Of course that’s a provocative title. After all, we live in America where we have become anesthetized into believing that we must be ever so careful to avoid holding anyone accountable, answerable or responsible. Rather we prefer to blame a lack of self-esteem, a “bad” childhood, traumatic experiences or disease for our difficulties and life’s challenges.
I recently reviewed a highly popular book on Jewish values, written by a very well known and highly thought of Rabbi. While I found more than several references in the index to self-esteem, I found NONE relating to certitude and self-discipline. Despite the fact that the book is allegedly about Jewish values, it fails to include any reference to strength of mind, restraint, self-control or strength of will – all central values in Judaism.
Self-esteem is “in” while self-control is “out.” But this is wrong, wide of the mark and completely erroneous in the world of self-improvement.
While so many believe, unthinkingly and mistakenly, that low self-esteem is often a central perpetrator in emotional distress and whatever-psychologically-ails-you, poor self-regard is actually highly overrated as a causative factor.
Nicholas Emler of the London School of Economics and Roy Baumeister of Case Western Reserve University, once suggested that “self-esteem may even be a culprit, not a cure.” “There is absolutely no evidence that low self-esteem is particularly harmful,” according to Dr. Emler. He went on to say in the report that, “It’s not at all a cause of poor academic performance; people with low self-esteem seem to do just as well in life as people with high self-esteem. In fact, they may do better, because they often try harder.”
The Case Western Reserve professor goes even further. Baumeister reported one study awhile ago that found “not only that low self-esteem is in most cases a socially benign if not beneficent condition but also that its opposite, high self-regard, can maim and even kill.”
Years ago, three studies on self-esteem were reported all coming to the same conclusion – “people with high self-esteem pose a greater threat to those around them than people with low self-esteem and feeling bad about yourself is not the cause of our country’s biggest, most expensive social problems.”
Now of course we all need to have a realistic sense of our selves, to be well grounded and humble about ourselves. This is healthy self-esteem. Not high or low. Just well anchored. And of course there are times when self-esteem is so malignant that depression, or deep emotional despair or suicidal thinking/behavior result.
What variable can we substitute to increase general positive mental health among the masses?
Why not turn to self-control, self-regulation and self-discipline? These are, in my 40 years of experience, much more advanced, productive and prolific constructs to explore if your aim is to gain self-improvement.
Aristotle called self-control, “the hardest victory.” Sigmund Freud suggested that a successful person is one who has achieved meaningful work and love. To achieve these, requires that hard won victory. Freud noted that psychotherapy’s aim is to turn “neurotic suffering into ordinary suffering.” Ordinary suffering. Imagine that. Not self-confidence or happiness. Just ordinary suffering. Work and love, and that hard won victory. And to win that victory, it starts with honest, critical self-review. And the self-discipline to never stop trying. This requires action, not empty, circuitous self-reflection.
In their book, “Buck Up, Suck Up and Come Back When You Foul Up,” James Carville and Paul Begala write, “So we don’t believe that brains or personality or good fortune are the most important attributes in a winner. Perseverance. Toughness. Tenacity. Those are the qualities that make the difference.”
They write, “The most important thing is to never, ever become bitter. I know some people get shot up in wars and some people die. Everyone has his or her share of heartache. But you must never become bitter. Never, ever give in to bitterness. Because becoming bitter is giving up.” That takes self-control, not necessarily self-esteem.
Carville and Begala note, “…most people who fail do so because they simply give in. They get tired, or they’re worn down, or they lose whatever zeal got them motivated in the first place. There’s a reason pit bulls are the best fighting dogs. They’re not the biggest or the strongest or the scariest. They’re the most tenacious. Once they commit to taking a piece out of your leg, there’s precious little on heaven or earth that can get them off you. So be a pit bull, not a Chihuahua.”
A woman I coached for weight management once said, “The reason I eat these chips is because I figured out that if I don’t, no one will take care of me. You see, food has become a substitute for love for me. When I eat I feel more self-esteem and more self-love.”
Now, I suggested that while that may be her mindset and “psycho-illogical” definition, I asked her if she would try an experiment. She agreed.
She was to purchase a new bag of her favorite chips, open the bag, throw away the small broken chips, count out fifty large whole chips and put them back in the bag. She was to carry the open bag containing fifty chips with her all day and at the end of the day recount the chips left in the bag. If she demonstrated self-control and self-regulation, there would be, guess how many chips left? Right. Fifty. She did, and there were in fact fifty chips in the bag every day for two weeks.
The chips, she learned, aren’t a substitute for anything. They are simply chips. And the decision to eat one or not isn’t an interpersonal journey. It is a self-regulated and monitored choice.
She had more, not less, self-regard and self-love as a result of the self-control she demonstrated. She learned a new, more logical lesson. Self-control is not a constriction, but rather “it might be experienced as the kind of practiced prowess an athlete or an artist demonstrates, muscles not tamed but trained…”
Let’s all reach not for willpower. NO WILLPOWER???? That’s right. I believe WILLpower has seen its day. Instead let’s reach for DOpower. Do it. Not, you will do it. Self-esteem will follow.