How the Cult of Self-Esteem Produces Fuck Ups

A professional model, not quite a supermodel but aspires to become one, dumps her boyfriend.  He’s a good guy, has a good job, is good looking. His cock is large enough, he’s just kinky enough, no premature ejack issues. Cool parents and siblings, no douchebag friends, no troubling mental health issues. He’s the sort of guy who gets women to battle royale each other.

Why did she dump him? Pick:

a) He criticized her looks too often.
b)  He complimented her looks too often.
c) She’s an arrogant, narcissistic bitch.

Think about it.  We’ll get back to this later.  Open a bottle if you’re nervous.  I’m probably already ahead of you. Cheers.

Quotes From Those Most Consider Supremely Confident and Successful

Will Smith:  “I still doubt myself every single day. What people believe is my self-confidence is actually my reaction to fear.”

John Lennon: “Part of me suspects that I’m a loser, and the other part of me thinks I’m God Almighty.”

Meryl Streep:You think, ‘Why would anyone want to see me again in a movie?’ And I don’t know how to act anyway, so why am I doing this?”

Maya Angelou:I have written eleven books, but each time I think, ‘Uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.’”

“Whaaaat,” some are thinking. What’s with the low self-esteem?  “How can…if I were…” Hold that thought. And don’t project, other people are NOT you and you’re not them.

Defining Self-Esteem and Self-Confidence

Don’t confuse self-esteem with self-confidence, even if too many psychologists conflate the two.  If you do, you won’t be able to understand what’s going on above. Self-esteem is one’s PERCEPTION and ASSESSMENT of oneself, eg. I’m smart, I’m good looking, I’m a dumbass, I’m repulsive.  Self-confidence is one’s FAITH in one’s ability to achieve something, eg. I’ll hit 50 home runs, I can make the cover of Vogue, I can beat the shit out of that motherfucker, I’ll find the cure to cancer.

Prevailing assumption is that one must have high self-esteem in order to to have high self-confidence. One must think highly of oneself — “I’m brilliant! — in order to find the cure for cancer.  Concomitant assumption is that those with low self-esteem will be failures and are prone to violence, drug abuse, etc. Such assumptions make it tempting to conflate self-esteem with self-confidence.

Self-esteem is rooted in one’s perception of one’s environment.  An All-State basketball player who didn’t receive D-I scholarship offers may consider himself not very good at basketball because he compares himself to D-I players.  The best basketball player on a last place high school team may consider himself a great basketball player because he only compares himself to his teammates.

Self-confidence is primarily built on achievement in a competitive environment.  Like MVP of NBA. Perfect MCAT scores. An Academy Award.  The more objective the assessment of one’s ability, the higher its value and effect on confidence level.  (Academy Award, for instance, is partially a subjective assessment of ability).

Self-Esteem Movement

Some claim Ayn Rand’s boytoy, Nathaniel Branden (of all people), started the self-esteem movement back in 1969. Whatever, who cares.  Point is, the theory that one must have high self-esteem in order to have the confidence to achieve socially acceptable goals began to gain currency in academic circles sometime around that year. Theory mostly circulates in the academy for a decade, where it’s refined, debated, and pushed (and tested) on eager and impressionable undergrads. Some who, ten years after graduation, began to wield socio-cultural influence, perhaps as journalists, teachers, PTA moms.

Who was listening? Champagne socialists aside, it’s those who looked up to college grads.  That is, those who didn’t go to college but wanted so badly their kids to do so. They thought they were getting the inside scoop on how to get ahead even though it would’ve worked out better if son had taken over plumbing business that pays $120,000 a year instead of getting a bullshit degree from a bullshit college.  Cult of self-esteem grows as Oprah and Glamour mainstream the feel good message to the aspirational working and middle-class by growing and  feeding their narcissism. Different sort of narcissism, as Machiavellianism is so passe in post-industrial America.  This is narcissism by repression, projection, and ironic contradiction. Kids are taught to repress fundamental emotions such as fear and anger. Feeling hate?  Project project project, “it’s not me, it’s him, I’m all love,” rationalizes the kid robbed of his lunch money. And what better way to bolster the ego than community service? “I am special and should be admired because today, I volunteered my time to help people,” she thinks as she rolls a spliff and begins four hours worth of daydreaming about her glamorous future and picking up as many “Likes” on Facebook as she needs to feel good about herself.

