BOOK REVIEW: The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem. By Nathaniel Branden. New York: Bantam Books, 1994. 346 pp.
Nathaniel Branden began writing and talking about self-esteem long before it became au courant to do so in educational, therapeutic, and talk-show circles. He has written six previous major works on the subject, and at least some of what he writes in The Six Pillars will be familiar to those who have read any of the previous works. What is unique about The Six Pillars is the wide-ranging and systematic way in which the concept of self-esteem is treated, and the careful way in which the psychology of self-esteem is firmly and carefully placed in philosophical context. In fact, as he says in the closing pages of the book, "...if the reader senses that in its implications this book is almost as much a work of philosophy as of psychology, he or she will not be mistaken."
That represents one of its greatest strengths, and it is just one of the reasons that it is especially important that it be read by professional researchers, educators, therapists, and business consultants who trade in the issues surrounding self-esteem. As Dr. Branden shows in a number of carefully chosen examples, such professionals too frequently promote the idea that everyone should have high self-esteem without clearly understanding themselves exactly what that would mean. That is why the field is so rife with simple-minded prescriptions for elevating self-esteem by essentially talking oneself into it. The result is typically what he calls "pseudo self-esteem," and it is a result that is hardly better, and may even be worse, than having no self-esteem at all.
Self-Esteem in Context
Dr. Branden, on the other hand, is very careful to begin by demanding clarity about what self-esteem means, on the quite sensible presumption that no matter how much you may desire a thing, it is tough to know how to go about getting more of it if you don't know how to recognize it in the first place. Fully the first fifth of the book is spent laying out the network of interconnected ideas that go to make up a fully contextual definition of self-esteem. This is far more space in both number of words and overall proportion of the work than is found in any other psychological work I know that treats this subject.
And because the relationships among concepts are complex, there is really no substitute for reading the discussion in the original; the ideas don't lend themselves to simple summary. Still, there are some core ideas that stand out, in part because they are so different from those promulgated by less thoughtful psychologists.
First, and perhaps most important, is the idea that acquiring self-esteem is a do-it-yourself project. You can't pay someone to build it for you, or to patch it up when it's damaged, and no one, no matter how motivated on your behalf, can give it as a gift. As a needlepoint hanging in Dr. Branden's office, sewn by one of his clients, says, "No one is coming." Self-esteem is a human birthright, but not in the sense so often meant when people bandy about the word "rights" these days. It is inherent in human nature to seek it, and to be truly happy and gratified in one's life only when it is achieved, but each of us is responsible for his or her own self-esteem.
So self-esteem is a personal achievement, and like all achievements, by definition, it requires action to produce it. It cannot be dreamt or wished or talked into existence. Its essential components are the experiences of self-efficacy and self-respect. The first of these is achieved by actually being efficacious, which requires that one act to good effect in the world. The second is achieved by exercising the human capacity for volitional thought on one's own behalf, in ways that affirm the value of one's own life. And neither of these can be accomplished without a sense of moral purpose. So self-esteem is intimately linked to the domain of ethics and cannot be achieved outside the context of a coherent and valid ethical system. This is a concept so rare in contemporary culture as to qualify for the endangered species list, which is why it is such an uplifting experience to see it so well defended here.
A third important idea recognizes that self-esteem is a cause of effective action as well as a consequence of it. There is therefore what Dr. Branden calls a principle of reciprocal causation, by which he means "...that behaviors that generate good self-esteem are also expressions of good self-esteem." The effective, purposeful behaviors that contribute to the experience of self-esteem are more likely if one already has some, because those behaviors flow from and are motivated by the implicit expectation that one can be successful in the pursuit of one's goals. This sounds a bit like a chicken-and-egg dilemma, but in many different ways Dr. Branden shows that it need not be. It does present a problem, nonetheless, and solving this kind of problem is just the thing to which he has devoted his professional life. That is why Part II of The Six Pillars is devoted to explicit discussion of how to achieve the fundamental supports that make high self-esteem possible.
Practicing Self-Esteem: The Six Pillars
Each of the six pillars is considered at some length in its own chapter. Each "pillar" is actually a practice, and Dr. Branden is at pains to make sure that the reader appreciates that he means this literally. The foundation of self-esteem is built upon ways of acting, of living, that one must repeat daily—they must be practiced, not just discussed or fantasized. It is important, and entirely non-accidental, that the six pillars of self-esteem all have their origins inside the individual. Dr. Branden is quick to point out that events in the world, things that people say or don't say, as well as other external factors, can and do affect self-esteem. But because the roots of self-esteem are internal, the person whose concept of self is strongly positive is protected from the onslaught of these external factors to a degree that the person of low self-esteem is not, just as a person with a healthy immune system is less likely to become ill than a person whose immune system is damaged or functions poorly. And just as the healthy immune system produces faster recovery when disease does strike, so too will high self-esteem aid quicker recovery from life's inevitable disappointments and difficulties.
