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What Is Self-Esteem?
"The notion of giving something a name is the vastest generative idea that was ever conceived."
SUZANNE K. LANGER
I. The Plaza Parable
"The mind is its own place, and in itself Can make a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n." JOHN MILTON
As I write this, I'm still the same person who grew up mostly in a Midwestern, factory-working neighborhood where talk about "self-esteem" would have seemed like a luxury. In my memory of those times and that place, men were valued by what they did, women by how they looked and then by what their husbands did, and all of life was arranged (or so we thought) from the outside in.
This experience of living among good people who were made to feel ungood by an economic class system imposed from above—people who often blamed themselves for hard times they had done nothing to deserve—left me with a permanent resistance to any self-help book or religion or psychological theory that tells us we can solve all our problems on our own. So did a later realization that sexual and racial caste systems are even deeper and less in our control than class is. After all, we know that if children are treated badly enough for long enough, they come to believe they are bad people. As adults, we often try to rationalize the world by asking what we did to deserve some instance of bad luck, violence, humiliation, or even illness.
As Susan Sontag wrote in Illness as Metaphor, many theories of disease "assign to the luckless ill the ultimate responsibility both for falling ill and for getting well." And we often accept this, for it gives us an illusion of control. As Princeton mayor Barbara Boggs Sigmund protested in the New York Times shortly before she died of the cancer that she had been courageously battling for years, "We humans would rather accept culpability than chaos...."
That's why to this day, if I were forced to choose between "Bread and Roses"—the dual demands of nineteenth-century women millworkers who organized one of this country's first strikes—I still would start with "bread" (and warmth and physical safety and a roof over everyone's head) before moving on to self-knowledge, self-expression, and other "roses." I still would balk at phrases like "She [or he] just has a self-esteem problem," as if this were something an individual chose to have.
But not until sometime in my thirties did I begin to suspect that there might be an internal center of power I was neglecting. Though the way I'd grown up had encouraged me to locate power almost anywhere but within myself, I began to be increasingly aware of its pinpoint of beginning within—my gender and neighborhood training notwithstanding.
And with this awareness, I gradually began to notice that many of the people I had been brought up to envy and see as powerful—mostly men from groups who were supposed to be the givers of approval—actually had the other half of the same problem I was experiencing. I had been raised to assume all power was outside myself, but they had been raised to place power almost nowhere but within themselves. Often, they were suffering, too. Just as the fantasy of no control was the enemy of my self-esteem, the fantasy of total control was the enemy of theirs. For both of us, the goal should have been a point of balance in between: a back-and-forth between the self and others, uniqueness and unity, the planned and the accidental, our internal selves and the universe. As wise women and men in every culture tell us: The art of life is not controlling what happens to us, but using what happens to us.
Like all great oaks, this understanding began with a very small acorn.
It was the late sixties, those days that were still pre-feminist for me. I didn't question the fact that male journalists with less experience than I were getting the political assignments that were my real interest. Instead, I was grateful to be writing profiles of visiting celebrities—a departure from the fashion and family subjects that female reporters were usually given—and this included an interview that was to take place over tea in the Palm Court of the Plaza Hotel.
Because the actor was very late, I waited while the assistant manager circled disapprovingly and finally approached. "Unescorted ladies," he announced loudly, were "absolutely not allowed" in the lobby. I told him I was a reporter waiting for an arriving guest who couldn't be contacted any other way—an explanation that sounded lame even to me. The manager escorted me firmly past curious bystanders and out the lobby door.
I was humiliated: Did I look like a prostitute? Was my trench coat too battered—or not battered enough? I was anxious: How was I going to find my subject and do my work? I decided to wait outside the revolving door in the hope of spotting the famous actor through its glass, but an hour passed with no success.
Later, I learned that he had arrived, failed to see me, and left. His press agent called my editor to complain that I had "stood up" his client. The actor missed his publicity, the editor missed a deadline, and I missed a check that I needed to pay the rent. I also blamed myself for not figuring out how to "get the story" and worried about being demoted permanently back to the ghetto of "women's interest" articles I was trying to escape.
By coincidence a month or so later, I was assigned to interview another celebrity who was also staying at the Plaza. To avoid a similar fiasco, I had arranged to meet this one in his suite, but on my way through the lobby, I noticed my former nemesis standing guard. Somehow, I found myself lingering, as if rooted to the spot—and sure enough, the manager approached me with his same officious speech. But this time I was amazed to hear myself saying some very different things. I told him this was a public place where I had every legal right to be, and asked why he hadn't banished the several "unescorted men" in the lobby who might be male prostitutes. I also pointed out that since hotel staffs were well known to supply call girls in return for a percentage of their pay, perhaps he was just worried about losing a commission.
