A Call to Consciousness
By James Sniechowski
The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem,
by Nathaniel Branden, New York: Bantam Books
OF ALL THE JUDGMENTS WE pass
in life, none is as important as the one we pass on ourselves." With that
introductory declaration, Nathaniel Branden sets the direction for the
book in which he crystallizes his life's mission—the exploration and
articulation of the deep structure and value of self-esteem. It is an
important mission for our time.
The notion of self-esteem has
been deservedly ridiculed for being soft-headed, delusional, and
destructive. Consider, for example, a Time magazine report on
standardized math tests given to 13year-olds in six countries. The Koreans
scored highest and the American scores were the worst. Nevertheless, when
asked if they felt they were good at math, the Americans were number
Similarly, most new-age gurus
advocate strategies of "affirmation" to teach their followers how to
manifest success, abundance, and self-esteem. All one need do, say the
gurus, is systematically repeat such statements as "I am valuable just as I
am" or "I love myself' or "I deserve all that I want." These teachers assure
their disciples that, with practice, reality will align itself with the
devotee's desire and a powerful, effective self will appear.
Such views are the product of
what Branden calls "feel good" self-esteem. They are based in a sense of
entitlement and a belief in effortless gratification. "A disservice is done
to people," he contends, "if they are offered 'feel good' notions of
self-esteem that [are] divorced from questions of consciousness,
responsibility, and moral choice." Those who embrace such notions deny the
very real demands and exigencies of life. They abdicate decision and recoil
at the appearance of challenge. Ultimately, they are in danger of becoming
infantilized, naive, and incapable of self-motivation and achievement.
Standing against such notions,
Branden offers a reality-oriented approach to self-esteem. He advocates
conscious living in which one "generates principles from concrete
facts and applies principles to concrete facts ... in the pursuit of
meaning and understanding." Self-esteem, in this context, is not an
exercise in solipsism, or in its less virulent relative, narcissism.
Rather, it is grounded in the relation one has to one's self as that self
stands in relation to the world. The dynamic is necessarily reciprocal and
interdependent. Only in that way can there be meaning in the terms
objective and subjective.
FOR BRANDEN, SELF-ESTEEM IS
COMPOSED of two parallel elements, one objective and one subjective. The
first is self-efficacy—"confidence in the functioning of my mind,
in my ability to think, understand, learn, choose, and make decisions ...
my ability to understand the facts of reality that fall within my own
sphere of interest and needs." Facts provide a perspective from which we
strive to determine accuracy from error, truth from falsehood, reality from
delusion. "No one can feel competent to cope with the challenges of life who
does not treat seriously the distinction between the real and the unreal."
Without an objective relation to facts, self-esteem is impossible.
violence, for example, can be understood as a painful manifestation
of the absence of self-efficacy. We ask why the suffering party
doesn't leave the relationship. Violence is, after all, very often
present during courtship, before marriage and children add further
pressures to the relationship. Despite the danger signs, however,
many men and women remain involved in humiliating and degrading
circumstances in large measure because they do not face the facts of
their relationship. Self-efficacy would demand a clear assessment of
the objective reality and a determination to behave in one's own
The notion of "one's
own best interest" leads to the second element, self-respect—the
certainty one feels and knows of his or her own value. Self-respect
implies "an affirmative attitude toward my right to live and be
happy, [my] comfort in appropriately asserting my thoughts, wants,
and needs." Self-respect is the subjective pole. It too requires
rigorous assessment, but of one's own psychic landscape. Internal
events, such as assumptions, beliefs, and expectations, must be
continually evaluated to determine their appropriateness to one's
current life circumstances.
In the example of
spousal violence, self-respect would ask: How do I value myself?
What beliefs do I hold about myself that attract and allow for such
belittling treatment? What must I do to transform my own
self-deprecating and destructive impulses? Self-respect would act
as a spur for change.
UNDERSTOOD THIS WAY,
SELF-ESTEEM IS neither automatic, an expected birthright, nor
mystical, available only through grace and divine intervention. It
is the result of conscious effort and determination. One can build
one's self-esteem through commitment and practice. And Branden is
not merely a theorist: His book includes an elegant and practical
31-week program for building self-esteem. He warns, however, that
effort itself, no matter how concerted, can be misguided.
Take, for example,
"the highly productive workaholic who is driven to prove his worth
to, say, a father who predicted he would always be a loser." The son
may be a worldly success, but it is almost axiomatic that he will
be "crippled in his ability to find joy in his achievements,"
because he defines and experiences himself as deficient and
defective. He can never be enough. As long as he assents to such
belief, his striving is ultimately impotent, because he can never
undo the Gordian Knot tied by his father.
On this point Branden
makes one of his most incisive and caring statements: "If my aim is
to prove I am 'enough,' the project goes on to infinity—because the
battle was already lost on the day I conceded the issue was
debatable." Such an endeavor can only be other-defined and
other-directed, because it is concerned with proving one's worth to
others. It is destined for failure, because the person attempting
the proof is sabotaged by a sense that renders proof impossible.
