Goodbye Self-esteem, Hello Self-compassion – Part 1: Bashing Vasco

In case you haven’t heard, self-esteem is out, and self-compassion is in. The science supports this development and so do I.

Merriam-Webster defines self-esteem as “a confidence and satisfaction in oneself.” Self-esteem got a big boost in the '80s when California State Senator John Vasconcellos created his now infamous task force to promote it. A repressed Catholic who worked hard to heal himself through therapy and self-help books, Vasconcellos came to believe that inculcating high self-esteem in everyone from children to gang members would heal many of the ills that ail society.

In spite of all that self-healing, he screwed up. As author Will Storr documents in The Guardian, Vasconcellos recruited university scientists to research the benefits of self-esteem, but the results of the study were mixed at best. “Vasco” quashed the negative findings, twisting and exaggerating the positive ones. He did this so successfully (thanks to his hard-earned self-esteem!) that he won over everyone from Bill Clinton to Oprah Winfrey and helped influence a few decades of misguided efforts on the part of school administrators, law enforcement officials, CEOs, parents, and others to boost the population’s self-esteem. Gold stars were handed out liberally, regardless of actual performance.

Photo by MarkBernard/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by MarkBernard/iStock / Getty Images

Speaking of liberals, Storr points out that leftie Vasconcellos’ focus on self-esteem fed right into the neoliberal agenda of Maggie Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, pitting puffed-up selves against one another other in the alienating and aggressive ‘80s race of my Me against yours.

A race that hasn’t stopped, BTW. Narcissism in Western culture is on the rise. And thanks to the ubiquitous smartphone, the Me Generation has morphed into the Selfie Generation. I love tech like you do, people, but I don’t love how it has fed our ever-greater tendency toward self-absorption. (That’s “greater” as in “worse and worse,” not “greater” as in “better and better.”)

But wait. I remember sitting around a table in the mid-80s with fellow administrators of nonprofit programs for underserved kids. We’d just gotten news about Vasconcellos’ project. And we were thrilled. We were doing all we could to help kids muster the inner resources to go up against incredible odds, to contribute and succeed. Vascencellos was clearly on the same page.

And wait. Speaking of pages, I remember sitting around a living room in the mid-80s with my book group discussing Women & Self-Esteem by Linda Tshirhart Sanford and Mary Ellen Donovan. We were young, earnest, insecure women trying to gather the courage to speak up, set high goals. We treasured the book’s support and tips.

I’m all for taking Vasconcellos (who died in 2014 at the age of 82) to task for his task-force sins. And in my next post I’ll talk about the distinction between self-esteem and self-compassion, and why it’s way better to shoot for the latter. But for now I’ll simply point out: Yes, he was misguided and he lied and he contributed mightily to further shredding our social fabric. I’m unhappy about that. But did Vasco’s passion for self-healing contribute to the ongoing scientific study of self-worth and the growing cultural awareness that the way we treat ourselves is integrally related to how we treat others?

I’m guessing the answer is yes.