“Self-Esteem” and Narcissism
Updated: Oct 31
Is Nathaniel Branden (and by extension Ayn Rand) partly to blame for the rampant narcissism that seems to be stalking America? This is the contention of the 2010 book called The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement, by Jean M. Twenge, PhD. and W. Keith Campbell, PhD.
The book is about how the narcissistic personality style (not the clinical disorder) has become increasingly more prevalent over the last generation or so. We can see evidence for this in the increasing number of people who are famous for being famous, like the Kardashians, in the increasing number of people who want to be famous more than they want to be smart, strong or beautiful, in the relentless self-promotion of many young people in the social media, etc.
The authors blame this shift on child-centered parenting practices, the rise of the social media and—you guessed it—the self-esteem movement. As “the father of the self-esteem movement,” Nathaniel Branden gets a small mention in the chapter about origins. (Branden's foundational work on the subject, The Psychology of Self-Esteem, is basically a collection of essays he wrote while he was collaborating with Rand, so I think it is safe to take his views, in that work at least, as her views.)
Branden’s idea of self-esteem has often been distorted by other writers. Some seem to believe that self-esteem for Branden means mere unconditional positive self-regard or self-love. This is not the case because for Branden, self-esteem has to earned. “The deepest pride a man can experience is that which results from his achievement of self-esteem: since self-esteem is a value that has to be earned, the man who does so feels proud of his attainment.” (The Psychology of Self-Esteem: A Revolutionary Approach to Self-Understanding that Launched a New Era in Modern Psychology (p. 125). Jossey-Bass. Kindle Edition.)
Nor is self-esteem just a contentless self-approval: “Self-esteem has two interrelated aspects: it entails a sense of personal efficacy and a sense of personal worth. It is the integrated sum of self-confidence and self-respect. It is the conviction that one is competent to live and worthy of living.” Branden, (Kindle Locations 2060-2062).
The kind of self-esteem that is too-often promoted in today’s society does consist largely of unconditional and contentless self-love. “I am special, I am special, Look at me, look at me” goes one pre-school song taught to the tykes, whose parents buy them T-shirts that say “Princess” or “Rock Star.” It is unfair to blame Branden and Rand for this perversion of their idea. But then again, maybe they are a little bit responsible.
I have always felt there was something a little “off” about Branden's concept of self-esteem. What bothers me is the subjective component. Self-esteem, as Branden often describes it, is a psychological virtue. It is a form of self-confidence and self-respect (mental states) experienced as pride (a mental state). Branden also talks about how self-esteem is experienced as a "feeling" and a "sense." (pp. 109 - 110)
I am not saying that this isn’t true, and it makes sense from a therapeutic point-of-view to speak of mental states, of course. But from a philosophical standpoint, this is misleading. Rand and Peikoff aren’t much better. They also use the term self-esteem and the term “pride,” which of course also refers to a mental state. I think a lot of the confusion over the concept of self-esteem could have been avoided if there were less reference to states of mind and more to facts, or better, to the two phenomena separated.
Let’s try an alternative formulation of Rand's (and presumably Branden's) top values, which are Reason, Purpose, and Self-Esteem: “What is most important in a person’s life is that he practices rationality, that he chooses and sticks to a purpose to structure his life, and that he tries his best to make sure he is both a good and a competent person.” The last part is the self-esteem part. Now that doesn’t have the same ring to it as the familiar formulation, but it would be harder to pervert, and I think it might be easier to digest. Rand sometimes uses the term “moral ambition” to describe what she means, and that is better than self-esteem because it refers to characteristic action, rather than a state of mind, per se.
I think Branden and Rand might unintentionally confuse two separate issues by use of the single term “self-esteem”: 1. Am I a competent and good person? This is a question of fact. 2. Do I recognize that I am a competent and good person? This is a more subjective question.. Notice that I am not saying that they are unaware of the difference between the two issues, but I am saying that using one term--self-esteem--to describe both is misleading, because raising your self-esteem in the sense of addressing the second issue could be taken to be the whole of the matter.
The ultimate reason for the confusion may rest in Rand’s means of portraying an ideal man in her fiction. In order to have serious literature, you have to have character growth. In order to have growth, you have to start out with a character who starts out with some sort of deficiency or at least incompleteness. Rand’s hero worship does not seem to have allowed her to come up with a seriously flawed or undeveloped protagonist. Her literary solution to this problem seems to have been coming up with heroes who are in some sense unself-aware, like Roark, or who underestimate their own goodness, like Rearden. I don’t think Rand would be interested in them if they were not objectively good and competent men, but she can happily portray their struggle to see their own value. Once again we see an emphasis on the more subjective element of self-esteem, the “Do I recognize my value?” part.
Rand also structured her plots by creating villains (specifically Ellsworth Toohey and Lillian Rearden) who strive to keep others from recognizing their self-worth. She evidently saw this as an important dynamic in the drama of life. These dynamics exist outside of fiction. On an ideological level we could point to environmentalists who regard man as an infestation of nature. On a personal level we could mention spouse abusers who try to keep their victims feeling bad about themselves so they won’t walk away or fight back. Rand and Branden are correct that recognizing your worth is an issue that needs to be addressed. Apparently it’s not enough to be good and competent, you have to know it as well.
But where it all gets problematic is that using one term, self-esteem, to refer to both having certain qualities and knowing you have certain qualities, creates an opportunity to misunderstand and think the more important part is the knowing. From there we get slippage from knowing into merely believing you have self-worth as the important part, and from there we go to psyching yourself up to believing you have self-worth as the important part. And this gets us the contentless, unconditional self-love of narcissism that parents, teachers and the media encourage.
I should mention that there has been some real need for the "subjective" kind of self-esteem among historically oppressed groups. Think of Jesse Jackson leading chants of "I am somebody" to black people who had consistently been told they were nobody by millions of Tooheys. But even here I think there was some slippage as we get into the megalomania of some rappers.
I don’t dispute Rand and Branden’s underlying ideas, but I suspect that Rand’s concerns might have subtly pushed the self-esteem discussion in the direction of sounding like narcissism. Later thinkers bear most of the responsibility for this misunderstanding, of course: Rand and Branden clearly speak of earning your own respect. But Rand and Branden do seem to bear a little of the blame because of their occasional confusion of subjective and objective language.
In conclusion, I would probably abandon terms like “self-esteem” and “pride” in favor of saying that being a good and competent person is a value, moral ambition is a virtue, and that recognizing your own good character is a matter of psychological survival. Perhaps more concise and elegant language could be found, but at least these phrasings are less likely to mislead.
If you enjoyed this essay you may also be interested in my collection of essays about authenticity, Killing Cool: Fantasy vs. Reality in American Life.