Can’t recall who said it but I’ve always liked the quote, “A man in love with himself will have few competitors for his affection.” When I went to college, I was taught that the most dangerous condition a person could experience was something called low self-esteem. I suggest that a lack of self-respect constitutes a far bigger peril.
We don’t hear much about self-respect nowadays. The people who do bring it up are reviled for having judgmental attitudes and “blaming the victims.” Bill Cosby caught a lot of flak for suggesting that effort is better than excuses in the fight for equality. There’s no denying that life is seldom fair. Some people do seem to get all the breaks and pay none of the consequences the rest of us suffer. Cosby’s point, though, is one we’d all do well to heed. His message implies, “Get over it.
The difference between self-esteem and self-respect is one of focus. Self esteem focuses exclusively on Me and what I want. Self-respect focuses on responsibility and acceptance of logical consequences to my behavior.
Self-esteem says that I should love myself regardless of my behavior. No matter how obnoxious an ear-hole I am, I deserve and will demand unconditional love from my fellow humans. Anyone who questions this is a judgmental orifice and the reason for all of my suffering.
Self-respect, however, implies that there are some things I am too good to do and if I choose to do them anyway, I deserve the consequences that come my way. If, by dumb luck, I manage to escape the consequences, I better straighten up or expect trouble the next time around.
Where self-respect tells me I need to live within my means and appreciate what I have, self-esteem screams about how I deserve the best and says credit cards are the best way to get there. Where self-respect says that love is about lifelong commitment and investing my life in the people around me, self-esteem demands that I can’t love anyone else until I’ve satisfied all my whims and “found myself.”
If you want to see self-esteem at work, think back to the story of the Garden of Eden. The principle lesson is the same whether you take the story literally or not. God asks Adam, “Hast thou eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldest not eat?” Adam answers, “The woman that thou gavest me, she gave me of the tree and I did eat.” Eve passes the buck too, “The serpent beguiled me.” In neither case do Adam or Eve take responsibility. In a roundabout way, they opt for excuses and put the blame back on God. “I didn’t do anything wrong — everything was working against me.” The Bible doesn’t record the serpent’s response but I’ll bet it had something to do with positive affirmations to soothe their aching psyches.
My years in the classroom have taught me that regardless of how much time you spend trying to talk kids into whatever self-esteem is, nothing makes them feel better, stronger and more confident than genuine achievement. This is usually even truer when the path to success has been difficult. One of my main concerns with the emphasis on self-esteem is that it sends the message that mistakes are unacceptable and so damaging that acknowledging them must be avoided at all costs. Allowing kids to see their (and our) mistakes on the other hand, is the only way to help them learn from them. One of the distinguishing features of people who achieve great things is their ability to confront their failures and difficulties directly and get back in the game.
• Mike Chivers, a first-grade teacher at Bohn Elementary School, is among a select group of local residents rotating their columns in the Saturday Tracy Press.