He looked quite startled—and let me stay. I called my subject and suggested we have tea downstairs after all. It turned out to be a newsworthy interview, and I remember writing it up with more ease than usual and delivering it with an odd sense of well-being.
What was the lesson of these two incidents? Clearly, the assistant manager and I were unchanged. I was even wearing the same trench coat and freelancing for the same publication. Only one thing was different: my self-esteem. It had been raised almost against my will—by contagion.
Between those two interviews, a woman doctor had made a reservation for herself and a party of friends at the Plaza's Oak Room, a public restaurant that was maintained as a male-only bastion at lunchtime on the grounds that female voices might disturb men's business meetings. When this woman was stopped at the Oak Room door for being the wrong gender of "Dr.," as she knew she would be, her lunch group of distinguished feminists turned into a spirited sidewalk picket line and held a press conference they had called in advance.
Now, I also had been invited to join this protest—and refused. In New York as in most cities, there were many public restaurants and bars that either excluded women altogether or wouldn't serve "unescorted ladies" (that is, any woman or group of women without the magical presence of one man). Certainly, I resented this, but protesting it in the Oak Room, a restaurant too expensive for most people, male or female, seemed a mistake. The only remedy was a city council ordinance banning discrimination in public places, and that would require democratic support. Besides, feminists were already being misrepresented in the media as white, middle class, and frivolous, a caricature that even then I knew was wrong: the first feminists I had heard of in the sixties were working-class women who broke the sex barrier in factory assembly lines, and the first I actually met were black women on welfare who compared that demeaning system to a gigantic husband who demanded sexual faithfulness (the no-man-in-the-house rule) in return for subsistence payments. If groups like those were not publicized—and if well-to-do women who lunched at the Plaza were—I feared this new movement's image would become even more distorted.
As it turned out, I was right about tactics and the media's continuing image of feminism: "whitemiddleclass" did become like one key on the typewriter of many journalists (though polls showed that black women were almost twice as likely to support feminist changes as white women were). But I was very wrong about women's responses—including my own. For instance: By the time of that demonstration at the Plaza, I already had picketed for civil rights, against U.S. involvement in Vietnam, and with migrant farm workers, often in demonstrations that were far from tactically perfect; so why was I suddenly demanding perfection of women? When blacks or Jews had been kept out of restaurants and bars, expensive or not, I felt fine about protesting; so why couldn't I take my own half of the human race (which, after all, included half of all blacks and half of all Jews) just as seriously?
The truth was that I had internalized society's unserious estimate of all that was female—including myself. This was low self-esteem, not logic. Should a black woman demonstrate for the right to eat at dimestore lunch counters in the South, where she was barred by race, and then quietly leave when refused service at an expensive New York restaurant on account of sex? Of course not. The principle—and, more important, the result for one real woman—was the same. But I had been raised to consider any judgment based on sex alone less important than any judgment based on race, class, or anything else alone. In fact, if you counted up all groups in the world other than white women, I was valuing just about everybody more than I valued myself.
Nonetheless, all the excuses of my conscious mind couldn't keep my unconscious self from catching the contagious spirit of those women who picketed the Oak Room. When I faced the hotel manager again, I had glimpsed the world as if women mattered. By seeing through their eyes, I had begun to see through my own.
It still would be years before I understood the seriousness of my change of view. Much later, I recognized it in "Revolution," the essay of Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski, who describes the moment when a man on the edge of a crowd looks back defiantly at a policeman—and when that policeman senses a sudden refusal to accept his defining gaze—as the imperceptible moment in which rebellion is born. "All books about all revolutions begin with a chapter that describes the decay of tottering authority or the misery and sufferings of the people," Kapuscinski writes. "They should begin with a psychological chapter—one that shows how a harassed, terrified man suddenly breaks his terror, stops being afraid. This unusual process—sometimes accomplished in an instant, like a shock—demands to be illustrated. Man gets rid of fear and feels free. Without that, there would be no revolution."
But even then, this moment in a hotel lobby was my first inkling that there is a healthier self within each of us, just waiting for encouragement. It's such a common experience of unexpected strength that we have ordinary phrases for it: "I surprised myself," or "In spite of myself." In The Red and the Black, Stendhal called this inner self "a little friend." In Alice Walker's The Color Purple, Celie writes letters to a strong friend called God, but she is also writing to the strength within herself. Children create imaginary playmates, and athletes, musicians, and painters strive to free this true and spontaneous self in their work. Meditation, prayer, creativity—all these are ordinary ways of freeing an inner voice. It's a feeling of "clicking in" when that self is recognized, valued, discovered, esteemed—as if we literally plug into an inner energy that is ours alone, yet connects us to everything else.
