Positive thinking doesn't work: Don't be fooled: just 'feeling good about yourself' won't solve your problems, argues Linda Grant

Linda Grant
Saturday 07 May 1994 23:02

IMAGINE this. You're a 48-year-old miner living in a Yorkshire pit village and, like everyone else you know, you've just been made redundant. You've taken to sitting about all day in your vest watching The Richard and Judy Show. Your wife has got a part-time job at McDonald's so you're also looking after the children. You start shouting at the kids and the wife and drinking too much. What's your problem? Unemployment? Extinction of the industry you've worked in all your life? Intolerable stresses caused by all of the above on family life?

No, you're suffering from a bad case of low self-esteem, a chronic deficit of positive thinking. Low self-esteem has become an explanation for many of the social ills of the Nineties - low achievement at school, delinquency, teenage pregnancy, crime, unemployment, drug addiction, infertility, being single at 40 . . . Even Michael Fay, the American teenager caned in Singapore, had 'attention deficit disorder' as a result of his parents' failed marriage.

Perhaps Fay could have avoided his four strokes if he had had the benefit of a new book, out next week, by psychotherapist Robert Holden called Living Wonder-fully. Holden, who runs NHS 'laughter clinics', has noted that while children smile 400 times a day, adults smile only 15 times a day on average. Reclaiming 'inner happiness' he says, will improve self-image and self-belief.

Similar messages are relayed through the thousands of other books devoted to the powers of positive thinking (current best-selling titles include You Can't Afford the Luxury of a Negative Thought - 50,000 copies sold - I Deserve Respect and Go For It) which have flooded every high-street bookshop, assuring their readers that they can have whatever they want if only they want it badly enough.

In America, there are no bad people, only people who think badly of themselves. And that's official. California has a state commission to promote self-esteem, there is a National Council for Self-Esteem with its own bulletin, and had the Yorkshire miner been laid off from the coalfields of Tennessee he could have his positive thinking quotient measured on the Coopersmith Self-Esteem Inventory, or buy his kids a present from the High Esteem Toy Corporation.

Among well-known American victims of low self-esteem, actor Kevin Costner has been cited. Suffers from stage-fright? Michelle Pfeiffer doesn't fancy him? No. Poor Kevin sometimes agonises over the fact that he wishes he were better-read. This may well be indicative of low self-esteem in, say, George Steiner - but a movie star?

What exactly is self-esteem and why have we never heard of it before? Actually we have. It began in the 19th century with Samuel Smiles's homilies for the self-improvement of the working classes, and was revived again in the 1920s through the writings of the Frenchman Emile Coue who had everyone saying 'Every day in every way I am getting better' 10 times before breakfast.

From the 1950s on, the doyen of the self-esteem movement was Norman Vincent Peale, whose message contained in his first book, The Power of Positive Thinking, continues through a spate of titles by the now-nonagenarian author.

But whereas positive thinking was once an active verb, something you did as you went about your business, self-esteem, an abstract noun, has been transformed into a condition or syndrome.

When Maryland police in the United States were after a serial rapist, they warned the public to be on the lookout for a man in his thirties with a medium build and 'low self-esteem'. And according to Gloria Steinem, in her 1992 book The Revolution Within: A Book of Self-Esteem, 'self-esteem plays as much a part in the destiny of nations as it does in the lives of individuals'.

In Britain, the most common use of the term self-esteem is in education. Last month Tim Brighouse, Birmingham's chief education officer and former professor of education at Keele University, delivered the Times Educational Supplement's Greenwich Lecture on self-esteem in schools.

The current theory is that one of the reasons children fail is because they have a low opinion of their own abilities and the school has low expectations of them - a lethal combination, which, like the old secondary-moderns, is a self-fulfilling prophecy for low achievement. Giving children positive encouragement raises the threshold of their poor self-image and encourages them to try harder.

Unlike some of his American counterparts, Brighouse recognises that on its own, raising self-esteem will not necessarily produce the desired results. A child with high self-esteem in a school with low expectations is likely to fail because he or she can't see any point in trying. But what about the inner-city child who is constantly truanting, dealing drugs and successfully carrying out a spate of burglaries, giving him the cash to strut about the neighbourhood with all the latest clothes and music? Surely he has self-esteem?

