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Wednesday, August 30, 2006

self esteem : Psychobabble that shields the seriously selfish 1

We're taught that self-esteem is essential to our happiness. Not necessarily, writes Theodore Dalrymple

All happy families, wrote Tolstoy, are happy in the same way; all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way.

The same might almost be said of individuals: for the ways of happiness are few, while the ways of misery are legion. Self-destruction comes in myriad forms, and human ingenuity seems often to be directed solely at the maximisation of personal infelicity. If I didn't know better, I'd believe in Freud's death instinct.

I arrive in my hospital each day thinking that I have by now heard everything: that no human folly can now surprise me, that no conduct can take me aback. I am always proved mistaken, however: for overnight someone has devised a new and improved method of securing his own downfall, as well as that of everyone around him. I meet women who love men who drag them by the hair to a window and suspend them by their ankles out of the tenth floor, and I meet men who deliberately inject themselves with HIV-infected blood so that they will henceforth be attractive to Byronic women who think that fatal illness will make them interesting. One might suppose, therefore, that I am not easy to shock, surprise or appal, but every day new horrors are exhibited to tone up my nervous system, as it were. Truly the sleep of reason calls forth monsters.

Over the past few years, the self- destructive have increased not only in number but in the intensity of their self-destruction, and they have accepted a new and fashionable explanation for their own conduct: a lack of self-esteem. They confess it coyly, as if somehow revealing an innermost secret that they have never revealed to anyone before - except, possibly, to everyone else they know who has the time and patience to listen to them. They present the supposed fact of their lack of self-esteem to their doctor as if laying before him the inestimable gift of their most intimate confidence. The doctor is flattered and repays the compliment by taking what they say seriously.

But this mention of self-esteem is only an example of psychobabble, that extraordinary abstract language that conceals what it claims to reveal. Psychobabble reduces human cognition, experience and emotion to a few bloodless abstractions: but he who would know a man (to adapt William Blake slightly) must know him in minute particulars. An alleged lack of self-esteem tells us nothing about the person who suffers it: for such a lack is plausibly compatible with all human behaviour whatsoever, from the anchorite's retreat into a desert cave to the rankest megalomania.

by Theodore Dalrymple


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