In one of my daughter’s middle school classes, she was recently asked to examine her “self-esteem.” She had to take an online quiz that judged her self-esteem with each answer. A sample question: “When I compare myself with others, I feel: a) great; b) horrible; c) OK/not affected.”
“THIS IS WEIRD!” My daughter yelled out loud as she stared at her computer screen. “What the heck? Why do we have to answer these?” And also, after the test was done: “Apparently I have terrible self-esteem!” Well, not exactly “terrible”—the results read: “Your self-esteem needs work!” (There seemed some irony there: Studying self-esteem made her feel worse about herself.)
Next, she was asked to do an assignment: “What are five ways you could improve your self-esteem?” Part of this work involved writing down “affirmations” about herself meant to boost self-esteem. She asked for my help, and I did my best to tell her a lot of positive and true things. We talked about the things she likes to do, her relationships, and the choices she makes. For instance, I said, “Maybe you could write, ‘I try to be a good friend,’ because of all the things you do for your friends.”
This wasn’t an enjoyable experience for my child. “It felt like bragging about yourself, and not actually doing anything good,” she said.
The question is: Was this a beneficial exercise? Is there a better way?
In recent years, the concept of “self-esteem” has come under fire by researchers in psychology. And I think the quiz my daughter had to take indicates why.
In December on this blog, I touched on the work of researcher and writer Kristin Neff. She recommends that instead of focusing on self-esteem, we should pay attention to our self-compassion: That is, we can recognize that even though we make mistakes, we can still be fundamentally good people. Self-esteem, on the other hand, is often about comparing our own achievements, skills, and talents with other people’s and talking ourselves into believing that we are a lot better than they are. Then, if we falter—if we fail to make good on the story we’re telling ourselves about our achievements and skills—we may plummet into discouragement. “Also, telling yourself that you’re already great at something does not give you motivation to improve” My daughter said.
For example, you tell yourself: “I’m really good at science class, my favorite subject.” What if the next day, you get a low score on a science test? What does that do to your feeling of self-worth?
Stoic philosophy would say that it’s not about who is better or worse, but instead about who is making effort towards moral progress and putting ethics into practice. We’re all at various stages of building our character. In fact, though some of us have recognized that we are patients “in the same hospital” (as Seneca put it) just trying to help each other out. No one has a cure for the human condition. And no person living today has reached the status of perfection in human flourishing, what the ancients called a Stoic sage. But we should still keep aiming for it.
So instead of finding affirmations about how great we are, why not seek reassurance of our self-worth in our commitments and our values? In our choice to care for others and to help ourselves learn and grow? In our interests, and the effort we put in to improve into whatever we do, rather than our inborn talents/abilities?
Let’s find a better way—one that would promote a healthy growth mindset in our kids, and in ourselves.
“I don’t know how to take compliments, Mom,” one of my daughters said. When someone praises her—even one of her parents—she often looks distinctly uncomfortable. She says she doesn’t know what to do in response to our words. “It makes me feel embarrassed.”
I’ve asked her about this, and I discovered that part of her reaction comes from the fact that she does not want other people to feel less-than compared to herself. Also, she’s genuinely concerned that the praise might just come from others “being nice” to her, rather than making objectively true statements.
In this sense, she is quite unlike a lot of adults. Most of us love to hear “great job” or “you’re awesome” or “you’re better than the rest.” We don’t necessarily stop to question the praise.
Why are we so taken in by flattery? Why is it so easy to sway our minds with compliments? Perhaps as we get older—as we suffer “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” in our daily lives—we’re just happy for any kind words that come our way?
I’ve wondered about this question for quite a while. And my recent close reading of Stoic writer and Roman statesman Seneca has given me even more food for thought when it comes to flattery and what it can lead us to think—and do. This is particularly relevant in today’s political landscape.
