The problem of self-esteem
As presented in
Inventive personality type, Annie Reich defined self-esteem as "the expression of discrepancy or harmony between self-representation and the wishful concept of the self." William James gave a similar definition in Chapter 10 of his The Principles of Psychology, and formulated it as, "Self-esteem = Success / Pretensions."
James (1890) viewed self-esteem as an evaluative process; he argued that self-esteem, at its simplest, could be measured as the ratio of a person's successes to his or her pretensions. Pretensions are viewed as goals, purposes, or aims, whereas successes constitute the perception of the attainment of those goals. As people attain more of their pretensions, the ratio grows larger and self-esteem becomes correspondingly stronger. Pretensions also add a vulnerability component to self-esteem in that these are the areas where the individual is proposed to be most competent. If he or she comes up short in the percerption of goal-attainment, or in comparison with others in the same pretension arena, self-esteem suffers. A realization of shortcomings in an area that was not important to the individual, however, would not result in a devaluation of personal worth (Bernet et al., 1993, pg. 141).
The following is an excerpt from James's discussion of the problem of self-esteem:
Rivalry and Conflict of the Different Selves.
With most objects of desire, physical nature restricts our choice to but
one of many represented goods, and even so it is here. I am often confronted
by the necessity of standing by one of my empirical selves and relinquishing
the rest. Not that I would not, if I could, be both handsome and fat and
well dressed, and a great athlete, and make a million a year, be a wit,
a bon-vivant, and a lady-killer, as well as a philosopher; a
philanthropist, statesman, warrior, and African explorer, as well as a
'tone-poet' and saint. But the thing is simply impossible. The millionaire's
work would run counter to the saint's; the bon-vivant and the philanthropist
would trip each other up; the philosopher and the lady-killer could not
well keep house in the same [p. 310] tenement of clay. Such different characters
may conceivably at the outset of life be alike possible to a man.
But to make any one of them actual, the rest must more or less be suppressed.
So the seeker of his truest, strongest, deepest self must review the list
carefully, and pick out the one on which to stake his salvation. All other
selves thereupon become unreal, but the fortunes of this self are real.
Its failures are real failures, its triumphs real triumphs, carrying shame
and gladness with them. This is as strong an example as there is of that
selective industry of the mind on which I insisted some pages back (p.
284 ff.). Our thought, incessantly deciding, among many things of a kind,
which ones for it shall be realities, here chooses one of many possible
selves or characters, and forthwith reckons it no shame to fail in any
of those not adopted expressly as its own.
I, who for the time have staked my all on being a psychologist, am mortified
if others know much more psychology than I. But I am contented to wallow
in the grossest ignorance of Greek. My deficiencies there give me no sense
of personal humiliation at all. Had I 'pretensions' to be a linguist, it
would have been just the reverse. So we have the paradox of a man shamed
to death because he is only the second pugilist or the second oarsman in
the world. That he is able to beat the whole population of the globe minus
one is nothing; he has 'pitted' himself to beat that one; and as long as
he doesn't do that nothing else counts. He is to his own regard as if he
were not, indeed he is not.
Yonder puny fellow, however, whom every one can beat, suffers no chagrin
about it, for he has long ago abandoned the attempt to 'carry that line,'
as the merchants say, of self at all. With no attempt there can be no failure;
with no failure no humiliation. So our self-feeling in this world depends
entirely on what we back ourselves to be and do. It is determined
by the ratio of our actualities to our supposed potentialities; a fraction
of which our pretensions are the denominator and the numerator our success:
Such a fraction may be
increased [p. 311] as well by diminishing the denominator as by increasing
the numerator. To give up pretensions is as blessed
a relief as to get them gratified; and where disappointment is incessant
and the struggle unending, this is what men will always do. The history
of evangelical theology, with its conviction of sin, its self-despair,
and its abandonment of salvation by works, is the deepest of possible examples,
but we meet others in every walk of life. There is the strangest lightness
about the heart when one's nothingness in a particular line is once accepted
in good faith. All is not bitterness in the lot of the lover sent
away by the final inexorable 'No.' Many Bostonians, crede experto
(and inhabitants of other cities, too, I fear), would be happier women
and men to-day, if they could once for all abandon the notion of keeping
up a Musical Self, and without shame let people hear them call a symphony
a nuisance. How pleasant is the day when we give up striving to be young,
- or slender! Thank God! we say, those illusions are gone. Everything
added to the Self is a burden as well as a pride. A certain man who lost
every penny during our civil war went and actually rolled in the dust,
saying he had not felt so free and happy since he was born.
