Posts that are advertised as taking 24 minutes to read don’t tend to grab me, what with working and living and everything. Then I came across Will Storrs’ Medium piece on distinguished psychologist Roy Baumeister, who wrote and edited over 30 books on subjects such as free will and the meaning of life. His most famous editorial was a paper written in 2003 challenging the theory of self-esteem presented in the book The Psychology of Self-Esteem by Canadian psychotherapist Nathaniel Branden.
The Real Self-Esteem Story
The piece traced Baumeister’s strict childhood regime of order and excellence dominated by his father to his adulthood where he became and remains a Professor of Psychology at Florida State University. The main ideas I took from the piece were about the relevance of self-esteem in our lives—particularly the impact esteem has on self-image and the impression we have of the world around us. What I zeroed in on was how much we mistake inflated ego for self-esteem—which is to say measuring our worthiness by what we own, how the world views us and how powerful we appear to be. The more we have, we tell ourselves, the more praise and notoriety we receive, the more we believe that we are “somebody.” And it doesn’t matter if it’s at the level of corporate business or just in our local community.
From what I can see, people fight tooth and nail to keep an image and position once they gain it. Those of us who don’t have a position worth talking about will seek to gain one our whole lives. We believe getting to that place is the sign of being a successful, right minded person. I once came from that exact school of thought. I believed that to be even remotely worthy to exist I must achieve, what was for me, the unachievable. I struggled to be thinner, richer, cooler and gain more material items; all the while I was completely miserable. Why? Because I was assaulting my own sensibilities and going against everything that my gut knew was good for me. I was telling myself I was not good enough the way I was. But I wasn’t conscious of anything I felt or thought because to be able to exist stuck in this lie, I had to drink to even remotely accept myself.
The Faux Booze Boost
The article talked about how “the pleasure of hollow self-esteem boosting” is similar to cocaine abuse, explaining that drugs take advantage of pleasure mechanisms in the body which make us feel we’ve accomplished something when all we’ve really done is ingested poison. So those of us who can’t quite measure up find a friend in drugs and alcohol because it fools the nervous system into making us feel amazing and that we have actually become that illusive person we long to be. Throw genetics, biology, social factors and perhaps a little mental illness like depression and anxiety on top of that low self-esteem and you’re left with an addict or alcoholic. To my mind, alcoholics and addicts are people who will hold onto that instant make believe feeling until death—or recovery.
Thankfully recovery showed up for me before death. Still, it’s hard for someone like me to not long for that instant fix—especially when the word alcoholic is still viewed as a dirty label to wear. But who wants perfection anyway? I’d surely find a way to want to escape that, too.