Last week Christian conservative blogger Matt Walsh, who writes for The Blaze, published a video for PragerU, titled “Why Self-Esteem is Self-Defeating.”
Walsh’s argument in the video is that teaching people to have self-esteem is a fantasy that does more harm than good. He makes several good points, but falls short of applying them appropriately.
I believe that Walsh is incorrect about what self-esteem is and how much we should esteem self-esteem itself. In fact, I don’t even think he even believes his own words. But I think he’s capable of doing better:
The definition matters
Walsh says that “the dictionary” defines esteem as “to regard with admiration.” But which dictionary is he using?
One Webster dictionary will say “to value highly,” “to respect,” or even “to consider.” An Oxford dictionary would give you two definitions, one being “to respect and admire,” the other being “to consider or deem.” The word’s original English meaning is “worth,” and comes from the Latin word astimare, “to estimate” or “assess the merit of.”
So from the start Walsh is working with a very narrow definition of “self-esteem.” To Walsh, the phrase strictly means “to admire yourself.” He stretches that to mean “to admire yourself too much.” His definition fits his agenda.
Chinese Schools are Communist
He recounts being given a worksheet in junior high asking him to rate his self-esteem 1-10. Meanwhile, he says, tongue-in-cheek, “kids in China were learning silly things like math and science.” That’s a false comparison. Did Walsh not also learn math and science? He references one time a teacher did one activity that probably lasted 30 minutes. Somewhere in China, maybe 30 minutes is dedicated toward brainwashing children about how their worth stems from being members of the Republic.
I’m surprised that Walsh, an American conservative, doesn’t mention that the Chinese public school system has been a Communist institution since before he was born. What does China get for doubling down on math and science but giving no regard to self-esteem? According to China’s own state media, suicide is the leading cause of death for young adults age 15-34. Studies tied suicides strongly to high stress associated with exams and college entrance. This is a statistical study, compared to Walsh’s personal anecdote.
So while there are various ways that China has not only competed with, but outdone the U.S. when it comes to achievements in math and science, let’s not forget that China is also a serious violator of human rights in ways both U.S. conservatives and liberals would agree. American schools focus more on things like self-esteem, even at the cost of time spent on hard science, because American schools place higher value on things like democracy, freedom of expression, and the pursuit of happiness. It’s in The Constitution.
The problem ins’t being told you’re important. The problem is entitlement, being told you deserve more than others because you’re more important
The problem is never a parent or teacher or speaker telling a child, “feel good about yourself.” The problem is telling that child, “because of who you are, you deserve what others are obligated to give you,” or “because of who you are, you’ve earned everything you have.” Those messages are not synonymous with self-value. Self-esteem messages become abused when combined with entitlement messages, and that is when they become harmful.
Of course we all laugh at phrases like “you’re special, just like everyone else.” But that doesn’t make it any less true that each person is special in their own way. Shouldn’t I feel good about my own worth because I am me? Why should I feel good about myself based on my score on a math quiz? Granted, many educators have made the same mistake, telling kids that their academic performance doesn’t matter at all, but the problem has never been telling students how much they matter. The video never gives a clinical definition of narcissism, but rather conflates it with “self admiration.” Except,
That’s not what narcissism is.
Walsh claims that focusing on self-esteem turns people into narcissists. He presents no research to back this up. Rather, both the Diagnostic Statistical Manual and journals like The Journal of Psychiatric Practice agree in general that a person with a narcissistic personality has a grandiose vision of themselves, constantly desires admiration, and tends to seek power over others. The key trait to recognize in a narcissist isn’t that a person values themselves, but that they value themselves over others. Many professionals conclude that this is actually due to a person having a fragile ego. Though no study has established a cause, most studies show that, as the Mayo Clinic puts it, both “excessive pampering” and “excessive criticism” in early to late childhood are strong factors.
In other words, narcissists are probably made by both extremes of spoiling or neglecting children’s sense of worth, not by telling them to positively assess their own merit as human beings.
If Matt Walsh is a Christian, he believes in good self-esteem.
1. Jesus taught that the second commandment is “love your neighbor as yourself.” Obviously Jesus wanted us to love others a whole lot. Consequently, he assumed we would love ourselves a whole lot too. Because he taught equality in these loves, he taught against narcissism.