Tenets of Self-Esteem Movement

1. Be nice.  Don’t hurt anyone’s feelings.
2. Focus on what one’s good at instead of struggling with the unfamiliar.
3. Everyone is special, everyone is a winner
4. You can do and become whatever you want.  Whatever you want (echo-o-o-o).
5. Avoid stress and pressure to maximize performance.
6. When stressed or hurt, talk about your feelings.

How the narcissist understands these tenets:

1. Don’t hurt my feelings by pointing out my fuck ups. And I’ll do the same for you.  Deal?
2. I’m allowed to avoid reality, to not think about my fuck ups and how to fix them.
3. I should avoid situations that make me look like a loser.
4. Let me daydream and delay the inevitable realization that there are limits and achievement requires extraordinary time and effort, for which I’m not prepared.
5. Heaven on Earth is possible, the blissful life.  It’s ok to live life as a series of escapes.
6. It’s socially acceptable to live inside one’s head, and to not be responsible for one’s feelings.

Self-Esteem and the Bizarre

Teen boy comes in.  His parents are the types who continually remind him that “you can do whatever you want, you can be whatever you want.” Places order.  I begin small talk.  He’s a big boy so I ask: “you play football?”  His response: “Nah.  Football coach thinks it’s a waste of my physical attributes.  But whatever.  I can do whatever I want. I can do whatever I want.”

Ok.  I understand.  Kumar (of Harold and Kumar) points out that just because one has a big dick doesn’t mean one should become a porn star.  That’s fine, I get it.  Then it gets weird.

“What sports do you do?”


“Which events?”

“Pole vault.”

“Aren’t you kinda big for that?”

He has three options.  He can tell me that I’m wrong, that he has the ideal body for such an event and explain why that’s the case; or I’m right and he’s an outlier. Third option is what he chose: “I can do whatever I want, man.  I can do whatever I want.”

Someone tell me that I’m not the only one with the urge to knock this kid out cold and lock him in a dungeon until Stockholm Syndrome sets in for life. This was a bizarre and scary exchange. Total disregard of what’s best for the team. Completely focused on what the self wants. Imagine his future:

Detective: Why did you think it was ok to forcibly stick your cock in that girl’s mouth?

Boy: I can do whatever I want, I can do whatever I want.

Detective: I bet you can.  And Uncle Shirley can do whatever he wants, whenever he wants too.  I can’t wait for you to meet him.

What Kids Hear
Parent says: You can be whatever you want.
Kid hears: I will be seen as squandering my special talents and powers if I don’t achieve greatness. I’m not prepared for this kind of pressure. I need to start searching for excuses.

Parent says: You can do whatever you want.
Kids hears: Who cares about the wants and needs of others.

Parent says: You did a great job, great effort kiddo.
Kids hears: Not really, but I guess I’ll take it.  Thanks.

Kids who are talked to in this way are more likely to become envious, narcissistic adults who need non-stop praise and affirmation to stave off depression and anxiety.  Alternatives:

Parent: You can reach your goals if you put in appropriate amount of time and effort.
Kid hears: I’m responsible for my achievements. I decide my place in society.

Parent: You’re free to make your own mistakes.  Learn from them.
Kid hears: There are consequences to every one of my actions and I’m responsible for them.

Parents: You need to work on that more if you want to get better.
Kid hears: I’m not that good, but I can get better.

First kid will think he’s great and KNOWs he’s not that good.  Second kid thinks he sucks but KNOWS he can do better.  Big difference.  Beginning to see how someone as accomplished as Will Smith can act confident yet be so insecure? First kid will make excuses when he fails or only hang out with acolytes who praise him, feeding him bullshit bullshit bullshit so he grows up to rely on bullshit sandwiches (compliment followed by criticism followed by compliment) to get through work.  Second kid will seek criticism, and screw the praise, that’s a waste of time. There are standards to meet, visions to realize, and that’s all that matters in life.

