Eight months ago, political satirist Bill Maher delivered a scathing piece of commentary in which he blamed the "self-esteem movement" for the existence of Donald Trump. Still entertaining the delusion (as we all were) that Trump was a peripheral clown of a candidate, without any hope of one day commanding the White House (aaah…memories), Maher said:
"Every time a parent takes a kid’s side over a teacher’s, or asks a kid where they want to go to dinner, or doesn’t tell a kid to shut up when the adults are talking, you are creating the Donald Trumps of tomorrow."
He went on: "Bad idea to teach children that there is nothing better than…falling in love with yourself and also that any person who doesn’t agree that you’re fabulous is just a hater and they can suck it."
Self-esteem isn't to blame
Now, let me begin by saying that I wholeheartedly agree with each of the above statements (except the bit about shutting up when adults are talking). What I disagree with is the notion that self-esteem and arrogance are the same thing, or that the "self-esteem movement" as Maher calls it, is responsible for any of the above phenomena.
Last year, I co-authored a book with my colleagues Grace and Nadz called The Self-Esteem Team’s Guide to Sex, Drugs & WTFs?!! in which we answer the 20 commonest questions we’re asked by teenagers as we visit schools and colleges throughout the UK.
The topics are quite broad (everyone seems to remember the "What’s the difference between porn and real sex?" chapter) but the first question we turn our attention to is: "If I have too much self-esteem, won’t I become arrogant?"
Interestingly, it isn’t just young people who seem to be labouring under this misapprehension. When I conduct parent lectures, I’m often asked if it’s possible to give children less self-esteem, because "I think my child has too much" (that looks funny written down, but it’s usually asked without humour).
This attitude is predicated on the idea that the person making the most noise, the person talking the most and asserting their opinions, the person who doesn’t have time for the views of others, or keeps talking about how they’re the best has the highest self-esteem. And that couldn’t be more wrong.
Arrogance is, actually, borne out of having low self-esteem.
The mask of arrogance
Let’s go back to now President (*sobs*) Trump as an example. Having outlined plans to ban all Muslims from the US, Trump then back-peddled and said he would make an exception for London mayor Sadiq Khan.
Mr Khan, as is only right and proper, told Trump (in much more articulate terms) to shove it, since he didn’t want to visit a country where his family and Muslim friends wouldn’t be welcome. He also called Trump "ignorant".
During an interview with Piers Morgan on ITV, Mr Morgan asked Trump if he had heard Mr Khan’s response. Trump said:
"He’s never met me, he doesn’t know what I’m all about. I think they’re very rude statements and frankly…tell him I will remember those statements."
Similarly, after his victory, Trump reportedly vowed to seek revenge upon celebrities who had publicly opposed him during his campaign.
These are not the words of a man who has high self-esteem.
He was unable to imagine how his comments about Muslims or Mexicans or women might have been interpreted and instead made it all about him. He is essentially saying "love me or feel my wrath" in a scary, Old Testament God-type way.
We all have flaws
High self-esteem does, as Maher identifies, mean loving yourself, but in the same way you might love your best friend, ie, acknowledging that you aren’t perfect and you have flaws.
People with high self-esteem know they aren’t good at everything and to ask for help when they need it.
They are able to accept that not everyone will agree with their viewpoint. They are able to show empathy. They are able to apologise and admit when they were wrong. People with high self-esteem don’t hold grudges, they are able to thrive either in solitude or in groups and, while they recognise that they are entitled to an opinion, they also recognise that everyone else is, too.
Most of us are a work in progress, when it comes to self-esteem and as Dr Tim O’Brien rightly observes in his book Inner Story: understand your mind, change your world our levels of self-esteem vary depending on our environment, activity and mood.
Opposite ends of the spectrum
But I know from personal experience that arrogance and self-esteem, while superficially similar, are actually at opposing ends of the spectrum that is the human condition. In the words of Nadia "Nadz" Mendoza:
"If self-esteem and arrogance were people, they’d hang out in the same circles but they wouldn’t be close. Arrogance would be pals with cocky, ego and smug while self-esteem would be mates with hope, positivity and f*** yeah!"
Before I recovered from my eating disorder, when my self-esteem was at its lowest, people often used to think I was arrogant. That was chiefly because I used to sit in the corner of the room pouting and wondering why no one wanted to talk to me, which was in turn interpreted as stand-offishness, or thinking I was better than others.
Since trying to analyse and engage with my own level of self-esteem, I’ve gained skills such as feeling the fear and doing it anyway, genuinely listening, accepting that not everyone will appreciate me, smiling at strangers, saying "I’m sorry" and admitting "You might be right about that". I have always been outspoken, but self-esteem has taught me humility.
So please, don’t blame Trump on the self-esteem movement. Blame him on a world where so few people have genuine self-esteem that it’s easier to turn on each other than join together.
In other words, we need the self-esteem movement more than ever.
Natasha Devon is the former UK government mental health champion for schools and founder of the Body Gossip Education Programme and the Self-Esteem Team. She tweets as @NatashaDevonMBE