Dialogs and Commentary

The Inflated Self?



Expanded from Bill NcNabb's review of David G. Myers "The Inflated Self: Human Illusions and the Biblical Call to Hope", and the Wall Street Journal.

Conventional wisdom tells us that:

The major cause of people's problems is a low self image and denial of their innate ability and goodness.

This assumption is the basis for most of the pop-psychology published and sold in Christian book stores. So we are talking here about a major money-making Brahma among contemporary Christian sacred cows.

But is it true? Do people think more lowly of themselves than they ought? Has anyone bothered to check and see if the problem that the Christian publishing industry has so enthusiastically pounced on is even real?

The thesis can be easily tested. Suppose we ask people to rate themselves on various attributes. If our self-images were accurate, about half would judge themselves better than average and half below--as should be the case in real performance. If we had a low-self image problem, a disproportionate amount of people--say 70%--would rate themselves below average.

In his book The Inflated Self, David G. Myers shows through meticulous social scientific research that the major illusion of human beings is NOT inferiority but superiority. It turns out that the basic human problem is not low self-esteem, but over-estimation of one's self.

The author recounts the findings of Jean-Paul Codol who conducted twenty experiments with people ranging from twelve-year-old school children to adult professionals. "Regardless of those involved and the experimental methods, the people's self-perceived superiority was present consistently. If given a teamwork task, people saw themselves as more cooperative than others, if given a competitive task, they perceived themselves as more competitive."

Myers also relates the findings of a national survey of high school seniors who were asked how they feel they compared with other people of their own age in certain areas of ability. "In leadership ability: 70% rated themselves above average, 2% below average. 60% viewed themselves as better than average in athletic ability, only 6% below average. In ability to get along with others, 0% of the 829,000 students in the study rated themselves below average, and 60% rated themselves in the top 10 percent and 25% saw themselves in the top 1%."

Whew! It appears that people are not racked with inferiority feelings, but instead suffer from an overwhelming "superiority complex". The author relates experiment after experiment--across all age groups--which dramatically demonstrate that the popular truism that most of us suffer from low self-esteem and high self-disparagement is just not the case in actual fact.

A 2003 study at Cornell states that, "People tend to be blissfully unaware of their incompetence. Where they lack skill or knowledge, they greatly overestimate their expertise and talent, thinking they are doing just fine when, in fact, they are doing quite poorly."

Clearly, we have a problem here; and it is not that we are suffering from low self-esteem! It turns out we are proud, haughty, boastful, and arrogant against all facts and common sense. Just like God has been saying all along.

Marshall Goldsmith, of the Alliance for Strategic Leadership, explains that, "Because 85% of us think we're in the top 25% of our peer group, at least six in 10 of us are obviously "delusional" about our abilities."

The delusion of a superiority-complex leads to inevitable disappointment in actual competition and performance, and failure is downright depressing. The subsequent "negative feelings" are a chance for realistic feedback to bring humility and penitence to our self-images. But what more normally happens is that we fault our "attitudes" instead of our abilities and thus choose delusion as a strategy for improvement in life. This is where the books come in. They feed the disease in the guise of "help".

"Here we go! Altogether now--grab those bootstraps and pull! Harder. Surely, if you pull hard enough, you can FLY! It makes sense, doesn't it? You can do it! Don't give up on that flagging flesh of yours. Here's a book to encourage you, brother."

This is not to say that a few unfortunate individuals do not suffer from real inferiority complexes, but to look at the Christian bookstore rack you would never believe how few.

So the problem is not that we have low-self esteem, but a swell of self-delusional esteem that bursts like a balloon at the first pin-prick of reality. The books and such are like "all the kings horses and all the kings men, trying to piece Humpty Dumpty's eggshell thin self-image back together again." It does not work, but what an industry, eh?

And then there is the Bible: a world-wide best-seller by all accounts--but one that apparently rarely gets read. And small wonder, it has this nasty habit of skewering self-anything!

The truth may hurt, but only it can set us free.

Shall we go on wrestling with the ghost of low self-esteem, or address the real source of our problems?

Prov 11:2 (NIV) When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom.

Prov 16:18 (NIV) Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.

James 4:6b (NIV) That is why scripture says: "God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble."

Rom 12:3 (NIV) For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you.

2 Sam 22:28 (DVP) God saves the humble, but His eyes are on the haughty to bring them low.

Luke 18:10-14 (NIV) "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men--robbers, evildoers, adulterers--or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.' But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, 'God, have mercy on me, a sinner.' I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted."

Link: Scientific American's article Exploding the Self-Esteem Myth.





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