Why worshiping at the altar of self-esteem fails

Speaking to a group of Little Leaguers on Saturday, Washington Nationals phenom Bryce Harper had a simple message. “As much as they might tell you, ‘It’s OK you guys lost today,’ no Johnny,” he began. “No participation trophies, OK? First place only, alright?”

He, of course, said it in a lighthearted — but also serious — tone, and the kids started clapping.

Participation trophies — awards given to all players for simply playing, rather than for actually achieving anything — are a frequently complained about phenomenon in recent years, usually cited as an example of the tender, fragile egos of today’s young people and the clueless new age hippy parents who rear them.

The theory behind them is pretty simple. We want kids to play sports, have fun, and enjoy the game. If they lose, or don’t play well, it may damage their self-esteem, and they may quit.

In essence, we want all kids to be happy and feel valued, so we want them to feel special no matter what place they come in.

Washington Nationals right fielder Bryce Harper is congratulated by teammates after hitting a two run homer against the San Diego Padres on May 26. Brad Mills | USA TODAY Sports

This diseased, metastasized philosophy is also the core of why my son’s 4th grade basketball team was not supposed to keep score this year. There are no winners and losers, we’re just here to have fun and play basketball.

The core of all of this nonsense really began in the early 1990s, but accelerated in the 2000s. Faced with a world where kids were turning to drugs, being medicated for depression, and killing themselves out of despair, a massive, prolonged and aggressive move toward inflating self-esteem began.

If people truly loved themselves, they wouldn’t do these things. So let’s make them feel good about themselves.

So not only did we tell kids they were special, but we tried to create self-esteem by engineering phony pride in one’s self, which is where the participation trophy and non-scoring game nonsense comes in.

We have tried to expunge negative feelings from the lives of children and adults by trying to cushion failure. Anesthetizing our lives by insulating people from loss.

But such flawed thinking ignores human nature, which will always bristle against such phony reality.

The 4th graders I coached this year couldn’t go 30 seconds without asking me what the score of the game was. The kids that Harper was speaking to applauded the idea of awards having actual merit.

You see, what the obsession over self-esteem always missed was that it flows directly from meriting that esteem you are attempting to give yourself.

You can’t truly love yourself if you don’t, at least in some way, deserve it. Getting a trophy for playing a game, even when you play it terribly, gives you something you didn’t earn and don’t deserve. It is why it feels cheap and hollow, and no longer elicits any kind of real sense of pride.

It is the sting of failure that drives the desire for success. It is that ultimate success that makes you feel like you are worth something.

So, trying to inflate esteem of one’s self when such esteem is not merited is actually causing much of the dissatisfaction we are seeking to expel from our lives. Deep down we know it is all fake, and it reconfirms and highlights how inadequate we may be in some ways.

And it isn’t just sports.

I, for instance, am a little overweight right now. I do not want to love myself as I am right now. I deserve no esteem, self or otherwise, for neglecting my health and eating garbage. I have earned nothing in that regard.

If I wanted to improve my self-esteem, telling myself that I should love the way I look in the mirror isn’t going to actually improve it at all. Going to the gym, eating well, and feeling and looking better would give me real self-esteem, because I would actually deserve it. I would actually have a real reason to regard myself with some affinity.

This is the sickness our society is living through. We set zero preconditions for our love of self. Is it any wonder we live in an entitled, self-obsessed culture of belligerently unhappy narcissists?

Our pursuit of self-worth can’t be an end to itself. If we want our children to be confident people who respect and value themselves, we need to find ways for them to earn those feelings.

They need to be able to feel the exhilaration of success, and the bitter taste of failure, so that each has real meaning, and that the feelings they induce push them toward achievement.

Win with class and lose with dignity. But win and lose. And no participation trophies.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.