What’s wrong with self-esteem?

July 5th, 2017 Posted by Ask the Rabbi 5 comments

I heard you briefly refer to self esteem and the idea of promoting self-esteem versus self-respect on your weekly Podcast. 

I grew up in the era of self esteem, however, my parents always spoke of respect. Please go into detail on your thoughts as to why promoting self-esteem degrades oneself.

Thank you,

 Lane (father of five)


Dear Lane,

Quite a lot has been written about the self-esteem movement that, from its beginnings in 1969, had a huge, and mostly negative, effect on educational and cultural trends. We urge you to do some research on this topic. There are so many articles on the subject, many of which acknowledge the damage done by this movement.

No matter how flawed the movement is, it has pervaded modern culture. Unfortunately, the results can be seen all around us.

As we see it, self-esteem is the opposite of the humility of Moses (Numbers 12:3). Moses was fully aware of his strengths and willing to assert his leadership when needed. While he was the most humble man ever, he certainly didn’t view himself as ‘nothing’.  That would have insulted his Creator.  More than any other person, however he understood that his talents and abilities were gifts from God that he had the responsibility to cultivate.

In contrast, the self-esteem movement focuses on assuring everyone, “you are great,” and shielding them from failure and even from competition.  Unfortunately state-run K-12 public education has been almost entirely subverted by the self-esteem movement.  Studies have shown that convicted murderers as a group enjoy very high self-esteem; not surprisingly, in their eyes, other people’s lives don’t have as much value as theirs do. American students regularly score poorly on math tests vs. students from other countries, but have a much higher opinion of their math skills than their more skilled counterparts in other countries do.  One might say that American public education has failed to teach mathematics but has succeeded in making its students feel very good about that. This is the glaring failure of self-esteem.

Of course it is important to feel good about oneself. But this feeling must be based on reality. One aspect of reality is that we are created in God’s image. The corollary to that is that we are capable of greatness. However, we are also capable of behaving horribly. It is up to us to aim more in one direction than the other.  The more we succeed in working towards that goal, the more we develop self-respect.

The huge distinction between self-esteem and self-respect is that the latter is earned, not merely bestowed. It grows in response to a person’s achievements. It allows people to strive, cope with failure and strive again. It comes from a feeling of accomplishment based on meeting a challenge and overcoming it through effort and diligence. Just as importantly, we feel it within ourselves and know it rings true.

May you and your wife give your children many opportunities to build their self-respect,

Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin

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Mark Lampe says:

Hello Rabbi Lapin,
This is another good topic, something that had initially passed over my head until several years ago when my granddaughter was awarded a trophy along with the entire little girl’s soccer team at the end of the season, even though they had just lost the game and hadn’t performed exceptionally as a team throughout the entire season. Privately my thoughts were, “How nice! But since when have we ever been awarding people for mediocrity?”

James says:

Thanks, dear Rabbi, for you thoughts on this thorny topic. Well I remember my own Mother, after her ‘enlightenment,’ who used to declare at intervals with vehemence: “Without the Lord, I am a worm.” I have little doubt this statement is true, but the manner in which it is declared said much more than the mere words. Your operative sentences are: “While he (Moses) was the most humble man ever, he certainly didn’t view himself as ‘nothing’. That would have insulted his Creator.”

You have recaptured my counter-plea at age 18 to my Mother: “God did not create you to be a worm. God created you to be a human being, a woman, a wife and a mother, and so you are. Cease this poisonous, self-deprecating talk about being a worm. You are insulting God if you think you are a worm.” It harks back to the enslaved Middle Ages when man as a chattel (or Nimrodian brick) to the Holy Church was in effect little more than a worm, condemned for “transgressions against Thy Divine Majesty.” Whether a positive assessment of self be self-respect or self-esteem is a matter of semantics. Yet it strikes me that the Hebrews are in this connection much wiser than many Christians over the centuries, in rejecting any undercurrent of ecclesiastical dogma, canon law or religious practice that would reduce man in effect to a subhuman slave to a power-seeking priestly hierarchy.

Rich Flink says:

Dear Rabbi and Susan,
Thank you for so clearly distinguishing the difference between self-esteem and self-respect! A very useful “thought tool.”
Rich Flink

Susan Lapin says:

How lovely to hear from you. Even for those of us who are rightfully wary of the self-esteem movement, it’s interesting to try and notice where we have been influenced by it.

Jean says:

There was a study done that compared the self-esteem of career criminals with that of average folks. The researchers’ assumption was that the criminals would have low self-esteem; what they found was that criminals have higher self-esteem than those who follow the law. It’s that sense of “betterness” that leads them to eschew what they consider to be “slave labor” and pursue immediate gratification.

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