In letter 59, Seneca focuses on “Why does stupidity have so firm a hold over us?” He goes on to say this about why we can’t shake free of “stupidity” (underlining below is my own):
“The chief obstacle is that we are quick to be satisfied with ourselves. If we find someone to call us good people, cautious and principled, we acknowledge him. We are not content with a moderate eulogy, but accept as our due whatever flattery has shamelessly heaped upon us. We agree with those who call us best and wisest, although we know they often utter many falsehoods; we indulge ourselves so greatly that we want to be praised for a virtue which is the opposite of our behavior. A man hears himself called ‘most merciful’ while he is inflicting torture, ‘most generous’ while he is plundering, and ‘most abstinent’ in the midst of drunkenness and lust. So it follows that we don’t want to change because we believe we are already excellent.”
This passage fascinates me, in part because it’s still so true today. We are happy to think we’re already top-notch and don’t need improvement. The Stoic project of “making progress” only appeals to those who feel they want to do and be better.
And taking an even closer look at Seneca’s words, they made me think back over the 2020 US presidential election, and the violence last week at the US Capitol. I think it’s fair to say that a lot of extreme behavior has been fostered by “shamelessly heaped” flattery, especially by those who “often utter many falsehoods.” The soon-to-be-former president knows how to use flattery as a tool expertly. The day of the storming of the Capitol, he said this to the assembled audience, some of whom soon became rioters: “But just remember this. You’re stronger, you’re smarter. You’ve got more going than anybody, and they try and demean everybody having to do with us, and you’re the real people. You’re the people that built this nation. You’re not the people that tore down our nation.”
There is irony there, given what the crowd went on to do at the US Capitol right after this speech—tear down the fences guarding the Capitol building, attack police officers, break windows and doors, destroy and loot government property, and send Congress members (as well as the vice president) and their staffs into hiding to avoid the violence. My daughters and I watched it happening on TV in shock. Now teens, my children are old enough to grasp the importance of what happened. Across America, parents have been explaining these unheard-of events to their kids.
It was a day that Americans won’t soon forget, and rioters are now being tracked down by law enforcement and arrested for their illegal actions.
Congress members are now quoting the words of an American framer of the constitution, Alexander Hamilton, on his warning against would-be despots who use flattery and chaos to gain power. Hamilton wrote about his fears in a letter to George Washington. Here’s the full quote (note the passage using the word "flatter," in my underlining):
“When a man unprincipled in private life desperate in his fortune, bold in his temper, possessed of considerable talents, having the advantage of military habits — despotic in his ordinary demeanour — known to have scoffed in private at the principles of liberty — when such a man is seen to mount the hobby horse of popularity — to join in the cry of danger to liberty — to take every opportunity of embarrassing the General Government & bringing it under suspicion — to flatter and fall in with all the non sense of the zealots of the day — It may justly be suspected that his object is to throw things into confusion that he may ‘ride the storm and direct the whirlwind.’”
This description suits current situation well. Fortunately, many leaders have been quick to condemn the current devolution into violent “storm” as well as the person “directing the whirlwind.”
Since these events, I’ve done more reading on why flattery works—even if it is not based on the truth. Psychologists point out that when a person delivers a compliment, the automatic response of most individuals is to feel more positive towards the one delivering it. A 1978 study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, “The Extra Credit Effect in Interpersonal Attraction,” demonstrated that subjects liked the people who praised them more than other people, a phenomenon they called “return liking.” This was true even when the subjects realized that the flattery might be a means of getting something from them, and/or it was obviously inaccurate. A psychology professor, Bob Cialdini, put it this way in describing the research: “Positive comments produced just as much liking for the flatterer when they were untrue as when they were true. That’s how powerful praise and compliments and statements of liking [are] for us.”
So let’s take our cue from Seneca. Like my daughter, we should beware of compliments—and especially, beware the flatterer telling us what we’d like to hear, rather than what’s true. Remember: The person whispering in our ear might just be manipulating us into liking him or her, despite his or her own bad motives or flaws, and our own. We need to keep a clear-eyed, rational grounding in reality and combat being swayed by flattery.
About The Stoic Mom
I'm a writer, editor, and mom to two daughters in Northern California on a journey to discover how Stoic philosophy and mindful approaches can change a parent's - or any person's - life.