What are the keys to a healthy psychological immune system? Dr. Branden begins with a discussion of the practice of living consciously, that is, of making use of the uniquely human capacity for volitional control of one's attention and of one's capacities for integration of the facts about reality. He then takes up the practice of self-acceptance, which requires that one acknowledge the reality of who one is, has been, and wants to be. One must also practice self-responsibility, recognizing that each of us must be accountable for his choices and actions in all domains of life, from work to relationships with others, and most especially in relationship to one's own self. The fourth pillar is the practice of self-assertiveness, not as a whining supplicant or a mindless rebel, but as a person who is not afraid to work toward the satisfaction of his or her own wants, needs, and values. Next is the practice of living purposefully, which one does by mastering tasks that are consciously chosen and pursued with discipline and courage. And finally, one must practice personal integrity, the sometimes difficult act of insuring that one's deeds and one's beliefs and values are in accord.
Each of these chapters has, more or less, the same structure. There is a general discussion of the concepts and issues, followed by a more detailed exploration of them, still remaining largely in the abstract, although specific case studies may illustrate certain key ideas. In each chapter, Dr. Branden offers an example of how he confronted some difficulty in making the particular principle under discussion a part of his own life. Most of these personal episodes will be familiar to readers of his autobiography, Judgment Day, although they are treated much more clinically here. Initially I found them jarring and out of keeping with the tone of the rest of the book—the four vignettes that deal with his relationship with Ayn Rand and with his first wife, Barbara, were especially discomfiting at first, in part because they seem so very intimate—but the personal examples are always followed by equally intimate examples from the lives of some of his clients, and after some reflection I began to see the value of including both.
Dr. Branden wants to make it clear that the abstract principles discussed at the beginning of the chapter are not mere abstractions but in fact integrate over real events in the lives of real people, including even the author. Indeed, more than once he argues that it is not possible to facilitate the development of self-esteem in others unless one has confronted the challenges of developing it in one's self. (There's a great parable to that effect in Chapter 5 that I'll leave you the enjoyment of discovering for yourself.) The personal examples serve to reinforce this point.
The fact is that facilitation of self-esteem, or, more precisely of the practices that lead to it, is Dr. Branden's primary concern, not only in this book, but in his work as a clinician. That is why each of the chapters describing one of the pillars of self-esteem ends with an exercise, or series of exercises, to be done over a period of weeks for the purpose of improving self-esteem. All of the more conceptual work leads toward and undergirds this very practical program. The essence of the program is a sentence-completion task, in which Dr. Branden provides the beginning stem of a sentence and suggests that the reader generate at least six and no more than 10 endings as quickly as possible. Most of the sentences are structured as conditionals, beginning with a clause like "If I take more responsibility for my choices and actions —" or "If I am 5 percent more self-accepting today —."
The stems are bundled into 31 packages, with from four to six stems per package, and one is supposed to spend a week with each set. In the morning one spends about 10 minutes completing the stems and then at the end of the day a slight variation on the morning's stems encourages one to evaluate the effects of attending to the ideas that came up during the morning exercise. On the weekends one completes a stem that begins, "If any of what I wrote this week is true, it might be helpful if I —," and tries to implement any positive steps that come to mind.
Does It Work?
Does this process work? Is it effective? Dr. Branden insists that it does and is. I haven't completed 31 weeks of it myself as yet, so I'm in no position to speak on the matter from personal experience. Certainly it is provocative of self-examination, and it succeeds, in my case at least, in provoking some of the kinds of uncomfortable feelings that I know from past experience warn that some re-examination of myself is in order. These questions about effectiveness do, however, raise one of the concerns I had as I read the book. There is a wealth of convincing evidence from the study of psychotherapy to show that even the most experienced clinical judgment can be wrong about diagnosis and about effectiveness of therapy when it is unaided by carefully designed measurement instruments. Similar findings emerge from studies of the effectiveness of educational innovation or the long-term success of changes in business management practices. Even the best medical diagnosticians make incorrect diagnoses about 40% of the time if you don't allow them to make use of objective laboratory test results. The simple fact is that even expert clinical judgment, though better than the naive guessing of the guy or gal next door, is not nearly as reliable as those who exercise it like to think.
