Self-Esteem: What Modern Psychology Tells Us, What a Man With Some Common Sense Tells Us, and What The Catholic Faith Tells Us


The time will soon come when a modern philosopher who returns to common sense will be hailed as one of the most original thinkers of all time’ – Bishop Fulton Sheen (‘God and Intelligence in Modern Philosophy’, published 1930) (1)

Modern psychology and Self-Esteem:

The primary focus of psychology and psychotherapy today is on increasing people’s self-esteem and helping them feel good about themselves.  Rather than try to figure out the truth about ourselves, psychologists and psychotherapists focus on superficial remedies that try to make people feel better about themselves. They focus on ‘reframing’ negative thinking and removing cognitive distortions. In previous articles I touched on some of the ways psychotherapists try to correct negative self-beliefs.  Psychotherapeutic and psychological approaches today mainly involve a rejection of reality, particularly the reality of sin, and the flattering of their clients. This is an absolute cocktail for disaster.

A Man with Some Common Sense and Self-Esteem:

Thankfully, not all psychologists have bought in to the idea that high self-esteem is the end goal of therapy.  One psychologist that has spoken more clearly and more sanely on self-esteem than his deluded colleagues is professor Jordan Peterson.  In this 4-minute clip on self-esteem (2) he rightly highlights how our opinions of ourselves must be based on an accurate view of ourselves.  In broadcasting his ideas, he is thrown a bit of common sense into the psychological field which had been slowly draining itself of any common sense that it was clinging onto over the last fifty years. For this, he has gained a massive following, especially amongst young men, who need to hear someone tell them firmly to tidy their room and be better than they currently are.  He has been a springboard for many men to face the reality about their lives and get themselves together rather than sit around complaining about the injustices and suffering of their lives.  He tells people that ‘if you confront the world forthrightly, if you speak the truth and you expose yourself courageously to those things that you’re afraid of that your life will improve.

Peterson’s words and work resonate with those who know that they are not all that they could or should be. His ideas resonate with those who are sick of being told that they are ‘good enough’ or who dislike being pampered by flatterers who tell them all sort of sweet and nice things about themselves when reality and their conscience tell them these things are far from the truth. The reaction to professor Peterson’s work has shown that there is a longing for the truth in people’s minds and souls. Some people have seen through the superficiality of modern therapy that attempts to make you think more positively while ignoring reality. They desire the truth even if it hurts.  

Towards the Truth…

To those who love the truth, professor Peterson’s work can act like a stepping stone away from the nonsense of modern psychological approaches and towards the truth about ourselves. People are not put off by Peterson’s insights into human failings. Rather, they know that he is saying many things that are true and this appeals to them.  In another video (3) critiquing those who glorify high self-esteem, he asks the question ‘what makes you think you should high self-esteem? And he answers, half in jest, ‘Maybe you are a miserable little worm? God only knows.’ And it is here, in this question, ‘maybe you are miserable little worm?’, that professor Peterson steps closer, than he probably even realises, to the Catholic and true understanding of self-esteem.

 The Catholic Faith and Self-Esteem:  

I have written elsewhere about the need for the Catholic Faith to be presented in all its splendour and glory to appeal to young people. It can then appeal to those generous souls who desire to be told the truth rather than ‘sweet little lies’ to placate and comfort them.  It needs to be presented truthfully indicating to people what they are and showing them what they should be. Over the last 60 years, largely due to the changes implemented at the Vatican II council, the Catholic faith is not presented in all its glorious truth to people. Church men of the post-Vatican II/conciliar/Novus Ordo church now flatter man and tell him he is ‘good enough’ or ‘not too bad’.  They have gotten with the times. In the excellent book, ‘The Burden of Belief’ (4), written in the 1930s, what effect this attempted softening of the faith has is clearly described:

Is it not characteristic of this development that the tendency today, largely encouraged by official piety, is to make the yoke easier to bear, to soften things down, grant dispensations, blunt the sharp edges? It is what is called meeting people half-way.  The Christian life must be made possible with a minimum of effort; it must be offered ‘with every modern comfort at moderate prices,’ and on no account must anyone be frightened off. In the endeavour to make it attractive, it has been dulcified with a bone-softening sweetness and given a sentimental appeal which is not so much child-like as childish…A tame, pretty-pretty, unadventurous Christianity such as this, which is diseased at the core, and lives on a lie, is its own speedy avenger, inasmuch as it destroys itself, it perishes of its own anaemia, it condemns itself to a continuous process of degeneration. It no longer produces men and women, but caricatures or actors…bona fide for all I care. It makes not appeal whatever to the best that is in us, to those magnanimous impulses that ask to be seized in a firm, bold grip and exploited for great and noble ends. It only appeals to our petty, cowardly, mendacious instincts for shuffling and playing for safety – and these fortunately are suicidal. It flowers in illusions, which life soon explodes, and a good thing too.

