The Big Ego Trip: finding true significance in a culture of self-esteem

Professor Glynn Harrison has written a groundbreaking and insightful book. He exposes the idea of 'self-esteem' as a circular and unproductive concept - maybe even one that is harmful. He then reconstructs from the ground up, what is helpful [such as specific praise] and puts this firmly in a Christian worldview.

I'm sure we have all seen ridiculous examples of people trying to boost their self esteem by saying stock phrases like 'I am happy' or 'I am amazing' when the evidence seems stacked against this being true. Being hopeful for a different future is very different from blindly stating those things to be true now. All that happens is you realise how far from the truth this is and (for the person with low self-esteem) this makes you feel worse!

This kind of thinking has also crept into our Churches. It is one thing to believe some of the great things that the Bible says about us as true (such as 'I am a child of God') - it is another to make global statements like 'I am excited about the future' when, to be frank, you are terrified.

This idea of talking yourself into good self-esteem is called 'Boosterism' and was one of the core motivational and child development techniques of the last few decades. However - shock horror - it does not work. All it does do is make the already good feel better and the depressed / down feel worse.

Instead, he suggests that a better interpretation of the psychological literature is to see that specific (not global) statements are helpful in accurately appraising our position for the better and not giving in to the lack of specificity and 'walking through treacle' of depression. It is helpful to say things like 'I am not doing so well today, but I hope to do better tomorrow', or 'I am not very good at football, but I am OK at drawing.' This also fits better with the Christian worldview: 'I am a sinner, but God loves me anyway', or 'I believe that God will reveal himself to me in time.'

The book starts with a really helpful overview of some common psychological theories then explains how they all seem to get bundled together in a culturally-dictated mess called 'self-esteem' which served a number of post-war needs but was never really that well thought through. By the time the psychologists realised it was not working, the pop-psychology section of your local bookstore had arrived!

If you want a critical [and reasonably academic] look at what happened and how to reclaim positive thinking for good [and for God] then this is a great place to start. The style is easy to read with plenty of illustrations and jokes [a few chuckles from me along the way!]. The book would benefit from some questions for reflection and space to make notes - but perhaps you could start the discussion using our comments box below ;-) .

About the Author

Glynn Harrison is a husband to Louise, a dad and a grandfather. He's Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry, University of Bristol, UK, where he was also a practicing consultant psychiatrist and Chair of the Department of Psychiatry. He preaches locally and speaks widely on issues of faith and psychology, neuroscience and psychiatry.

Read more about Glynn, including his summary of the book, at

Glynn Harrison, 12/09/2013
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