Now, I'm not saying that Dr. Branden's confidence in his techniques is misplaced. The available research evidence, some of which he discusses in The Six Pillars, suggests strongly that he is on the right track, and I hope that I've made it clear that I am personally convinced that this is the right conceptual framework to use in thinking about and working on self-esteem issues. Nor am I suggesting that Dr. Branden should stop being a clinician and become an academic researcher instead. That's an individual choice and I'm glad that he made the one he did since it made possible this very fine book.
But there were many occasions during my reading of it when I found myself asking exactly what he meant by a term or concept, or wondering what would be required to show convincingly that a particular claim was true. This was especially likely to occur when references were made to unconscious processes, particularly when the unconscious processes were supposed to be thoughts, or something very much like thoughts. This has been a very common way of speaking in psychology ever since Sigmund Freud discovered that you could say almost anything about a person and get away with it if you said it in a peculiar language and made it clear that you were talking about processes of which that person himself could not be aware, however obvious they were to a properly trained clinician.
Never have so many paid so much to so few for such prolonged emotional abuse as since the invention of this strategy of persuasion.
A Ghost By Any Other Name...
For the most part, Dr. Branden has always appealed to unconscious processes in fairly benign ways and they occupy a minor place in his analysis compared to his emphasis on the importance of conscious processes. I've always liked that about his work, and it continues to be the dominant feature of his discussions in The Six Pillars, until, that is, the chapter on psychotherapy which appears in Part III, entitled, "External Influences: Self and Others." Here, Dr. Branden invokes the peculiar ideas, born originally in a therapeutic movement known as Transactional Analysis a few decades ago, that we are all inhabited by ghosts and voices from the past who live in us as "subpersonalities" (his word). There may be a child-self, a mother-self, a father-self, a teenage-self, each with its own voice, each born of our experiences, especially as youngsters, and each still exercising sway over our experiences of ourselves in the world.
When I read things like this I can't help wondering why the interior panoply gets delimited in the way that it does. Why couldn't I have a preacher-self, or a football coach-self, or a corner-butcher-self? Do I have a first-girlfriend self? Does everyone who was ever important to me have his own voice in my head? And if these are subselves, each with its own voice, then who am I? Which is the self that is really me? Where did it come from? What is it's name? Talk of "the child within us" is interesting poetry but very bad psychology. It obscures rather than illuminates, oversimplifies without clarifying, and thus retards rather than advances the study of the phenomenon.
It would do an injustice to Part III in particular, and to the book as a whole, however, to make too much of this odd new development in Dr. Branden's thinking. The core of his work remains intact and as valuable as ever, as the other chapters in this section make clear. I especially liked the chapter entitled "Self-esteem in the schools," which does a superlative job of debunking superficial self-esteem curricula so popular these days at the same time that it offers positive and useful suggestions to educators for how to do it right. I'm still trying to figure out how to get at least that chapter on the reading lists of some education courses I know about. And the chapter entitled "Self-esteem and culture" had me trying to figure out how I was going to get the most morally relativistic of my colleagues to read it on the off chance that it would bring one or two of them to their senses.
"The Hero Within"
In this final section of the book the phenomena of self-esteem are put into larger social context without ever losing the thread of the individualistic argument begun in the first two parts of the book. It is a remarkable accomplishment.
And that, in the final analysis, points to what it is that is most impressive about this book. It manages to be pointedly and quite specifically about self-esteem while also being about all of human nature. It proposes specific, concrete steps to be taken in the interests of improving self-esteem, but they are so artfully conceived that it seems unlikely that they could work without affecting a person's entire mode of being. And for most inhabitants of the modern world that process is likely to be a remarkably subversive one, in the best sense of the word. This isn't just a book about the psychology of self-esteem, it's a book about political philosophy and ethics as well.
I would be delighted to live in a world of people even a third of whom had internalized the messages of this book. Even higher praise, given the point of this book, is that I would be delighted to be a person who had fully internalized its message. By the time one arrives at the final chapter and the argument for the seventh pillar of self-esteem (I won't tell you what it is, you'll have to read the book), Dr. Branden has done what he set out to do: to awaken the hero within his reader. I can't think of a loftier goal or greater success for an author to have.
Kenneth Livingston, Ph.D., is Professor of Cognitive Science and Chair of Cognitive Science at Vassar College.