It is old news by now that large numbers of American college students suffer from low self-esteem and major depression. In one survey, 30% of students reported feeling “so depressed that it was difficult to function” at some point within the past year. Stories of teen and young adult suicides have become alarmingly commonplace, with some 19% of American youth contemplating or attempting suicide every year.
More alarming still, several decades of clinical and educational initiatives aimed at improving self-esteem have not made a dent in these figures. Anyone who has browsed a self-help shelf at Barnes and Noble, consulted a therapist, or watched an episode of Oprah knows that prescriptions for “raising your self-esteem” abound in our culture. Yet, despite the many injunctions to “accept yourself for who you are,” the depression epidemic on campuses shows no signs of abating.
To be fair, modern approaches to treating depression do work for a lot of people. Among those who opt for either medication or evidence-based psychotherapy, some 40-60% of patients show significant improvement in their mood and self-esteem.
But what of the 50% or more whose self-worth does not improve? Clearly, there are numerous potential obstacles that might impede a person’s struggles to (re)gain self-esteem. But there is one universal factor in the development and maintenance of self-worth that cannot be escaped, and yet it is rarely discussed in either books or therapy rooms: by what standard is one’s “worth” to be evaluated?
When we judge someone as “worthy,” it means we like and approve of him or her; our emotional estimate amounts to the judgment that they are good. But any such judgment is made by some standard, some measure of what it means to be good—whether consciously known or not.
For example, if we are filled with admiration for the ingenious, self-made entrepreneur who rises out of the slums and makes his fortune in Silicon Valley, it is because we believe—on some level—that persevering against adversity to achieve one’s personal ambitions is good. If, on the other hand, we believe that sharing in the plight of one’s community is a higher good than personal achievement, we will feel nothing but scorn for the greedy “profit-chaser” who escaped his troubled neighborhood to pursue his own ambition.
Likewise, if our words and actions do not fully match our internalized standard of the “good,” we will not fully admire ourselves. Thus, the standards one has internalized will play a crucial role in one’s self-evaluation. Identifying those standards and working to internalize healthier ones, if needed, should therefore be a crucial step in any effort to improve self-esteem.
Yet this step is conspicuously missing from prominent therapeutic approaches. After all, any attempt to guide the selection of a proper standard of the “good” presupposes a standard of moral goodness, which is a question for philosophy, not psychology. The default answer accepted by most of our culture (including psychologists) is: “Be selfless.” But how does this bode for self-esteem?
Imagine you are about to graduate from college and you’re developing a cool new idea for an app. You do some research into the current world of tech start-ups, and are excited to discover that Silicon Valley may be ripe for your invention. But as you plan your big move to San Francisco, you are reminded of a competing “duty”: your mother urges you to return home to help her keep an eye on your drug-addicted brother. What do you do?
If your moral worth is measured by your selfless devotion to others in need, the “good” choice is obvious: you must return home. Yet you also know that your chance at happiness and self-fulfillment awaits you in Silicon Valley, and some part of you even feels there is good in dedicating yourself to the fearless pursuit of your ambitions.
Suppose you decide to pursue your business venture. Mixed with any pride you might feel as you begin to profit from your new invention will be some guilt and self-loathing at the selfish path you have chosen. The weight of that guilt, in turn, will sap your enthusiasm about developing your business. Absent any moral compass to direct your pursuit of an ambition you regard as inherently immoral, you will likely lose focus and become increasingly half-hearted in your efforts to perfect your idea. It is in such circumstances that ambitious people develop addictions of their own, to distract them from their guilt. Before you know it, you will have undermined your success on both the moral and professional fronts, dealing a double-blow to your self-esteem.
What if, instead, you do your “duty” and return home to your struggling family? Imagine what would become of your self-respect as you clean your brother’s puke-stained shirts and bloody noses, suppressing all thoughts of how you might have felt while launching your product or brainstorming new ideas with fellow techies in Silicon Valley. How much admiration would you feel for yourself as you notice your inevitably growing sense of resentment at your brother, who is the cause of your exile from a world where you would actually feel at home? How much can you truly like yourself, and for how long, once you have given up precisely those aspects of yourself you liked the most—whether your knack for creating software, or any other pursuit that brings you personal pleasure and enjoyment? How can you like your self while renouncing all that which you selfishly value?
In fact, any attempt to uphold “selflessness” as a moral standard guarantees the erosion of your self-esteem, regardless of what course you choose. After all, part of what it means for something to be “esteemed”—be it a job, a person, an idea, or a “self”—is to bring pleasure and personal value to the esteemer. But to pursue that which brings you pleasure and personal value is the very essence of selfishness. To attempt to live by a “selfless” moral code is to become, in effect, your own worst enemy; the degree to which you want or like a thing is the exact degree to which you must dislike yourself for pursuing it.
In every decision you face, large or small—whether it’s what to do after graduation, what courses to take next semester, or whose dinner invitation to accept on a Friday night—you have to choose among numerous alternative paths, and it is morality’s proper task to guide you in identifying a path that aligns with your longer-term goals and values. Yet a code of “selflessness” provides only one essential dictate by which to select and evaluate your actions: thou shalt not consider your own goals and values; in other words, thou shalt not do what you like—and thus, shalt not be the person you want to be.
Imagine, by contrast, the power of a moral standard that explicitly upholds your happiness—i.e., the achievement of your most deeply held, self-chosen values—as the highest moral good. Instead of being stuck in a constant negotiation between guilty pleasure and self-righteous misery, you would experience the invigorating pride and confidence that properly accompany the pursuit of a cause one knows to be good. It is this unconflicted sense of pride that motivates the often-exacting effort and discipline required to achieve one’s long-term ambitions, whether in the professional, academic, or personal realm.
Of course, the idea of an explicitly selfish moral standard is still too radical to have been incorporated into mainstream psychological approaches. But such an alternative does exist, and it is elucidated in other pages of this issue (see “Morality: Who Needs It”). Unlike its more conventional counterparts, this code has a logical basis in the factual requirements of human life and flourishing. Without such a healthy, life-promoting alternative to offer, psychologists are forced to sidestep the issue of moral standards altogether. Yet we have no choice about needing to judge ourselves by some standard; our only choice is whether to remain guilt-bound to whatever hodgepodge of selfless duties we have absorbed from our family and culture, or to opt for the duty-free alternative—and bask in the joy of being proudly, selfishly good.
Veronica Ryan is the pen name for a Ph.D. student in clinical psychology.