem findings around the world as possible, the author’s comment is telling:
By the 1980s children’s self-esteem was also taking a sharp turn upwards. Increasingly, kids were agreeing with statements such as ‘I’m easy to like’ and ‘I always do the right thing.’ Despite escalating divorce rates and family breakdown, the average child in the mid-1990s had higher self-esteem than 73% of kids in 1979. So, despite continuing social instability, why did children’s self-esteem increase so dramatically during the 1980s and 1990s? Twenge’s answer is simple: therapeutic education and the rise of the self-esteem curriculum. And her conclusion overall? ‘Today’s young Americans are more confident, assertive, entitled – and more miserable than ever before.’ (p61 my highlights)
This is borne out in all kinds of places – not least, in the movies (which hold a telling mirror up to society, as all arts do at their best):
So has the self-esteem movement produced a generation of unhappy twenty- and thirty- somethings? There are plausible reasons for thinking that this might be the case. The Tyler Durden character int he film Fight Club was onto something when he said, ‘Our generation has had no Great Depression, no Great War. Depression is our lives… We were raised on television to believe that we’d all be millionaires, movie gods, rock stars, but we won’t. And we’re starting to figure that out.’ (p95)
Pervasive in the Church
Inevitably, western churches are by no means immune from prevailing trends. Harrison has some nice, if chilling, turns of phrase to describe hwat has happened.
We no longer wanted to sing, ‘Tell me the old, old story’ but rather, ‘Let me tell you my story!’…
Forget ‘we are weak but he is strong’; now you could get the T-shirt: ‘I may be little, but to God I’m big stuff!’ (p67)
I was particularly struck by the observation that a lot of the mega-churches (primarily but not exclusively in the States) which base their appeal on this sort of culture inevitably struggle to challenge it.
[Twenge and Campbell]’s central point is that successful churches ‘connect’ with people’s narcissism, but then attempt to draw them into something larger than themselves, back into a religious worldview: ‘This odd bit of alchemy – taking narcissism and trying to turn it into altruism – is at the heart of much modern religion.’ (p71)
Ben Barnes as Dorian Gray in the 2009 film
Escaping the quagmire
If one had to sum up the main thrust of Harrison’s argument is that the only alternative to the onion-layered-peeling of self-esteem therapy is to find our identity, value and purpose externally. It must be (and can only be) derived – ultimately from divine grace (a point that Jenell Williams Paris makes so well on a different issue). This enables us to escape the torment of globalised evaluations of ourselves. So if I’m good (or bad) at kicking a ball, I don’t need to draw globalised conclusions about my whole being. I’m not a brilliant person just because I’m handsome/intelligent/sporty/rich/powerful (delete as appropriate), nor am I a rubbish person if I’m not one of these things.
What I particularly found helpful though was his honesty, realism and compassion – he won’t allow us to paper over our sin and hide behind platitudes (For example “The simplistic blandishments of boosterism can be an ally in the hardening of conscience.” p147). However, he fortunately has little time with those who see all psychological problems as being entirely down to sin and idolatry (as seems to be the case in some circles). He is clear that people are sinned against, or what he describes as “These kinds of experiences are about living in a fallen world, rather than sinning in a fallen world.” (p143) Nevertheless, we need care:
So it’s crucially important to distinguish our sin from the sin done to us. In these situations, people need the time and space to talk through their experiences, feel the anger and rebuild a realistic sense of self.
Even in these situations, however, pride can soon make an appearance in the way that we deal with, or respond to, the sin done to us. There may be a refusal, for example, to become who God calls us to be and what he designed us to be. This doesn’t diminish the culpability of those who may have inflicted harm on our psychological development, but it does insist that there is a place of responsibility for the way in which respond to the sin done to us.
Although pride isn’t a direct cause of all human psychological suffering, it isn’t hard to find it lurking even in the most damaged human heart. (p145)
Above all, the key is to see that we are “guests of a greater reality” (p159), which is a wonderful, rich phrase (and I note is the title of his blog). Seeing how John the Baptist had thoroughly grasped this in his own life and ministry is very telling (pp 192-3). For it is from God, our creator and redeemer that we derive our meaning and value. This helps us to think less about ourselves and more about Him and others – or in Tim Keller’s lovely phrase ‘to think about ourselves less’. And at the very end there are some very useful ways in which we can “dispute” with our own thinking so that we grow out of the old habits of unhelpful self-esteem-pampering.
This is important book – readable and accessible, but scholarly enough (as far as I can tell from my layman’s perspective) to give to thoughtful counsellors and educationalists (for example), whether Christians or not. Parents should certainly invest in a copy. But I think it is most useful for anyone who is serious about growing in godly maturity despite our self-obsessed culture. It will be painful to swim against this stream for all kinds of reasons. But it is only once we begin to tackle this in ourselves that we’ll ever be able to obey the gospel’s cross-shaped call to be a self-denying rather than self-satisfying people.