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Why Hasn't the Self-Esteem Movement Given Us Self-Esteem?

Why Hasn't the Self-Esteem Movement Given Us Self-Esteem?

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"Great job, Princess! Look at how realistically you drew that girl, paying such close attention to the details on the features of her face," Sara praises her four-year-old budding artist for the stick figure she scribbled.

Sara is very careful to validate her child. By dispensing specific praise rather than just a generic comment like "beautiful," Sara hopes to build her child's self-esteem.

Ever since the late 60s when Nathaniel Branden defined self-esteem, parenting and psychology experts have been touting its importance.

Branden saw self-esteem as a basic human need that is indispensible to normal and healthy self-development. It provides us with a sense of our own ability and competence and enables us to grow, develop and successfully deal with the challenges of our lives.

Self-esteem, so the theory goes, will give us the confidence to make our own independent choices, based on our morals and understanding of right from wrong.

And so, as parents, we all jump on the self-esteem wagon making sure to encourage every act that our little prince or princess performs, noting particular aspects of their talent with especial relish. After all, what parent wouldn't want to equip their child with such necessary tools of autonomy and independence?

So, is all this self-esteem providing the desired results? Are we raising children who are more confident in their ability to make their own choices?


A brief study of the writings of the great European founders of psychology shows how our lack of autonomy and independence in our way of thinking and acting has been with us for a long time.

Ten years before Freud's first book was published, Nietzsche proclaimed that the disease of man in his time was that "his soul had gone stale," "he is fed up," and that all about there is a "bad smell...the smell of failure." Kierkegaard, too, who wrote the first known book about anxiety, depression and despair, felt that these maladies resulted from the individual's "self-estrangement," an estrangement of one man from another and ultimately man's alienation from himself. Freud, as well, describes the neurotic personality of the late nineteenth century as one suffering from fragmentation, blocking off of awareness, and a loss of autonomy.

None of these three thinkers was directly influenced by the other, but they all speak of fragmentation, alienation, a lack of autonomy and estrangement.

More than a century has since elapsed. Has the self-esteem movement helped alleviate these problems?

In The Discovery of Being, a fundamental book on the philosophy of existential psychology, Rollo May writes about every person's need to become in touch with his "sense of being":

"When we push to the extreme and know everything about drives, instincts and mechanisms, we have everything except being. Being is that which remains."

May explains that a sense of being cannot be reduced to social and ethical norms. It is something that is "beyond good and evil...It is precisely not what others have told me I should be but is the one Archimedes point I have to stand on...A sense of being gives the person a basis for self-esteem which is not merely the reflection of others' views about him. For if your self-esteem must rest in the long run on social validation, you have not self-esteem but a more sophisticated form of social conformity."

To further explain this experience of acquiring one's own "sense of being," he presents a case history of an intelligent woman who had been born as an illegitimate and unwanted child and was often reminded of that during her sad childhood. After undergoing several months of therapy she describes how she "came to a contact and acceptance with 'I Am,' which once gotten hold of, gave me the experience 'Since I Am, I have the right to be.

"'What is this experience like?' She articulately explains. 'It is a primary feeling... It is the experience of my own aliveness...It is my saying, "I Am, therefore I think, I feel, I do..." It is like a child in grammar finding the subject of the verb in a sentence—in this case the subject being one's own life span. It is ceasing to feel like a theory towards one's self...'"

May calls this the "I am" experience—the emergence and strengthening of the "sense of being" in a person that justifies his right to his own autonomy.


What these great thinkers of psychology seem to be saying is that a healthy self-esteem and "sense of being" should provide an individual with that sense of "I am" and "therefore I have the right to be." This should all lead to feeling of self-love and result in my autonomy to be a unique and original being.

It should. But it hasn't.

"Patient after patient I've seen (especially those from Madison Avenue) chooses to give up his power in order not to be ostracized," May asserts. "The real threat is not to be accepted, to be thrown out of the group, to be left solitary and alone... One's own meaning becomes meaningless because it is borrowed from somebody else's meaning...

"Perhaps the most ubiquitous and ever-present form of the failure to confront nonbeing in our day is in conformism, the tendency of the individual to let himself be absorbed in the sea of collective responses and attitudes to become swallowed up...with the corresponding loss of his own awareness, potentialities and whatever characterizes him as a unique and original being. "

May's diagnosis of the problems of our times sound so reminiscent to those discussed by the thinkers of the last century. The outward symptoms may have changed, but the underlying cause is the same.

Despite our society's growing awareness of the importance of self-esteem, today more than ever we are held hostage by the iron grips of conformity. Despite our emphasis on developing an independent sense of being, our definitions of ourselves are not coming from within—but are more than ever defined by others.

Rather than developing a sense of "I am," too many of us are feeling "I am—only if others tell me so."


So maybe we need to revisit how to acquire this "sense of being" and how this healthy sense of self should lead us to important conclusions about our self-identities.

There seems to be a missing piece in the equation that perhaps is terrain that psychology is not equipped to explore.

How does "I am" automatically equal "I have a right to be"?

Why am I?

I am because G‑d made me.

And through His act of creating me, G‑d, in essence declared my inalienable right to be. I am and therefore I have a right to be because I am G‑d's creation.

G‑d who is the source of all goodness created me and therefore I am also good. At the core of my being is a goodness—a goodness that is ever-present whether I choose to access it or act upon it or not. It is a goodness that is deserving of being and deserving of love. It is a goodness that is independent of my abilities, talents and choices—and independent of someone else validating me, or my abilities, or my talents or even my right to be.