Jordan Peterson has attempted to explode some of the illusions of modern psychology ‘and a good thing too‘. While the conciliar/Novus Ordo church ‘perishes of its own anaemia’ and ‘it condemns itself to a continuous process of degeneration’, men, like professor Peterson, sound more like Catholic leaders, than the bishops and pope that we have today.  Catholic leaders used to tell man what he really was. Today, the truth about the Catholic Faith has been dulcified by leaders in the post-Vatican II church ‘with a bone-softening sweetness’. It has become a religion for humanitarians and ‘in the eyes of the humanitarian, God is very much like the man whose sole office it would be to throw food to flocks of irresponsible fowls; to feed and to fatten is all that man is expected to do.’ (Fr Anscar Vonier, 1913) (5). Man is exalted and told to fatten up on the pleasures of this life.  God is told to buzz off and to stop making us feel bad about ourselves.  Previously the Catholic Church, particularly through her saints, told man what he really is. The language that they use makes professor Peterson’s words sound sweet in comparison.  Here are just a few examples from some of the Church’s greatest saints:

St Louis Marie de Montfort: ‘By nature, we are prouder than peacocks, more wedded to the earth than are the toads, fouler than goats, more odious than serpents, more gluttonous than pigs, fiercer than tigers, more slothful than tortoises, more feeble than reeds, and more fickle than weathercocks.’ (From: ‘True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin’, early 1700s) (6)

St. Bernard: “Remember what you were -corrupted seed; what you are – a body destined for decay; what you will be -food for worms.” (quoted in ‘True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin’)

St. Bonaventure, speaking to a nun about true humility and the spirit of poverty: The Highest God became as the least of all, and the immense God became a little creature, yet a filthy worm, a mere handmaid of Christ, ‘exalts and magnifies herself’ (Psalms 9:18)…Reflect then, whence you come and take it to heart that you are the slime of the earth.  You have wallowed in sin, and are an exile from the happy kingdom of Heaven.’ ‘It is a great, a heinous crime that a vile and contemptible worm, for whom the God of Majesty and Lord of All became poor, should desire to be rich.’ (From: ‘Holiness of Life’) (7).  

This language from these saints, who were all known for and wrote about their deep love of God and their neighbour, is far from the self-esteem promoting language of modern psychologists. One psychologist, Jordan Peterson, who maintains some level of common sense and sanity amidst the madness of his discipline, criticises his fellow psychologists’ theories and rejects their obsession with self-esteem.  But it is the Catholic Church, through her saints, that provides the proper response to self-esteem. In her wisdom she advises us to crush the snake that is self-esteem altogether. The saints point out what we really are so we can rid ourselves of this snake. Other Catholic writers and priests only emphasise this point further. ‘Whoever desires to honour the divine Majesty must rid himself of self-esteem and the desire of the esteem of others.’ (‘The Spiritual Combat’ by Fr Scupoli, written in 1589) (8). This ridding ourselves of self-esteem is painful. It is a battle and it involves taking up a cross. ‘Death and ill-health and accident and grief cannot be banished by any human formula, and the weaknesses attendant on human nature, sloth and self-indulgence, envy and hatred, can be eradicated only be each man taking up his cross and conquering himself.’ (Fr  M C D’Arcy, ‘Mirage and Truth’ (1935) (9).

While the words that the saints and wise Catholic priests speak are hard for man, especially modern man, to hear, they are most necessary today. The truth about ourselves must be faced. To a certain extent, this is something that professor Peterson captures. However, it appears he fails to realise that the truth has been spoken more clearly, more accurately, and more strongly by those who have come before him. To his credit, he is an exception to the flattering tongues that psychologists and psychotherapists have.  You will not hear the language of the saints or the Catholic Church in psychological services today. You will likely never meet a psychologist who questions the self-esteem craze and even when they, like professor Peterson do, they still fail to understand man is and what he needs. 

Clearly, a proper estimate of ourselves is necessarily a low estimate. Hence St Bernard rightly defines humility, as ‘a virtue which, giving a man a correct knowledge of self, makes him appear despicable in his own eyes’. – Fr R. J. Meyer (‘Science of the Saints’, 1902) (10)

The solutions to that gnawing conscience of yours, no matter how dimly you feel it, are not to be found in psychotherapists who do not understand what humility truly is. They do not give man a correct knowledge of self. Yet, many people fall into the charlatan’s web, which is psychotherapy, after making various attempts to overcome their misery and escape this correct knowledge of self, as Bishop Fulton Sheen (1949) (11) saw happening in his time, ‘They find that they are cloyed with what they thought would satisfy; they try to make up for each new disillusionment with a new attachment; they try to exorcise the old disgusts and shames with febrile new excitements…They are a burden to themselves, a bore to their friends, disgusted but never satiated, made more hungry but never satisfied; in the end they pay charlatans handsome fees to be told that there is no sin and that their sense of guilt is due to a father complex. But their moral cancer remains, even then; they feel it gnawing at their hearts.’ The world cannot satisfy the yearnings of the soul nor can it be satisfied by those who try to boost your self-esteem by telling you not to worry about sin or that you are ‘good enough’ as you are.  The road to happiness is built on truth and it is the Catholic Faith and her saints who show us this road and how to built these truthful foundations. 

