'If you have ever felt worthless, I can help you silence those inner critics…'
Self-esteem is a con. It is letting your pathological inner critic run riot – and setting you up in a rigged game against yourself that you will only ever lose.
That is the provocative argument set out in Self-Acceptance, a new book by international bestselling Irish author Dr Harry Barry.
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In an age where self-esteem is seen as essential to good mental health, Dr Barry says it is, in fact, the reason we are seeing increased levels of depression, anxiety, addictions and body image issues.
And he wants us to develop unconditional self-acceptance in an erratic world. He explains how the pseudo science came to dominate western thinking.
“In the 1800s, the term ‘self-esteem’ was created by the father of psychology, William James. The original definition is ‘the ratio of the number of successes versus the number of failures that you have in an area of life which is important to you’. It is effectively a rating system,” says Dr Barry.
This was adopted by sociologist Morris Rosenberg in the 1960s as a way to measure a person’s ‘worth’ and 20 years later, repackaged by a Californian senator named John ‘Vasco’ Vasconcellos as a way of achieving success in a competitive world.
Vasco told voters that in order to get ahead in life, they had to believe in themselves, be ambitious and ruthless. Like most social fads that started on teh West Coast of the United States, it quickly caught on around the world, leading to practices such as rating systems in schools, where a well-performing child received a star.
Dr Barry explains how many of us now use an internal rating system unconsciously every day based on our behaviour, comparing ourselves to others, other people’s opinions and an array of uncontrollable external factors, even though it is impossible to measure the ‘worth’ of any human being.
“I always ask people how do we measure it – in sterling or euro?” he laughs. “How can you measure a person’s worth? Every human being is individual and unique and special. They can not be compared to anyone else because there is no scale in existence that can measure one human being against another and decide who is worth more and who is worth less.”
What would he say to people who would argue, for example, that the former US president Barack Obama is worth more as a human being than the suicide bomber who attacked a church in Sri Lanka?
“Aha!,” he exclaims. “Now you are getting to the core of it. What we are talking about there is behaviour. So, in other words, there is no way we can compare Obama as a person with the man who did these terrible things as a human being, they are both unique and special, but we can certainly rate their behaviour.”
But can we not measure people by their behaviour?
“Now you are at the heart of the whole thing because if you merge who you are with your skills and behaviour, then you are in big trouble, we all are.”
He invites people to use a pen and paper to demonstrate his argument.
“Draw a straight line across the page, marking it from zero to 100. One means you are useless, 100 means you are fantastic,” he says. “Now rate yourself, as a person, giving yourself the mark you think you are worth as a human being between one and 100.
“Next, mark the value that you think other people, in general, rate you at.
“Finally, when you have done that, imagine you fail spectacularly in an area that you really care about. You might imagine failing at work, or your partner leaves you, maybe it’s losing in a sport you care about, gaining two stone, losing your income, failing an exam, or your children telling you that you are a terrible parent. Pick the area that most affects you and mark the value you give yourself on the scale now.
“So how did you do? Did you fall into the trap? I have yet to find someone who doesn’t crash in one particular area. When you rate yourself like this, which is what we do every day, it is completely irrational and random. It is based on an unscientific measuring stick that you’ve plucked out of your head. What if someone else rates you higher or lower? Who gets to decide a person’s value?”
Because our subjectivity can blind our rationality, he encourages people to apply the measuring system to other people to see how flawed it is. “The next time you are sitting among a group of your friends or your children, rate them against one another as human beings. The reality is that you would struggle. Because no matter what they are successful or failures at in different areas of their lives, no matter what their behaviour, it would be difficult to measure their worth, they are all unique and special human beings.”
His also points out that measuring our self-worth based on factors often beyond our control is setting ourselves up for failure.
“Self-worth is a delusion. A fixed erroneous belief that we choose to believe is true. And yet there will be some people who, even after doing the scale on others and realising how impossible it is to define or measure the worth or value of a person, who will choose to hang on this delusion.
“And the price they pay is the destruction of their mental health.”
In the book he invites people to challenge their pathological inner critic that tells them they are useless, a failure, weak or worthless, and he shows how you can use practical exercises to build a feeling of unconditional self-acceptance over three months. With an ‘ABC’ approach, he also takes readers through their personal activating events, beliefs and the consequence of their flawed thinking and he shows how they can greatly improve their resilience where they need it most.
With 36 years’ experience as one of Ireland’s most well-respected medics, does he still struggle with his own inner critic?
“I have become pretty resilient but my one weakness is golf. I have to be careful with myself and if I mess up. That’s when I have a serious face-to-face with my pathological critic to put him back in his box.”
‘Self-Acceptance’ by Dr Harry Barry (Orion Spring, €16.99). Dr Barry will also be holding an event in Eason on O’Connell St, Dublin this Wednesday, May 8 at 6.30pm
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