To put it another way: I began to understand that self-esteem isn't everything; it's just that there's nothing without it.
II. Modern Ideas and Ancient Wisdom
"Happiness is self-contentedness." ARISTOTLE, C. 300 B.C.
"Oft-times nothing profits more Than self-esteem, grounded on just and right Well manag'd." JOHN MILTON, 1667
"Appreciating my own worth and importance and having the character to be accountable for myself and to act responsibly toward others."
OFFICIAL DEFINITION OF THE CALIFORNIA TASK FORCE TO PROMOTE SELF-ESTEEM AND PERSONAL AND SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY, 1990
Several years ago, I opened a newspaper to discover that California's legislature had created a statewide Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem. In the phrase of Assemblyman John Vasconcellos, the legislator most responsible for its formation, self-esteem is a "social vaccine" against an epidemic of school dropouts, teenage pregnancy, domestic violence, drug and alcohol addiction, child abuse, and other destructions of the self and others. As chair of the Ways and Means Committee, he had convinced his pragmatic colleagues that a little money spent on prevention could reduce the skyrocketing billions being spent on welfare, illiteracy, drug programs, crowded prisons, overburdened courts, academic under-achievement, and other public penalties of self-destructive behavior.
Finally, I thought, self-esteem is being presented with such pragmatism that even an outer-directed society like ours will take it seriously. Right?
Wrong. The Task Force captured our national imagination—but in quite a different way. "Hold on to your hot tubs," began one typical newspaper report. Other articles ridiculed this government interest in self-esteem as soft-headed California-think at best, and as a ridiculous misuse of public funds at worst.
Soon, self-esteem jokes were turning up in the monologues of television talk-show hosts. Garry Trudeau, creator of the literate, loony, delightful comic strip "Doonesbury," began to immortalize the Task Force's meetings in a nationally syndicated story about a fictional Task Force member, Barbara Ann ("Boopsie") Boopstein, an actress and mystic who was already well known to "Doonesbury" fans for her suspiciously Shirley MacLaine-like adventures. Since her qualifications included "twenty years of feeling good about myself" and "a history of out-of-body experiences," other Task Force members were not surprised when she turned out to be the channel for "a really good-looking 21,355-year-old warrior named Hunk-Ra," though they did question mildly whether Hunk-Ra should be allowed to vote. The "Doonesbury" series ended only after this ancient cynic had disrupted so many meetings with his un-Californian skepticism that both he and Boopsie were asked to move on.
I don't know whether popular misconceptions about self-esteem created this media ridicule, or vice versa, but in the case of the Task Force, it stuck. My picture of this group's work would have been very unserious, too, if I hadn't kept track of its proceedings over the three years of its legislative life. What I discovered was a very different story.
For instance: There had been more applications to serve on this Task Force than on any other body in state history—and this was true in spite of its heavy part-time work with no pay. The twenty-five members finally chosen were a very un-Boopsie-like group of ten women and fifteen men, a rainbow of European-American, African-American, Latin, and Asian-American leaders in education, small business, psychology, criminal justice, civil rights, sex discrimination, domestic violence, welfare, drug and alcohol abuse, religion, gay and lesbian rights, and the delivery of social services.
In the first stage of their work, they assembled and commissioned expert studies and scheduled ambitious, statewide public hearings to discover whether self-esteem was a root cause in any of seven major areas: "crime and violence, alcohol abuse, drug abuse, teenage pregnancy, child and spousal abuse, chronic welfare dependency, and failure to achieve in school." The outpouring of public interest and the unprecedented number of people asking to testify were the first clue that the Task Force had struck a populist nerve. These hearings turned out to be more like the civil rights meetings of the sixties and the feminist speak-outs of the seventies than the usual dry, government-run proceedings. Though national media had lost interest once the Task Force was under way, local reporters were so impressed that they began to temper their past ridicule.
When all the results of both the expert studies and the public hearings were in, low self-esteem had been documented as "a primary causal factor" in each of the seven areas of targeted social problems. News of these results created requests for information from experts and ordinary citizens in all fifty states, as well as in many foreign countries.
Excerpted from Revolution from Within by Gloria Steinem. Copyright © 1993 Gloria Steinem. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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