The faithful desire to grow in the knowledge of God, to learn to serve and to love him better; they crave too, for self-knowledge that, by its light, they may humiliate and correct themselves, and so grow in virtue and in love.’ – ‘The Ideal of the Fervant Soul’ – Fr Auguste Saudreau (1927) (12)

The knowledge of God elevates the soul; knowledge of self keeps it humble. The former raises the soul to contemplate something of the depths of the divine perfections, the latter lowers it to the abyss of its own nothingness and sin.’ – ‘Spiritual Maxims’ – Fr Grou (1780s, republished in 1870’s) (13)

The Catholic faith does not ignore the reality of the miserable wretch that is man in our fallen state. However, in doing so, she also holds out the sublime reality of what man can and should be, i.e., a saint.  ‘The true knowledge of self is the source of humility, modesty, patience, and diffidence in self; and these are the conditions of true confidence in God. He only who does not build upon his own strength directs his glance straight to God. As upright humility, or the knowledge of the truth that God is all and the creature nothing, serves as a foundation to every virtue; so this humble and correct idea of ourselves makes the blooming of all virtues in our soul possible, and brings us into just relations with God, with men, and with salvation.’ ‘The Way of Interior Peace’ – Fr Von Lehen (1889) (14). 

In conclusion, let us ignore those who shout about the need for ‘high self-esteem’ Let us come to really know ourselves as we truly are. Let us avoid those who subtly deceive us and, as St Bernard once said to his wayward nephew, Robert, ‘Gird yourself, cast off your seducers, shut your eyes to flatterers, search your own heart’. (15).And having thrown the idol of self-esteem into the rubbish heap where it belongs, let us raise our hearts to God to know our real worth as ‘it is more to us to know what his Creator thinks of him, than to know what he is worth himself.’ (Fr Faber) (16).

May God bless us in our efforts to see through the flattery of the world and so come to true knowledge of ourselves.  And lest we wallow in our own misery, may God then turn our eyes toward Him who is Truth, Beauty, and Goodness Himself and guide us, His children, safely to Him.  

References:

  1. Bishop Sheen, F. S. (1930). God and Intelligence in Modern Philosophy. New York: Longmans, Green & Co. Available here: https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.89276
  2. See here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GKoTa6omipE
  3. See here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9f3qyNNtpQk
  4. Coudenhove, I. F. (1934) The Burden of Belief. London: Sheed & Ward
  5. Fr Vonier, A. (1913). The Human Soul and Its Relation to Other Spirits. London: B. Herder Books. Available here: https://archive.org/details/humansoulitsrela00voni
  6. St. Louis Marie de Montfort (early 1700s). True Devotion to The Blessed Virgin. Available here: http://catholicapologetics.info/library/onlinelibrary/trued.htm
  7. St. Bonaventure (edition published in 1923). Holiness of Life. London: B. Herder Books. Available here: http://www.catholicapologetics.info/library/onlinelibrary/holiness.pdf
  8. Fr Scupoli (original 1589). The Spiritual Combat. Available here: https://archive.org/details/spiritualcombat02scupgoog
  9. Fr D’Arcy, M. C. (1935). Mirage and Truth. London: The Centenary Press.
  10. Fr Meyer, R. J. (1906). Science of the Saints. St. Louis: B. Herder Books. Available here: https://archive.org/details/scienceofsaints01meyeuoft/page/n5/mode/2up
  11. Bishop Sheen, F. S. (1949). Peace of Soul. New York: Whittlesey House. Preview available here: https://archive.org/details/peaceofsoul0000shee/mode/2up
  12. Fr Saudreau, A. (1927). The Ideal of the Fervant Soul, translated by Frances M. Bidwell. London: Burns, Oates & Washbourne
  13. Fr Grou (original 1780s). Spiritual Maxims. Available here: https://archive.org/details/spiritualmaximso00grou/page/n1/mode/2up
  14. Fr Von Lehen (1889). The Way of Interior Peace. Available here: https://archive.org/details/wayofinteriorpea00lehe
  15. Fr James, B. S. (1953) St Bernard of Clairvaux – As Seen Through His Selected Letters. Chicago: Henry Regnery Co. Preview available here: https://archive.org/details/stbernardofclair00bern/mode/2up
  16. Fr Faber, F. (published, 1955). Bethlehem. Baltimore: John Murphy Co.