2. Paul tells the Roman church not to think of themselves more highly than they ought (Romans 12:3), prescribing stringent humility, yet implying that there is at least some degree to which they should regard themselves.
3. We would not call King David a narcissist for acknowledging his self-esteem to God: “You formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” David esteems himself highly for being made in God’s image, and that esteem moves him to praise his creator.
4. As Paul learned the secret to being content, central to contentedness was knowing, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Because of Jesus, Paul esteems himself and his abilities very highly. Jesus makes him feel special.
I know Matt Walsh is against abortion on the grounds that it is inhuman to esteem an unborn child as less than human. This is why it surprises me that he does not see the connection to valuing the life of others, which begins with valuing the self. “You are special because you’re you” being told to multiple children at once also means “they’re special because they’re them” about everyone else. It equalizes human value. While it’s clear in scripture that our worth is due to God’s image and grace, that worth is still worth, and we are to value ourselves important as beings “made a little lower than the angels.” We are special and important, not in comparison with each other, but in comparison with all else in creation. It’s our job to rule creation, equally, because we bear the image of the divine. In the frame of Christianity, this in itself is the motivation for doing good things, not to earn worth in the eyes of God, others, or ourselves, but because we have worth, have been saved, and can be found worthy by His grace.
I think Matt Walsh takes for granted that many children are deprived of the basic knowledge that they deserve respect. Maybe his parents did a superb job at communicating his worth. Maybe that’s why self-esteem education didn’t matter to him growing up. Maybe his teacher got carried away with it too, as many have. But oftentimes inspiring confidence means convincing someone that they matter, and should admire the good potential within themselves.
Self-esteem is valuing your worth as a person. It’s respecting yourself. For many people, this is where confidence begins, knowing you are capable of things and owe it to yourself to live up to a high standard. Because you exist as a human, and not, say, an animal or a rock, you are capable of great things. But knowing your worth is a starting point, the means to an end.
In typical conservative fashion, Walsh reminiscences about a previous era in which everything was better. “It didn’t matter how you felt about yourself; it mattered what you did.” In other words, self-esteem (and therefore self worth) was based on works. Or at least the perception of works.
In previous eras, it was broadly assumed that black people were not smart enough to go to white schools, vote, etc. Even still today the notion that certain minorities by nature can’t be good at school persists. You can argue that those who fail are those with high self-esteem, but ask a classroom full of inner-city black kids (or coal country white kids) who would write on a piece of paper, “I suck at math, I’m not good at anything.” I promise you the root problem isn’t that they feel so good about themselves that they feel they don’t have to study. For many such young people, the root lies with feeling so bad about themselves or their lot in life that they don’t even feel motivated to try.
Some of those kids end up compensating for that fragile ego.
“You feel good about yourself, and you feel like you did well on the test, so the teacher should give you an A.”
“You’re special. Other people will see that, and you will get the job.”
“You’re a good guy, because I just know you are, so that girl won’t resist you.”
These beliefs aren’t about self-esteem; they’re about entitlement. That’s what Matt Walsh should have gone after.
But is PragerU dedicated toward leveling the political playing field, or merely standing for strict conservatism? By politicizing the topic, Walsh makes no distinction between self-worth and self-importance. His political agenda forces him to take semantic and psychoanalytic shortcuts in order to “make a point” that misses the point. His argument blends into the white noise of those who argue that Mr. Rogers ruined a generation by affirming the worth of children.
I would argue, rather, that we actually have a unique problem in our culture of low self-esteem and entitlement. People feel bad about themselves, but also feel entitled. Popular media tells us that we are not pretty enough, smart enough, cool enough, or important enough, but that we deserve something anyway. As a result, we feel entitled to things that we think will boost our self-esteem: More money, more attention, more control, more points. This is why we fail, because we don’t realize that if we don’t value ourselves for who we are, we will never feel good enough based on what we accomplish, earn, or accumulate. This is why even some of the most successful people have felt miserable on the inside. This is why narcissists crave exploiting other people for self-aggrandizement.
This is why Mr. Rogers matters.
You are a person. You are capable. You are fearfully and wonderfully made, not far below the status of an angel. We should be in awe of who we are as created beings, how much we matter, as well as what is expected of us. That’s the scandal the world needs. And it’s not a racket or a harmful fantasy.