In Praise of Ordinary

Healthy self-esteem doesn't mean thinking you are unique and special. There's a risk of setting the self-esteem bar too high and getting stuck in a cycle of failure.

The idea that high self-esteem and good-life outcomes go together feels so 'true' that it seems nonsense to challenge it. In fact its a culturally created myth not a truth. A steady stream of research from the 1970s on has confirmed the causal link between self-esteem and life outcomes and vice versa. According to Social Psychologists Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell this has encouraged a culture of narcissism in which generations of people now believe that they are special or extraordinary and deserve to be treated that way.

This appears to me to be what Syndrome, the villainous character in The Invincibles cartoon really understood when he said, “and when everyone is super, no-one will be”. In other words, if we live in a culture in which everyone is special and extraordinary, then specialness becomes commoditised and meaningless, and we are forced to look upon our own ordinariness as a tacit failure. It may be the case that exceptional people are more likely to have higher self-esteem, rather than higher self-esteem helping to give rise to exceptional people. Just because your self-esteem improves doesn't mean that you're going to become extraordinary. Sorry to crack the egg!

Modern self-esteem is also entangled in neo-liberal individualism. Crudely, that self-esteem is all about me. Sociologist Barbara Ehrenreich challenges this position. In order to create more happiness for more people, and for more people to feel better in and about themselves we need structural change. It calls for a collective responsibility to tackle the cultural issues and social inequalities that contribute to people feeling bad in the first place. Structural social change, not just self-reflection will improve the picture.

There are extraordinary and special people and collectives in this world, sometimes they change the world at a macro level, sometimes they truly work for the greater good, or they achieve something phenomenal at an artistic, environmental or scientific level. Sometimes, its just one human or a group who endure and survive unbelievable pain or hardship. These people are not commonplace, and that's what makes them special. Most of us are just doing our thing and living as best we can.

There is a misunderstanding that therapy is a way to help people feel extraordinary and special. That's not its job. Yes as therapists we often end up working with self-esteem, but self-esteem isn't about being able to big yourself up. Self-esteem is self-acceptance. This means seeing and knowing all the different bits of yourself, the 'good', the 'bad' and the 'ugly'. It all comes along for the ride, but you learn to be in charge of which bits show up and which bits just need a lie down and a blanket.

Self-esteem is a cycle that impacts on individuals and the world they live in. When you know yourself, you stand a better chance of liking yourself and then caring for yourself and then behaving in a way that shows that you like and care for yourself. By extension, you are less likely to project your self-hatred onto other people. Self-acceptance is the true super-power.

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