Why We Judge Ourselves
Do your clients often seem to be living in a state of permanent self-judgement? Psychotherapist and author Kalman Glantz had a lightbulb moment when he began to link our ‘mad rush’ to self-evaluate to the market system. Here he explains how living in a competitive, hierarchical society impacts on our sense of self – and why trying to boost self-esteem isn’t the right therapeutic strategy
Like every therapist, I spent lots of time with clients who were grappling with self-worth: “Am I good enough?” they asked, in one form or another. And they struggled to find an answer they could accept. Sometimes they managed an affirmation: “Yes I am.” But at other times, they couldn’t bring themselves to believe that they really were, in fact, ‘good enough’, whatever that meant to them. Unless they were seriously depressed, when they would get stuck in the negative view, few if any of them reliably got the same answer all the time to the ‘good enough?’ question. Each individual tended to switch positions, sometimes within one conversation, sometimes within a session, a week or a month.
Each client’s emotions tended to follow the answer. If they were thinking well of themselves, they would feel good, sometimes almost high. If they came down on the negative side, they got depressed and hopeless. At one point, in a moment of impatience with a client who had been going up and down on this issue for a very long time, I threw out the following question: “Why do you have an opinion?” The question eventually became the basis for what I think is a new wrinkle on cognitive therapy.
The issue of self-worth kept coming up in just about every session, so I eventually found myself leading up to this question over and over again. At first I didn’t realise I was onto something new. After all, Alfred Adler, a century or so ago, in his concept of the ‘inferiority complex’, had made low self-esteem central to his thinking. But then I realised that what I was seeing wasn’t just low self-esteem, it was, rather, the struggle to avoid it – the struggle to think highly of self. I was looking at a virtually endless oscillation between low and high self-esteem, between inferiority and what might be called ‘OK-ness’.
These, I realized, are both mere opinions, neither of which refer to anything objective in the real world. Wow! Why was everyone walking around judging themselves? For years I had been thinking and writing about hunting and gathering – the way of life that lasted for several hundred thousand years before the discovery of agriculture (cf. Exiles From Eden: Psychotherapy from an Evolutionary Perspective). Identity, then, was based on belonging, not on achievement. There was, in consequence, relatively little pressure to evaluate oneself.
The mad rush to self-evaluation, I concluded, was due more to the nature of society than to the acids of our genes. It seemed to me that the characteristics of the market system, wonderful as it is in generating wealth, really makes it impossible to avoid almost permanent self-judgment. In the market system, people are assumed to be responsible for their own fate. There are always people who are doing better. There is always more that can be achieved. You’d have to be blind and deaf to avoid comparing yourself, positively or negatively.
I then concluded that trying to boost self-esteem was not the wisest therapeutic strategy. A therapist might succeed at it temporarily, but any setback, any bad news, any failure, would only cause the client’s oscillating system to flip back to the negative position. Result: Sisyphean therapy.
Once I thought about it, I realised that other bad things can happen if you try to boost self-esteem. First of all, clients often discount anything positive you tell them: “You’re just saying that because it’s your job”. Even worse, clients can experience ego-boosting negatively. One client revealed that he had been trying to trap me into giving him the praise his father didn’t give him. “But I think if you had,” he eventually offered, “I would have stayed a praise junkie and I would have quit”.
Cognitive therapy suggests that maladaptive thoughts be “challenged”. What does that mean? I suppose it has meant that if a client says, “I’m a loser” you try to contradict him/her. You beam over the message “You are not a loser.” You show that the answer is irrational. This may work for a time, but I suggest that it is far more effective to challenge the procedure – self-evaluation – than the answer (“I’m a loser”). Hence my question: “Why do you have an opinion?”
The question is usually greeted with astonishment. “How can you not,” is often the first response. But soon a direct path to the client’s innermost ruminations opens up, because self-evaluation usually starts in childhood and continues to snake around in a client’s mind until something – therapy – manages to stop it. Once a client realises that no opinion is necessary, therapy has begun to take hold.
Self-Evaluation, Psychotherapy and the Market System, by Kalman Glantz and Gary Bernhard is published by Routledge.