Life & Liberty: In Defense of Self


A deeply unhealthy cultural trend seems to be gathering momentum in this country. I was left with this sense during a recent promotional tour for my new book, Honoring the Self.

We seem to be in the midst of a backlash against what is known as the human-potential movement or the personal-growth movement. There is now a tendency to dismiss as "narcissistic" any individual actively concerned with his or her personal evolution. Self, it appears, has become an inflammatory word.

Self-esteem, self-actualization, self-realization—even the quest for autonomy—are becoming morally suspect. "Haven't we had enough of the 'me generation?" interviewers kept asking. "Aren't you encouraging selfishness?"

"What about the problems of the world?" they said. "And aren't you interested in going beyond the isolated individual? What about relationships?" "Don't most people have too big an ego already?"

That such questions were asked so often by television, radio, and newspaper interviewers wherever I went surely discloses something of the thinking in the country and the assumptions of a good many people. It is these assumptions I wish to challenge.

Now my message is not "Me first—with no regard for the rights of others." Rather, I explore the relationship between self-esteem and human well-being, individually and socially, and the various forces in our culture that subvert the healthy development of self.

Self-esteem pertains to the experience of being competent to cope with the challenges of life and of being deserving of happiness. It entails self-trust and self-respect. I cannot think of a single psychological problem—from anxiety and depression, to fear of intimacy or of success, to alcohol or drug abuse, to spouse battering or child molestation, to suicide and crimes of violence—that is not traceable to the problem of a poor self-concept. Of all the judgments we pass, none is as important as the one we pass on ourselves. Self-concept tends to be destiny. Positive self-esteem is a cardinal requirement of a fulfilling life. The values of individualism and enlightened self-interest, I conclude, provide the best possible basis for social cooperation, benevolence, and progress.

Ask yourself with whom you would like to share the world. People who respect your right to exist and do not ask you to act against your own self-interest—or who treat you as an object of sacrifice? People who enjoy a strong sense of personal identity—or who expect you to create one for them? People who take responsibility for their own existence—or who attempt to pass that responsibility to you?

Individualism is, of course, the tradition and animating vision of this country. Ours is the first nation in history to proclaim a human being's right to the pursuit of happiness, an idea as radical today, morally and politically, as when it was originally announced. The human-potential movement, at its best, has its roots in this tradition. It seeks to go beyond conventionally defined normality (the "well-adjusted personality"): it is oriented toward growth, expanded consciousness, the exploration of our optimal possibilities.

Yet the human-potential movement is currently being attacked as "a middle-class phenomenon," "a religion of self-worship"; its exponents charged with being self-centered, self-indulgent, and infantile. And, as already indicated, critics imply that a concern with self-realization entails indifference to human relationships and the problems of the world.

The human-potential movement is undeniably a "middle-class phenomenon." Persons who are struggling with the problem of physical survival, for whom disease and starvation are a daily issue, seldom concern themselves with "self-actualization." Such a concern is indeed ordinarily experienced by those who have achieved a reasonable degree of material well-being and want "more"—not more materially, but more spiritually, psychologically, emotionally, intellectually. The movement arose in an affluent society; it is an "American phenomenon." And here may be a difficulty: one of the most striking (and curious) traits of our intellectuals is a tendency to dismiss contemptuously anything identifiably American.

Admittedly, there is a lot about the movement that is foolish, irresponsible, even obnoxious (in some people's notion of self-assertiveness, for instance). What is particularly unfortunate is that some leaders (and followers) are antirational and antiscience, and some talk as if they wish they could repeal the Industrial Revolution. Eager to embrace emotion, they repudiate mind; eager to embrace spirit, they repudiate matter. But that is not what they and the movement are chiefly being criticized for. Indiscriminately, the clear thinkers and the arrogantly fuzzy, the profound and the pretentious, all are being attacked for the same alleged evil: a "preoccupation" with self.

It is easy enough to point to some narcissists in the movement (or any other movement). But individualism, self-esteem, autonomy, a concern with personal growth, are not narcissism—the latter being a condition of unhealthy and excessive self-absorption arising from a deep-rooted sense of inner deficiency and deprivation. Ironically, the vices typically ascribed to persons with strong egos—pettiness, belligerent competitiveness, overreadiness to take offense—are, in fact, the vices peculiar to weak egos.

I do not know of a single reputable leader in the human-potential movement who teaches that self-actualization is to be pursued without involvement in and commitment to personal relationships. "Isn't it to my self-interest," I asked my interviewers, "to find people I can love, respect and admire?" I would usually see a light bulb go on in their answering smile. "Isn't it to my self-interest to live in a safer, saner, better world—and to try to bring such a world about?" No rational person has ever imagined that honoring the self entails solipsism.

The polarization of self and others, or self and the world, implicit in so many of the responses I received, has no valid basis in reality. Indeed, there is overwhelming evidence, including scientific research findings, that the higher the level of an individual's self-esteem, the more likely it is that he or she will treat others with respect, kindness, and generosity. People who do not experience self-love have little or no capacity to love others. People who experience deep insecurities and self-doubts tend to experience other human beings as frightening and inimical. People who have little or no self-esteem have nothing to contribute to the world.

Now in the light of all this I must ask, Why do the concepts of self-esteem and self-actualization—that is, personal goals—strike some people as so ominous? Why are only "social" goals respectable?

The answer, I believe, lies in the failure of many of us to emancipate ourselves from an authoritarian notion of ethics that always places its vision of "the good" outside the individual. Almost all ethical systems that have achieved world influence have been variations on the theme of self-surrender and self-sacrifice. Unselfishness is equated with virtue; selfishness is made a synonym of evil. In such systems, the individual has always been the victim, twisted against him or her self and commanded to be "unselfish" in service to some allegedly higher value—Pharoah, Emperor, King, Tribe, Country, Family, the True Faith, the Race, the State, the Proletariat, or Society.

We would more readily understand the willingness of so many people to submit themselves to one kind of authority figure or another if we remembered how almost all of us were introduced to the word good. "He's a good boy—he minds me, he behaves." "She's a good girl—she does what she's told." From the beginning, we are instructed that virtue consists not of honoring the needs, wants, and highest possibilities of the self, but of satisfying the expectations of others.

Today, with the rise of feminism, women are beginning to awaken to the fact that this doctrine is manipulative and exploitative. Imagine the response if a lecturer told a group of modern women, "Don't think of your own needs and wants—think only of the needs and wants of those you serve. Self-sacrifice is the highest virtue." I believe that men, no less than women, need to take a fresh look at this doctrine as it affects their lives. In generating victimization, it is no respecter of gender. The issue is global.

The tragedy is that any number of men and women struggling with issues of self-realization feel helpless and intimidated by accusations of "selfishness." If "selfishness" means "concerned with one's self-interest," of course the pursuit of self-esteem and personal growth is selfish. So is the pursuit of physical health. So is the pursuit of sanity. So is the pursuit of happiness. So is the pursuit of your next breath of air.

Until we are prepared to respect an individual's right to his or her own life—until we understand that every person, ourselves included, is an end in him or her self, not a means to the ends of others—we cannot think clearly about the deepest meaning of the personal-growth movement. We will be stuck in debates at the superficial level of media-generated nonsense about the "me generation."

Until we are willing to honor the self and proudly proclaim our right to do so, we cannot fight for self-esteem—and we cannot achieve it.

Nathaniel Branden is the author of several books, including The Psychology of Self-Esteem and Honoring the Self.