The following is an excerpt from Rooted In Decency: Finding inner peace in a world gone sideways by Colleen Doyle Bryant.
About Colleen Doyle Bryant
Colleen Doyle Bryant is the author of five books and more than 50 learning resources about making good choices for the right reasons. Her Talking with Trees series for elementary students and Truth Be Told Quote series for teens are used in curriculums to teach good character traits and social emotional skills like honesty, respect, responsibility, and kindness. More than 100,000 of her good values teaching resources are downloaded each year by parents and teachers around the world. Colleen’s new release, Rooted in Decency, looks at why common decency is suffering today, why that’s so unsettling, and how society can get back to a shared set of values that promotes cooperation and trust.
We all want to feel good about ourselves. In fact, social scientists will tell you that maintaining a positive sense of our “self ” is one of our fundamental goals in life. Isn’t it true that we’re constantly evaluating ourselves to decide if we can feel proud or if we need improvement? Do I feel good about how I acted at that dinner party? Did I impress my boss with my brilliance? Does my butt look good in these jeans? (Don’t answer that.) The point is, when we don’t meet our own standards, we feel shame, guilt, or embarrassment and then we seek to restore a positive sense of our “self.” This internal cycle—I notice I’m disappointed in myself, I change my actions, I restore my positive sense of self—is part of the process of developing self-respect. This positive-negative-positive feeling cycle is how we manage our behavior so that we can be proud of who we are and the outcomes we cause.
The self-esteem revolution
Experts in the 1970s had good intentions. Research at the time showed that children with high self-esteem performed better in school, sports, relationships, and behavior. By the 1980s, experts were focusing policies around eliminating anything potentially damaging to kids’ self-esteem. According to the bestselling book, NurtureShock, “Competitions were frowned upon. Soccer coaches stopped counting goals and handed out trophies to everyone. Teachers threw out their red pencils. Criticism was replaced with ubiquitous, even undeserved, praise.” This emphasis on self-esteem turned self-evaluation into something that could be controlled from outside oneself. Protecting self-esteem became a mantra that directed parents and teachers to ensure children only felt good about themselves, turning guilt and embarrassment into something to be avoided… even if that meant turning a blind-eye to reality.
Self-esteem isn’t as great as experts hoped it would be
By the 2000s, a team of researchers evaluated decades worth of studies to see if the focus on self-esteem was all it was promised to be. Social psychologist Roy Baumeister, a lead researcher on the team, concluded: “These studies show not only that self-esteem fails to accomplish what we had hoped, but also that it can backfire and contribute to some of the very problems it was thought to thwart.” Baumeister reported that feeling good about yourself isn’t what causes good outcomes. It’s more likely that the act of exercising self-control in order to achieve the good outcome— that’s what makes you feel good about yourself. After decades of inflating people’s sense of self and telling everyone they are “equally great” regardless of the effort they put in, the data shows we would drive more self-worth by focusing on building skills, applying effort, and honestly evaluating behavior.
It’s good to feel bad sometimes
It turns out that focusing on self-esteem, which has come to mean protecting people from “feeling bad,” is hindering our ability to feel good. You can’t fool yourself into believing you’re behaving well when your reality tells you otherwise.
Researchers have shown that when people receive praise that they know they don’t deserve, their self-esteem actually goes down. Other studies show that children over the age of seven know when you’re offering inflated praise with a hidden agenda. Not only does it make them discount false praise, it makes them skeptical of real praise as well. Research cited in NurtureShock showed that by the age of twelve, children who have watched teachers dole out excessive praise think that praise is not a sign that you’re doing well; it means you lack ability, and the teacher is offering extra encouragement.
The gift of listening to your conscience
As it turns out, our conscience—the internal guide that measures our behavior against our standards and principles—is not easily fooled. Your conscience sends signals to your heart and mind to let you know if you’re measuring up to your own ideas about what right and wrong behavior is. On the one hand, your conscience makes you feel disappointed or remorseful for a bad choice you made. Like we saw in the opening story, you’re supposed to feel bad sometimes. Just because you don’t want to feel bad about a choice, that doesn’t mean it was a good choice. In fact, guilt and embarrassment about a choice can be your allies, encouraging you to right a wrong. And the sheer anticipation of your body contracting in on itself in shame can keep you from doing wrong again.
Your conscience also helps you feel your heart swell with joy or pride for a job well done. It’s your mind and body working in harmony to reward you so you’ll live in alignment with what you believe is a decent and valuable way to behave. By paying attention to this honest internal evaluation, you can find a meaningful measure of self-worth. Like we saw in the previous chapters, the mind and body work together to feed spirit.
Self-respect offers you peace and stability
If you want to find peace with yourself, you’ll need to ditch the idea of protecting self-esteem and only “feeling good.” Instead, embrace the idea of feeling the full positive-negative-positive cycle that leads to self-respect. (Of course, we saw in chapter 2 that cognitive distortions can lead us to inaccurate, and sometimes harmful self-assessments, so remember the importance of a true and balanced view of your own behavior.)
We learned in chapter 1 that happiness comes, in part, from having a realistic, positive sense of your own worth. Happy people can share in others’ successes and recover from their own setbacks (the positivenegative-positive cycle.) And happy people are aware of how their actions impact other people and the world around them. Self-respect is the essence of taking joy in your own and others’ positives and course correcting from the negatives, all in the service of behaving in a way you believe is decent, right, and valuable. It’s an inner sense that doesn’t need external sources to inflate it with false compliments. Self-respect is being at peace with yourself no matter what is happening around you.
How do you build self-respect?
Self-respect comes from honestly looking at your actions and deciding if they are in-line with what you know is right and wrong. Having self-respect means you welcome the positive and negative feedback that your conscience sends you, using it to guide choices that define your character and conduct. Your conscience knows if you’re being cruel or kind, and if you’re doing the easy thing or the right thing, even when you may not want to hear it.
Self-respect comes from owning responsibility for the good and bad outcomes you create. Ultimately self-respect helps you feel that you are in control of your own life—that you have agency—because you are in full awareness that your good and bad choices create corresponding good and bad consequences. The choice is yours.
Self-respect is created within; it doesn’t depend on acceptance by others and it helps you recover from mistakes. When you have self-respect, you choose to do what is right and you take solace in this, leading to feelings of dignity and being principled. Even when there’s a cost for having done the right thing, there is comfort and stability in knowing you made a choice you believe in. Self-respect offers a path to recovering a positive sense of self-worth even after a mistake, through experiencing remorse and seeking to make things right.
A path forward
Self-respect is essential to creating a rooted stability that helps you look in the mirror each day and find peace, no matter what tumult rages around you. Letting go of the focus on self-esteem means we might need to feel bad sometimes. But the gift of listening to your conscience is that for all the times it gives you the stink eye, there are equal opportunities for it to elevate you to joy and pride when you choose to live life in alignment with the way you think is decent and valuable.