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Psychological research is just now catching up with two
thousand years of Christian wisdom. Surprised by their own research definitely
proving that self-esteem isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, psychologists are
turning now to the new (for them) concepts of self-mastery and growth in

You may remember the “I’m OK, you’re OK” esteem-building
craze of the sixties and seventies. Parents and educators quickly jumped on the
self-esteem bandwagon, imagining a new, positive
world where nobody would ever struggle with self-doubt or insecurity, and
everyone would realize their true potential. . . if only we would hang on our
children’s every word, and praise their every achievement. The culture of self
esteem spawned such educational wonders as inventive spelling (just spell the
words any way you want, honey!) and new math (don’t worry about memorizing the
times tables!)

What psychologists are now discovering is that having high
self-esteem alone isn’t worth squat. A study by the Brookings Institution in
2006 showed that, although a mere 6% of Korean students expressed confidence in their math skills, they
outscored many other nations’ children in math skills. Our uber-confident United States
students, however, scored far below many other countries in the international
math assessment. [1]

Not only does esteem-building not help, it can even hurt! In
a recent study, college students who had done poorly on midterms were divided
into two groups: those who were told to feel good about themselves and those
who were urged to study harder. The students who were told to feel good ended
up doing even worse on their finals!

Self-mastery is the new self esteem

Carol Dweck, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Stanford University and the author of Mindset:
The New Psychology of Success
. Her latest research indicates something very
surprising and encouraging: individuals with a mindset of seeking mastery and
personal challenges (rather than a fixed mindset of “I am intelligent” or “I am
talented”) become the truly successful individuals in life.

“Students who are mastery-oriented think about learning, not
about proving how smart they are. When they experience a setback, they focus on
effort and strategies instead of worrying that they are incompetent,” says
Dweck. [2]

Our son who is studying engineering at Virginia Tech is a
prime example of what Dr. Dweck is talking about. In some of the tough, core
engineering courses such as Physics II or Dynamics, he did not feel as
confident in his natural gifts as some of the other students. He did not
immediately grasp the material. But he did not take this as a sign that he
should give up or that he had no future as an engineer. Instead, he intensified
his efforts to master the material. He went directly from class to office
hours, spending whatever amount of time necessary asking for help, working with
study partners and teaching assistants. He had, Dr. Dweck might say, a mastery-oriented mindset.

Saint Paul
and the law of the members

We Catholics have known about self-mastery for centuries,
ever since Saint Paul
wrote to the Romans. Of course, Saint
Paul was not talking about advanced Physics or
Dynamics, but self-mastery for growth in freedom: “For I take delight in the
law of God, in my inner self, but I see in my members another principle at war
with the law of my mind, taking me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my
(Rom 7:23). Saint
Paul knew that the more we practice virtue and self mastery, the more we will take
delight in the higher goods (the “law of God”), and the less we will be
enraptured by the lower pleasures, which lead to what he calls “the law of
sin.” With self-mastery, both freedom and happiness increase.

As the Catechism bluntly states: “[E]ither man governs his
passions and finds peace, or he lets himself be dominated by them and becomes
unhappy” (Catechism # 2339). And, as Dr. Dweck’s research also shows: “Self-mastery
is a long and exacting work. One can never consider it acquired once and for
all” (Catechism #2342).

Self-mastery and growth in virtue increase our freedom, allow
us to attain that true confidence
that rests in God, and help us realize the high purpose that we are called to,
as children of God.

The real reason that “I’m OK, you’re OK” doesn’t work, is
that true self-esteem does not come from outside
of us, but from within. The ultimate source of our dignity is God, who
created us in his image. Most importantly, it comes from the deep certainty
that we are loved by God, who gives meaning and purpose to our lives.

In the movie I Heart
, a young environmental activist turns to an existential detective
agency in order to discover whether certain coincidences in his life are
meaningful. Lily Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman are existential detectives who
believe that everything is meaningful, everything is connected. Coincidentally,
they are being followed by an existential nihilist, who tries to convince their
client that there is no meaning, and that everything is chaos.

Existential philosophers such as Jean Paul Sartre believed
that ultimately, everything is absurd. We can never get beyond our own
subjectivity, so ultimately we are quite alone. Pope Benedict XVI, in Introduction
to Christianity
, acknowledges the human experience of existential dread: it
is the fear of being completely alone, abandoned and unloved. This is because
we are made for love. Our “innermost
dynamic” is to love and to be loved. Hell is total abandonment and loneliness,
with no possibility of love. Unlike Sartre, however, we believe that Christ
conquered death (the ultimate aloneness), descended into hell (abandonment/despair),
and opened the gates of heaven– bringing to each of us the possibility of

So, how do we develop this possibility? Can we learn to love?
Journalist Peter Seewald asks Benedict XVI (then Cardinal Ratzinger) this
question.[3] Seewald
points out that we spend a lot of time developing our worldly talents, but very
little time spent learning how to love. Cardinal Ratzinger does not disparage
our efforts to develop our skills. “It is important that we not see our
abilities, our vocational training, as being in themselves merely secondary,”
he says in reply. “It is an essential part of man’s calling to develop his
capabilities—and only thus can he fulfill his mission of loving. Man is meant
to develop and actualize the potential within him; he is meant to do something
in this world.” [4]

Our faith by no means despises self-esteem. We recognize
that all good things are gifts from God, and that we are meant to use our concrete
skills and talents in this world—thereby increasing both mastery and
self-esteem. But becoming mastery-oriented and successful will only be truly profitable
when we put our achievements and our freedom to good use, in loving service of God
and neighbor.


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1 Comment

  1. Chris-310069 February 5, 2008

    Yes, in wholehearted agreement. Loving our neighbour as ourself implies teaching young people to love themselves with a genuine and "new" self esteem. The Church could have an even bigger role in this, as in the Middle Ages with the Guilds for learning trades and so on. I like the Pope Benedict idea of developing skills for the primary mission of loving. Quite apart from the religious implications it is essentially optimistic and positive. Our culture is in general good at promoting the desire to "develop yourself" but not with a higher purpose in mind!

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