Is Self-Esteem a Social Construct Or the Soul's Self-Awareness?


I worried about my son’s inability to read. He seemed far behind other second-graders. When I brought my concerns to his teacher, she brushed my fears aside. “He is the highest in his reading group.” With her assurance, sprinkled with condescension that hinted education is best left to professionals, my parental instincts were put aside. After all, what parent argues with a teacher who insists a mother should be proud of her child’s hard work and dedication?

Imagine my surprise when at the end of the year, the decision was made to hold the boy back and repeat the grade. The reason? You guessed it–reading. When I pushed-back, reminding Mrs. Professionaleducator of her own words of assurance, she added one small detail previously left out. He was indeed at the top of his reading group–the lowest group in the class.

When he reached the top, she did not advance him to the next level for fear of hurting his self-esteem. He would no longer be the top dog. He would be at the bottom in the new group–with better readers. He would have to struggle to climb back to the top. For this reason alone, the preservation of the boy’s self-esteem, that he was not pushed to the next reading level.

He was reading somewhere around the 1.3 grade level at the end of the second grade. His prized self-esteem, was artificially inflated–something that was quickly and properly adjusted with the news he would not be advancing to the third grade with his friends.

For years, I chalked this experience up to the fact that his teacher just didn’t know my son. If she had, she would have known that putting him at the bottom would have challenged him to climb to the top. His competitive spirit and almost untamable drive would have propelled him over each obstacle put in front of him. Instead, she gave him a dunce cap and told him it was a crown, and rewarded him with a false sense of accomplishment as a foot-rest.

This week’s reading of Ernest Becker’s Birth and Death of Meaning reminded me of that first encounter with an esteem-puffer disguised as an educator. Becker made me rethink how self-esteem is actually built.


Becker writes:

“If the self is primarily a linguistic device, and the identity of the self primarily the experience of control over one’s powers, one fundamental conclusion is inescapable. To present an infallible self is to present one which has unshakable control over words. It is amazing how little we realize this even after Dale Carnegie’s unambiguous message: ‘It matters not what you mean: you and those around you become according to what you say.’

Volumes could not contain the entirety of the power of mastering words and the benefit or devastation created with words–especially concerning children.

Praise and acceptance are vitally important, especially to a child. However, real self-esteem can not be bought with words of praise. It must be earned. A child that is told he is wonderful and perfect in every way will not have a healthy self-esteem. Instead of producing adults capable of facing the world, we get campuses full of overgrown adolescents expecting the world to bow to their sense of entitlement.

More than that, I contend that not only will a child that has been bathed with words alone not only suffer from the maladies of a bloated ego, but also from guilt and mistrust. Deep down, he knows he did not earn the praise with which he’s adorned. Yet, it’s a daily struggle create “an infallible” self within.

In the 1998 movie You’ve Got Mail Becker’s theory is played out. Joe possesses the ability to do just as Becker says–he commands his world with control and mastery of words. He seemingly effortlessly says just the right slight to put an opponent in place. Katherine on the other hand doesn’t, but longs to have the ability. When she confides in her online friend of her longing for this command of her world, he warns her–while the moment is gratifying, to say just what you think at the right time, remorse always follows.

The truth in this tale is that on our “self” is stamped what is commonly known as the “Law of Nature.” It is the knowledge of right and wrong. Our self-esteem is not merely a social construct as some would contend– it comes with a moral imprint. C.S. Lewis wrote,

“…human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it. Secondly, that they do not in fact behave in that way. They know the Law of Nature; they break it. These two facts are the foundation of all clear thinking about ourselves and the universe we live in.”

Granted, Becker is right in that the command of language is a powerful tool. Although external influences can mold our self-esteem, the Law of Nature is its life force and will always be at odds with the world in which it lives.

When it comes to giving children a healthy self esteem it takes more than words. A parent or teacher can not give a child self-esteem. He has to earn it by learning to follow the Laws of Nature.

As my son learned at an early age, self-esteem can’t be given but it can be stolen and destroyed.

The preservation and creation of our self-esteem, is a constant struggle to balance what we want to be true about ourselves, and what we know is true.


Join the conversation, get The Birth and Death of Meaning by Ernest Becker


Photo Credit: shutterstock / Gladskikh Tatiana,