What happens when we fail? Why do some people just give up? One theory on the effects of failure comes from the current cultural myth of self-esteem. As disturbing as this may be for some people, in reality there is no such thing as self-esteem.

Back in the late 1970s, I received a complimentary copy of a new book by television evangelist Robert Schuler, titled Self-Esteem: The Next Reformation. The fact of the matter is Dr. Schuler’s prediction was wrong. A reformation based on self-esteem never occurred. Countless self-help books have been written on this subject. The pop culture diagnosis of poor self-esteem is the potpourri explanation that sounds profound, but means very little. I feel for new sojourners who bring a sincere, serious, and humble admittance of “low” self-esteem to an initial appointment. There is a great deal of shame associated with this self-diagnosis. Using little eye contact, sojourners attempt to explain something they do not understand in the hope that I will.

The dictionary defines self-esteem as “Pride in oneself; self-respect.” Seems simple enough, but self-esteem attempts to define an intangible, unsubstantial and vague reality. How much self-esteem is too much? How much is not enough? Is too much self-esteem narcissism? Is too little depression? If self-esteem is low, can we add a quart? Have you ever tried to encourage someone feeling defeated, deflated or depressed? Did it work? Was it like trying to pour water into a colander?

My years as a counselor have given me the opportunity to work with many different physicians including specialists, family practice doctors, and surgeons. My favorite question to ask physicians is, “Have you ever seen the self-esteem? Where is it located? Is it near the cerebellum, kidneys, spleen, or the appendix?” I usually get a quizzical stare, a shrug of the shoulder, or even a philosophical statement with a finger pointing to either the head or the heart.

Self-esteem is a dysfunctional diagnostic instrument readily used that is vague, unclear, and non-specific. “You have a tumor in your lung.” “You have cirrhosis of the liver.” Tumors and cirrhosis are clear, specific and identifiable on a CT scan. Self-esteem is not. Practitioners in mental health and counseling have used the concept of “low” self-esteem like leeches to suck the blood out of clients and money from their wallets. If you have “low” self-esteem, when does it fill back up? A sojourner with unmet dependency needs would answer NEVER! Self-esteem has been a trendy fad in pop psychology that has outlived its usefulness and needs a fitting eulogy and burial.

Naming the symptoms provides the ability to organize the experience. As an example, a patient presents the physician with a list of symptoms such as nausea, headache and fever. The physician assesses the symptoms, conducts a battery of diagnostic tests and determines the patient has a “mass.” A respected, credentialed, and competent physician gives the symptoms a name and identifies the cause. The diagnosis now organizes what was previously vague and unclear. A team of physicians would then establish a treatment plan. A surgeon might remove the tumor, a radiologist might bombard it with radiation, or an oncologist might poison it with chemotherapy. If we name the demon, the demon can now be cut out, burned, or poisoned. A diagnosis of “low self-esteem” links together a vague collection of symptoms. The focus is on the symptoms but not the cause. Symptoms cannot be cut out, burned, or poisoned. The diagnosis is in of itself a poison. It creates an internalization of meaning that is skewed, reactive, and distorted. “I have low self-esteem” is comparable to saying, “I am an incurable, defective, and pathetic human being.” This demon cannot be cast out.

Naming symptoms provides the means to have power over the unknown. Early in human history, ancient Neanderthal warriors painted images of the animals they intended to hunt on the walls of caves. Cultural anthropologists theorize this ritual “captured the spirit of the animal” prior to the hunt. In this mindset, the hunters slay whathad already been captured! Organizing reality in this way met primitive needs to take control over a situation. This same dynamic is also operative in naming an illness or a disease. It will fend off feelings of powerlessness. There is power in knowing! Knowing provides a sense of coherence, a mastery and dominion over the circumstance or situation. Defining a problem using the concept of self-esteem, especially “low” self-esteem, creates pathology as a way of organizing human experience. Does it make sense to organize around deficiencies, weaknesses, and problems?

Self-esteem is vague and ambiguous, ethereal and mysterious, like the shadowy mist rising from the swamp. The unconscious mind struggles to understand ambiguity and the problem with the concept of self-esteem is that it attempts to define something that is non-specific. Using ambiguous words to describe an event, feeling, situation or need makes it difficult to create “meaning.” As a college instructor, if I told my students to write a ten-page essay on beauty, love, or freedom, they would say, “Huh?” However, if I assigned a ten-page paper on the most beautiful sunset they had ever seen, or what it was like the first time they fell in love, or what the Declaration of Independence, the 4th of July, and a fireworks display means to them since 9-11, the task would be easily “doable”. These instructions are far more specific.

One of the components of our search is our basic need to be competent. Competence and confidence represent an essential need that begins at birth and continues until death. When a sojourner tells me he is suffering with a self-esteem problem, it is a cue that he feels incompetent to handle or manage a particular situation in the immediate present. In response, I usually ask, “Is there something going on in your life right now that you do not feel competent or confident to manage?” The question seems to elicit shock and a certain level of nakedness, as though I were a mystical clairvoyant. “How did I know?”