Apparently it's the wrong kind of self-esteem, according to Brighouse. 'You've got to put a value system round self-esteem,' he says. 'It's got to be within the value system we want for our society.'

Elsewhere, the overwhelming message of self-esteem is that if you are unemployed or loveless or childless it is probably your own fault for not being positive enough.

John Hammond, 48, an advertising photographer from Gosport, Hampshire, has just found a job after nearly three years of unemployment. He went to the Restart programme where people seeking work are told that all they need is a positive attitude. 'I was super-positive,' he says. 'I tried all sorts of things. I even did a teacher training course but they kept on telling me that I should set my sights lower and look for office work. They didn't understand that I'd been a photographer for 30 years and that's how I got my self-esteem. Their idea of being positive is to push you into applying for anything, jobs that don't even cover the mortgage. We were being told to re- train for jobs other people were unemployed in. The fact was there were no jobs for any of us.'

Ruth, 34, recently stepped off the treadmill of infertility treatment. 'You'd go to these clinics and there would be some spotty young doctor who looked at your chart and said, 'Oh we'll have you pregnant in six months'. And you hated him. It was all about having a positive attitude, pictures of babies all over the place.

'You'd start out trying to have sex in your most fertile time of the month, and then it was on to IVF, and they made it seem as if having the eggs of a dead foetus implanted was just one next step. And if you weren't getting pregnant then it was because you didn't want it badly enough, weren't prepared to go just that bit further.

'The minute they detected that you didn't have a positive enough attitude they'd act as though you were wasting their incredibly expensive resources and if you weren't absolutely committed to getting pregnant there were plenty of other women to take your place.'

And what do you do if you're over 35 and still without a partner? 'I tried everything,' says Sarah, 39, a voluntary sector worker. 'I went to a therapist who said that if I loved myself people would love me. It's interesting, isn't it, that Marilyn Monroe, who you'd think was a prime example of low self-esteem, had no trouble having men love her.

'The therapist kept saying that when I radiated that inner sense of self-worth, men would come flocking. It didn't happen. I don't meet men at work because this is a female-dominated profession, and the men who come available because they split up with their wives, or whatever, are usually already having affairs.

'The other piece of advice I got was to put an ad in a lonely hearts column. All the men were either awful, or if I fancied them they didn't fancy me. I was supposed to have a positive attitude to the awful ones. An expensive dating agency told me I was a bit fat and I'd have to lose a stone before they'd take me on. So much for having an inner glow.'

Dorothy Rowe, the eminent clinical psychologist and author of Time on Our Side: Growing in Wisdom, Not Growing Old, poured cold water over the self-esteem movement from the vantage point of New York, where she is researching a book. 'Oh yes, the people who are sleeping in the gutters here are doing it because that's what they really want . . . ' she said. 'Like everything else in the self-help industry that comes out of the US, self-esteem is much too simplistic.

'Robert Holden has had a little serendipitous find. He's noticed that people feel better when they laugh and he's elevated that into a theory of life. Air hostesses aren't allowed to take the smiles off their faces. Does that mean they're happy? What about people who smile but are feeling really grim?

'It's absolutely true that to survive you have to have something you think you're good at. But you can see this in schools where kids who don't achieve find they are good at getting away with things and not getting caught. To say that's not self-esteem as you define it, is just imposing white middle-class values.'

Dorothy Rowe's answer to the positive thinking movement is that people will only bring misery on themselves if they assume that the world is a good place and that if they are good, good things will happen to them. On Thursday I walked into my local polling station in Lambeth and said cheerily to the Labour candidate: 'Smile, it might never happen.' And do you know what? The next morning, it did.

LOW SELF-ESTEEM: (top) Kurt Cobain, deceased, of Nirvana; Marilyn Monroe; Tony Hancock; Dorothea Brooke of Middlemarch; Janis Joplin; Hamlet; the Princess of Wales

HIGH SELF-ESTEEM: Madonna (below left); Michael Portillo (below centre); Muhammad Ali; Lady Thatcher; Oprah Winfrey; Jane Fonda; Malcolm X; the Duke of Edinburgh

WRONG SORT OF SELF-ESTEEM: Snoop Doggy Dog, murder-charge rapper (below right); Oliver Reed; Eddie Grundy of The Archers; Hannibal Lecter

(Photograph omitted)

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