Self-esteem = Success / Pretensions.
Once more, then, our self-feeling is in our power. As Carlyle says:
"Make thy claim of wages a zero, then hast thou the world under thy feet.
Well did the wisest of our time write, it is only with renunciation
that life, properly speaking, can be said to begin."
Neither threats nor pleadings can move a man unless they touch some
one of his potential or actual selves. Only thus can we, as a rule, get
a 'purchase' on another's will. The first care of diplomatists and monarchs
and all who wish to rule or influence is, accordingly, to find out their
victim's strongest principle of self-regard, so as to make that the [p.
312] fulcrum of all appeals. But if a man has given up those things which
are subject to foreign fate, and ceased to regard them as parts of himself
at all, we are well-nigh powerless over him. The Stoic receipt for contentment
was to dispossess yourself in advance of all that was out of your own power,
- then fortune's shocks might rain down unfelt. Epictetus exhorts us, by
thus narrowing and at the same time solidifying our Self to make it invulnerable:
"I must die; well, but must I die groaning too? I will speak what appears
to be right, and if the despot says, then I will put you to death, I will
reply, 'When did I ever tell you that I was immortal? You will do your
part and I mine; it is yours to kill and mine to die intrepid; yours to
banish, mine to depart untroubled.' How do we act in a voyage? We choose
the pilot, the sailors, the hour. Afterwards comes a storm. What have I
to care for? My part is performed. This matter belongs to the pilot. But
the ship is sinking; what then have I to do? That which alone I can do
- submit to being drowned without fear, without clamor or accusing of God,
but as one who knows that what is born must likewise die."
This Stoic fashion, though efficacious and heroic enough in its place
and time, is, it must be confessed, only possible as an habitual mood of
the soul to narrow and unsympathetic characters. It proceeds altogether
by exclusion. If I am a Stoic, the goods I cannot appropriate cease to
be my goods, and the temptation lies very near to deny that they
are goods at all. We find this mode of protecting the Self by exclusion
and denial very common among people who are in other respects not Stoics.
All narrow people intrench their Me, they retract it, - from
the region of what they cannot securely possess. People who don't resemble
them, or who treat them with indifference, people over whom they gain no
influence, are people on whose existence, however meritorious it may intrinsically
be, they look with chill negation, if not with positive hate. Who will
not be mine I will exclude from existence altogether; that is, as far as
[p. 313] I can make it so, such people shall be as if they were not.
Thus may a certain absoluteness and definiteness in the outline of my Me
console me for the smallness of its content.
Sympathetic people, on the contrary, proceed by the entirely opposite
way of expansion and inclusion. The outline of their self often gets uncertain
enough, but for this the spread of its content more than atones. Nil
humani a me alienum. Let them despise this little person of mine, and
treat me like a dog, I shall not negate them so long as I have a
soul in my body. They are realities as much as I am. What positive good
is in them shall be mine too, etc., etc. The magnanimity of these expansive
natures is often touching indeed. Such persons can feel a sort of delicate
rapture in thinking that, however sick, ill-favored, mean-conditioned,
and generally forsaken they may be, they yet are integral parts of the
whole of this brave world, have a fellow's share in the strength of the
dray-horses, the happiness of the young people, the wisdom of the wise
ones, and are not altogether without part or lot in the good fortunes of
the Vanderbilts and the Hohenzollerns themselves. Thus either by negating
or by embracing, the Ego may seek to establish itself in reality. He who,
with Marcus Aurelius, can truly say, "O Universe, I wish all that thou
wishest," has a self from which every trace of negativeness and obstructiveness
has been removed - no wind can blow except to fill its sails.
Bernet, Christine Z., Rick E. Ingram, and Brenda R. Johnson, (1993). Self-esteem, in (Ed.) Charles G. Costello, Symptoms of Depression . New York: Wiley.
James, William, (1890). The Principles of Psychology. Copied, with permission, from The Principles of Psychology.