“I tried my best, I did and gave everything I could,” parents tell me.  No you did not.  I was there, I saw it. I watched you fuck up your kid in your own fucked up way — the needless coddling, the glib praise, the undeserved gifts, the lame excuses, the anxious cheers.  You’re not a cheerleader, you’re a parent, you’re the coach.  So parent and coach. Cheerleaders cheer, coaches teach and berate and motivate. Watch how the best coaches treat their players. Jim Calhoun, Bobby Knight, Jim Harbaugh: these motherfuckers scared the shit out of their kids and every single one of them is better for it. That’s how you’re supposed to treat your kids. That’s how you win a championship.

Why is Self-Esteem Movement So Attractive? 

It promises great results with little work. Takes effort to qualify a loaded statement like “you can be whatever you want.”  Takes even more effort to put such a statement in action: showing them what it takes, how it’s done, by putting in the work yourself.  Takes extraordinary effort to stay up with them through the night as they practice practice practice until your eyes are bloodshot and they get it right.  Stop telling them how much you love them — that’s a cop out —  love requires ACTION, love is an act, not a feeling.  Words are meaningless, people want acts of love, not bromides. No wonder glib slogans are more appealing. Allows parents to feign work and deflect blame when their kids turn into fuck ups.

The self-esteem movement promises Heaven on Earth.  As with all attempts at making utopia happen on earth, the consequences are disastrous.  Studies are showing: more violence, more depression, more envy, more anxiety, not less.  Less achievement, less happiness, less self-confidence, less motivation, not more.  Good news is that the Atlantic Monthly reading and NPR listening demographic has figured this out because their media sources have been telling them “reverse course reverse course we fucked up” for the past 10 years (see Atlantic Monthly on Cult of Self-Esteem).  But how long will it take for the Cosmo and People mag reading demo to figure it out? Is it too late for them and their progeny, are they destined to a lifetime of bullshit sandwiches?

What Makes People Go Batshit Crazy?  

People go crazy when their sense of self is at odds with other people’s perceptions of themselves.  Bridget thinks she’s gorgeous.  Because all her friends tell her so on Facebook. Mom and Dad too.  Now lock her in a building full of Vogue cover models and make Anna Wintour (real-life Devil Meets Prada) her boss.  Let’s see if she can last two months.  She either emerges batshit crazy or a better person.

Put differently, dissonance between self-esteem and “reality” makes someone batshit crazy.  That’s why the person who thinks he’s “oh so smart” avoids putting himself in situations that’ll make him look stupid. Or the person who thinks she’s funny and never notices that she’s the only one laughing at her self-described “sarcastic wit” (whatever is being taught in English class, just stop stop stop it) will never have the courage to do stand-up on comedy night. People seek spaces and people who confirm their sense of self, their identity. And tend to avoid those who challenge their self-esteem.  It’s no wonder that those who invite and give criticism are the executives, while those who can’t take it are managed staff, fed a steady diet of bullshit sandwiches to keep their fragile sense of self intact.

How to Treat a Model

Let’s return to the model who dumps her boyfriend.  Which response did you pick?

I think she dumped him because he complimented her looks too often.  Guys, if you want to date a model, NEVER tell them how gorgeous they are. And not because she hears it all the time from those whose standards she disregards. Think about it, why did she become a model? Because she’s tall and gorgeous?  Plenty of women out there like that who don’t become models, or try and fail.  No, she becomes a model because she was insecure about her looks during her teen years.  Perhaps schoolmates made fun of her lanky frame, hollowed cheeks, and buggy eyes.  She grew accustomed to the criticism, desired it because it confirms her sense of reality, that she’s not good looking.  As she grew up and filled out and became what most consider beautiful, she stopped getting the criticism she desired.  That’s why she became a *successful* model, so some gay guy can pinch her thighs and tell her how fat and ugly she is, so she can be surrounded by people better than her. Her job confirms her reality.  Her boyfriend didn’t.  So she dumped him and went to work.

Supermodels are supermodels because they’re never satisfied with their looks, NOT because they think they’re gorgeous.

When parents give their kids a reality — Heaven on Earth — that will never exist, they’re giving pharma drug companies a few more customers. Kids can live their unreality for only so long before they’re forced to accept that Santa doesn’t exist; Lassie will die; Grandma is the tooth fairy; Grandpa watches barely legal porn; Mom’s fucking her trainer; Dad sucked boyfriend’s dick.  That she’s not as smart, pretty, and funny as she and her friends and family think she is.  The ones prepared for reality will be able to change it.  Those unprepared will be left confused, helpless, and crushed. That’s reality.

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