I am simply because G‑d chose me to be.

I have the right to be because my being here is a testimony of G‑d's desire for me to be here.


Only with G‑d drawn into the picture can we hope to convey to ourselves and our children our right to be, our right to self-love, and our right to make our own independent decisions based on who we are or want to become, without being shackled by the grip of social conformism.

"Great job, Princess! G‑d loves you! And look at the talent that He has given you..."


Chana Weisberg is the editor of TheJewishWoman.org. She lectures internationally on issues relating to women, relationships, meaning, self-esteem and the Jewish soul. She is the author of five popular books.
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Anonymous Plano November 20, 2017

In order to create a space for the world to exist, God, who is all there is, had to first shrink Himself. Likewise for us to recognize that God exists we too must first humble ourselves. Too much self-esteem can make it very difficult to leave room for anyone else in our world. Reply

Anonymous Plano, TX November 18, 2017

Standing on a stage before a large audience and delivering a speech is one of the most frightening things a person can do. But why? Where is the danger? The danger is that of being judged by an entire community. The life of one's ego is in play. It is no coincidence that stand-up comics who fail to get a laugh will say, "I died" on stage. But when you come to the realization that there is more to you than the ego...when you understand that you are a spiritual and eternal "I AM" mysteriously linked to God somehow, then the ego becomes irrelevant by comparison. You might "die" onstage but you know that YOU cannot die.

Thank you so much for that inspiring and thought-provoking article. Reply

chana weisberg Lakewood November 19, 2017
in response to Anonymous:

Thank you for writing and for that wonderful thought! Reply

Rachelli Rap Maryland August 7, 2014

Chana, this has really helped me know the meaning of self esteem! I never really thought I had self esteem but I think I can over come that challenge now! Thank You! Reply

Mrs. Chana Weisberg via mychabad.org March 3, 2014

thank you all who commented and most recently Tracy. You uplifted my day! :) Reply

Tracy New Holland, PA March 2, 2014

While reading this I was just thinking (Well, yelling out in my head) I LOVE YOU CHANA! You just have the most wonderful perspective on people, women, families and our undeniable need to be connected to G-d, for practical purposes as well as for our spiritual growth, which IMHO, are inseparable anyway. Thank you for this piece. If He is I AM, and I say to Him "You are I AM," and really chew on that, it seems to rub off on me as a type of valuation of myself. Like you said, I am because G-d made me. And I Will Be Who Ha Shem Will Have Me Be. Reply

Pat February 19, 2014

Thank you. Great truth Reply

FREDERICK FIRKEY Shelton, CT. October 28, 2012

SELF ESTEEM Dear Chanah Thank You for this very well written Blog! It brings me closer to what self esteem really is. Reply

Anonymous Garden City, 12 January 8, 2011

self-esteem for myself as someone who suffers from bi-polar disorder I have found one thing that can make me feel good about myself. Sticking to the moral ethics G-d has handed down to us over the centuries. Nothing but that and the knowledge he is pleased with me can ever make one o.k. with ones self. Blessings to you Reply

Anonymous Bklyn, NY December 19, 2010

thanks great outlook to use for healthy, truthful, and purposeful living Reply

Rivkah rutledge, 19070 January 14, 2010

self esteem Why was I embarrassed to speak my voice?
Rejection is a big issue. I have lost several good friends by speaking the truth. In the long run, I know it was right even though it hurts to lose a friend. Reply

Sherry Longwood, NC January 14, 2010

Succinct Thank you! I can hardly express how it felt to read the phrase, "I have the right to be because my being here is a testimony of G‑d's desire for me to be here." I've been in therapy for some months now, and this is the core of our work. If this can be etched into our minds, it can feed our souls. Reply

danny glasgow January 14, 2010

genius article brilliant written thanks Reply

Anonymous January 13, 2010

Why hasn't the self esteem movement worked Well documented, thought out, and written article. Awesome..This is brilliant...It is so obvious. It is hard to believe we did not get it before.
Low self esteem has been a diagnosis for many people and perhaps not treated wisely. This revelation is so great.... Reply

Anonymous montreal January 12, 2010

This is a phenominal piece that is very true. It should be the basis of parenting classes an teacher educational programs. The idea conveyed in this article deserves a lot more attention. Reply

Anonymous Brooklyn, NY January 11, 2010

If G-d who created us is intimately involved in all aspects of our lives, then you can't be an existentialist because life is invested with meaning, purpose, and goals. Self-esteem comes from succeeding at doing what G-d wants of us, and knowing what is valuable and what doesn't matter. It also comes from the reflected good of our efforts. Reply

Tone Lechtzier Brothers, OR US January 11, 2010

I am... Shalom,
rings true to me. Great wisdom illuminated.
Blessings Reply

Chanah Monsey, NY January 11, 2010

This is profound. Thank you! Reply

Often we need a break from our daily routine. A pause from life to help us appreciate life.

A little pat on the back to let us know when we're on track. A word of encouragement to help us through those bleak moments and difficult days.

Sometimes, we just yearn for some friendship and camaraderie, someone to share our heart with. And sometimes we need a little direction from someone who's been there.

So, take a short pause from the busyness of your day and join Chana Weisberg for a cup of coffee.

Chana Weisberg is the author of Tending the Garden: The Unique Gifts of the Jewish Woman and four other books. Weisberg is a noted educator and columnist and lectures worldwide on issues relating to women, faith, relationships and the Jewish soul.
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