Reviewed by Dr Rob Waller
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 plans God has for me’ 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 educational techniques of the last few decades. However – shock horror – it does not work. All it does do is make the good feel better and the 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’, ‘I believe that God will reveal himself to me in time.’
The book starts with a really helpful overview of most psychological theories then explains how they all seems to get bundled together in a culturally dictated mess called ‘self-esteem’ which served a number of post-war purposes but was never really that well through out. 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 psychology 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 form me along the way!].
Dr Rob Waller
has been a Consultant Psychiatrist for almost 15 years, including two years spent working overseas in New Zealand. He is a Member of the Royal College of Psychiatrists and holds postgraduate qualifications in Teaching and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. He is an Honorary Senior Clinical Lecturer in the Division of Psychiatry at the University of Edinburgh. Rob is a Director of the ‘Mind and Soul Foundation‘ which exists to educate, equip and engage the church with knowledge, resources and understanding of mental health and Christian belief.