Theodore Dalrymple on Self-Esteem vs. Self-Respect
One has only to go into a prison, or at least a prison of the kind in which I used to work, to see the most revoltingly high self-esteem among a group of people (the young thugs) who had brought nothing but misery to those around them, largely because they conceived of themselves as so important that they could do no wrong. For them, their whim was law, which was precisely as it should be considering who they were in their own estimate.
With the coyness of someone revealing a bizarre sexual taste, my patients would often say to me, "Doctor, I think I'm suffering from low self-esteem." This, they believed, was at the root of their problem, whatever it was, for there is hardly any undesirable behavior or experience that has not been attributed, in the press and on the air, in books and in private conversations, to low self-esteem, from eating too much to mass murder.
Self-esteem is, of course, a term in the modern lexicon of psychobabble, and psychobabble is itself the verbal expression of self-absorption without self-examination. The former is a pleasurable vice, the latter a painful discipline. An accomplished psychobabbler can talk for hours about himself without revealing anything.
Insofar as self-esteem has a meaning, it is the appreciation of one's own worth and importance. That it is a concept of some cultural resonance is demonstrated by the fact that an Internet search I conducted brought up 14,500,000 sites, only slightly fewer than the U.S. Constitution and four times as many as "fortitude."
When people speak of their low self-esteem, they imply two things: first, that it is a physiological fact, rather like low hemoglobin, and second, that they have a right to more of it. What they seek, if you like, is a transfusion of self-esteem, given (curiously enough) by others; and once they have it, the quality of their lives will improve as the night succeeds the day. For the record, I never had a patient who complained of having too much self-esteem, and who therefore asked for a reduction. Self-esteem, it appears, is like money or health: you can't have too much of it.