History of Self-Esteem

The idea that it is important to value and think well of yourself has been around for a long time. However, the first pure psychological use of the term can be traced back to 1890 and the work of William James who is generally seen as the father of modern psychology. According to James the more success we have and the lower our expectations then the higher our self-esteem. To raise self-esteem, therefore, we have two options: lower our expectations of ourselves or increase our achievements.

In The Optimistic Child Professor Martin Seligman gives a brief history of self-esteem starting with William James. Seligman believes the beauty of this definition is that it stresses two ingredients of self-esteem which have been present in debates about the concept ever since: namely, self-esteem includes the idea of feeling good and doing well.

In his subsequent summary Seligman maintains that James work was largely ignored for 75 years as a result of academic and socio-economic factors. World wars and economic depression did not create fertile territory for a focus on how people feel about themselves and psychology itself was dominated during this period by various schools of thought (Freudianism and behaviourism, for example) which had in common the belief that individuals lives were determined largely by forces out of their control.

Seligman argues that the 1960s changed all this. First the rise of wealth and consumerism meant that it was easier to conceptualise the individual at the centre of his/her destiny.


The rise of the self-esteem movement


From the late 1960s on self-esteem became a fashionable and influential idea. One of the first exponents was a young psychology professor called Stanley Coopersmith from California. A more influential figure was Nathaniel Branden. Branden was a psychotherapist and devotee of the philosopher Ayn Rand. He has written countless books on self-esteem and is considered the intellectual father of the self-esteem movement.

Self-esteem may simply have remained a psychological and philosophical concept, debated by academics, if it hadn’t been taken up by politicians in California in the late 1980s. John Vasconcellos was a state assemblyman who believed that low self-esteem was the cause of crime, teenage pregnancy, and drug abuse and school underachievement. He believed that boosting young people’s self-esteem could be seen as a social vaccine. Money spent on this, he argued, would dramatically reduce the problems plaguing modern society. John Vasconcellos even believed that improving self-esteem would help the state balance the budget since those with high self-esteem earned more money and so paid more in tax.


Source: Carol Craig, Centre for Confidence and Well-Being, 2006