In the second half of
the book, Branden extends his principles beyond individuals into the
arenas of child rearing, education, work, psychotherapy, and the
culture at large. We must understand, he argues, that the idea of
self is a relatively recent psychological phenomenon,
particularly as experienced by the mass of humanity. Historically,
most people lived their entire lives in small groups. Often, the
tribe was the largest entity with which they had contact. The group
was the locus of identity, and its members understood themselves
within that framework. The group determined character, assigned
roles, prearranged relationships. The world was small and set.
Everyone knew their place.
"The essence of the
tribal mentality is that it makes the tribe as such the supreme good
and denigrates the importance of the individual," Branden writes.
What a man or woman thought, felt, desired, imagined was synonymous
with what tribal authority taught to be acceptable. Furthermore,
authority, for the most part, did not reside in this or that
individual but was a function of a group process in which everyone
was subsumed. Ritual and dogma set the parameters. Punishment and
the fear of the gods kept everyone in line. One's identity and
security was not a matter of personal vision but derived from being
an integral member of the group.
Self, as we understand
it today, was practically nonexistent. There was little or no need
for interpersonal skills, because there was little meaningful
difference between one person and another. Self, let alone
self-esteem, was a foreign and possibly fatal concept.
Today, however, most
of us come into constant and sometimes significant contact with
mere acquaintances and complete strangers. Unlike the tribal
mentality that minimized differences, our daily lives bring us into
situations in which inevitable and often radical differences
prevail. This profusion of differences forces the self to stand out
in relief. Consequently, the idea and experience of being not like
others is an unavoidable actuality.
This doesn't mean that
most people possess a conscious regard for their own particularity.
Quite the contrary. Such appreciation requires effort and
awareness. Most people pass their lives in a state of unconscious
habituation to the ideas and expectations they formed, for the most
part, in their childhood. That echoes the tribal mentality. But,
even so, they cannot avoid the plurality of beliefs, tastes,
customs, and world views of modem daily life. So a sense of self
occurs if only by default, if only in the irritation of being
exposed to differences.
"A disservice is done to people," Branden contends,
"if they are offered 'feel good' notions of self-esteem
that (are) divorced from questions of consciousness,
responsibility, and moral choice."
As a consequence,
contemporary wellbeing depends upon our competence in negotiating
person-to-person traffic. To do so we must continually assess
ourselves and others, regardless of whether or not we possess the
interest, tools, or skills.
THIS ANALYSIS HAS
POLITICAL consequences. Beginning with the Renaissance, through the
Reformation and Enlightenment, a clearer psychological sense of
self emerged, and self-ownership became a reality. The self could
act upon and become the result of its own private choices. The world
witnessed a new form of government and politics based on that
The paradigmatic leap
undergirding the founding of the United States was the recognition
of the fundamental existence, rights, and sovereignty of the
individual as distinct from the dictates of the group. That
revolution demanded that the purpose of government was to serve the
individual and not the other way around. Reciprocally, the
individual had to assume the task of self-governance. But we may ask
to what degree most people, then or since, have understood,
appreciated, and lived the fact and implications of the
For many people today,
psycho-political life is little different from that of the Middle
Ages, when society at large, in Branden's words, "did not value
self-assertion; did not understand individuality; could not
conceive of self-responsibility; could not imagine innovativeness as
a way of life; ... did not grasp the relation of mind, intelligence,
and creativity to survival."
The current rise of the
victimarchy is a vestige of medieval psychology. Despite our avowal of
the value and sovereignty of the autonomous individual, for victim
groups the self is of little value except as the object of oppression by
others. We are besieged by one disadvantaged group after another
claiming impotence and innocence and demanding compensation for their
purported handicaps and injuries. Individual responsibility becomes an
impediment to achieving redress. Self-empowerment and
self-directedness fall away, replaced by the demand that others be
And in these days of
rising fundamentalism, there is a growing pressure to comply with
group mentality, to surrender the self to dogma. With that, liberty and
freedom are in grave danger. But healthy self-esteem can be a powerful
and compelling antidote to this inclination toward herd-think.
In this environment, it is
particularly important to understand that self-governance is more than
a political slogan. It is a way of life. Those who take seriously the
implications of self-governance must be responsible for ourselves and to
others, learning to create and support our own existence as a natural
course of events. We must choose to face the conditions we create and
discover, striving to master ourselves rather than be mastered.
Self-esteem is not a
feel-good trend. It is critical to the survival of the way we live. It
requires "greater self-responsibility and integrity ... the willingness
to move through fear to confront conflicts and discomforting
realities." A healthy self-esteem is the sine qua non of a
robust and free life.
As Branden observes, "The
American culture is a battleground between the values of
self-responsibility and the values of entitlement." The former entails
freedom, and freedom has never been free. It obliges effort and
vigilance. It stands on conscience and active involvement. If men and
women abandon self-responsibility, they become mere spectators in their
lives. They resign personal authority and are then compelled to follow.
The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem,
then, is a call to consciousness and participation. Its core idea is:
"Your life is important. Honor it. Fight for your highest
possibilities." This is a book that should not just be read. It should
be chewed on, digested, and absorbed into one's identity. It is a
guidebook for a well-nourished and powerful life. §
James Sniechowski is the founder and
director of the Menswork Center in Los Angeles.