THE SOCIAL IMPORTANCE OF SELF-ESTEEM
by John Vasconcellos
On behalf of the California Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem and Personal and Social
Responsibility, I welcome your participation in our pioneering efforts to address
the causes and cures of many of the social ills that plague us today. Our work and
our study center on the issue of self-esteem-a quality that most profoundly affects
both the lives of individuals and the life of our society.
For the 1990s, we owe it to ourselves to seek to unlock the secrets of healthy
human development. It is time to plumb the reaches and mysteries of inner space and
discover effective strategies that could serve to improve our communities, our personal
lives, and the lives of those around us.
The issue placed before us has been clearly stated by political economist Thomas
Sowell in his book A Conflict of Visions. He points out that the role of a vision
is to inform our expectations of ourselves and of life and thereby our choice of
practice in every human relationship. Every political structure and ideology, every
pedagogy, every social institution, and every other endeavor is founded upon some
vision of human nature.
Sowell argues that, historically and philosophically, there are only two such
informing visions: a more "constrained vision," deriving from the works
of Adam Smith, Thomas Hobbes, and Frederick Hayek, which proposes that human beings
are basically evil, needing to be tamed and protected against ourselves and one another,
and an "unconstrained vision," associated with Jean-Jacques Rousseau and
John Locke, which proposes that human beings are innately inclined toward good, perhaps
These two visions were clearly articulated for me in two pointed comments. I heard
the first in Sacramento in 1973 at a community forum on educational goals. An elderly
woman rose and said to the gathering, "All this talk about goals is fine, but
the real issue concerns the means we choose to attain our goals. And when you realize
that little children arrive in this world as monsters needing to be tamed, you know
what means to choose."
The second comment was made in 1986, when Carl Rogers, the humanistic psychologist,
told a group of guests at a dinner party in Irvine, "You know, I've been practicing
psychology for more than sixty years, and I have really come to believe that we human
beings are innately inclined toward becoming constructive and life-affirming and
responsible and trustworthy."
These two contradictory visions represent far more than a philosophical argument.
The practical implications can be seen in every sphere of life, for our choices about
how we pursue any human relationship always proceed from the fundamental view of
human nature that each of us holds. It is essential that we recognize for ourselves
and acknowledge to others our particular personal vision.
It is the latter vision -- that human beings are innately inclined toward good
and that free, healthy people become constructive and responsible -- which underlies
the philosophy and work of what has been called the "self-esteem movement."
There is within this movement an implicit (and increasingly explicit) intuition,
an assumption -- a faith, if you will -- that an essential and operational relationship
exists between self-esteem and responsible human behavior, both personal and social.
The term self-esteem implies a deeply felt appreciation of oneself and one's natural
being, a trust of one's instinct and abilities. It is that kind of self-esteem which,
instead of being narcissistic, enables us to live generously and peacefully, without
delinquency or destructiveness, encouraging one another in our lives and our growth.
Why and how did the California Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem get started?
Many individuals and groups had been addressing the issue of self-esteem for some
time, of course, but as the author of the legislation creating the task force, I
seem to have been the first public official to recognize the centrality of this issue
and to propose that government pay attention to it in a systematic way. As is often
the case with our choice of our life's work, my motivations proceed from my own life
history. My commitment to the task force is an expression of my own converging needs
and interests, both personal and legislative.
I grew up in the 1930s in a constrained, traditional, Catholic family. I was educated
in both public schools and Catholic (Jesuit) schools, through college and law school.
In school, I was a high-achiever, receiving awards and excellent grades. In adulthood,
I became a prominent lawyer in a prestigious firm. My first campaign for a seat in
the state legislature in 1966 was successful, and I have now been reelected eleven
Yet, through it all, I had almost no sense of my self, no self-esteem. I worked
for my successes only in a constant attempt to please others. My intellect functioned
superbly, but the rest of my self barely functioned at all. I had been conditioned
to know myself basically as a sinner, guilt-ridden and ashamed, constantly beating
my breast and professing my unworthiness. I had so little self-esteem that I lost
my first election (running for eighth-grade president) by one vote -- my own.
Awakening painfully to this problem, I began in 1966 to invest long and difficult
years in redeveloping my self-esteem. During the past twenty-two years, I have been
involved in various forms of therapy, beginning with Carl Rogers's person-centered
therapy, with a priest-psychologist, and continuing today with bioenergetics therapy,
all with the aim of opening up and more fully integrating myself as a whole person.
My life and work have become increasingly focused on this compelling issue of self-esteem,
not only in relation to my own development but also in teens of enabling others to
develop a strong sense of self.
My personal experience has taught me how very central and vital healthy self-esteem
is. This outlook has become so ingrained within me that it has become essential to
my political views and priorities. My legislative record has paralleled and in some
ways become a reflection of my personal growth. In its essence, after all, politics
properly understood is nothing more than the making of policy for all of us together,
the sum of our individual beings.
In 1980, I became head of the California State Assembly's Ways and Means Committee,
responsible for reviewing spending legislation and the state's annual budget. Year
after year, we spend ever-increasing billions of tax dollars to contain destructive
behaviors, to compensate for human failures after the fact -- more than a billion
dollars each year for building prisons and two billion for operating them, as well
as substantial sums for programs to address alcoholism, drug abuse, teenage pregnancy,
child abuse, welfare dependency, and school dropouts.
It struck me that all these programs were focused on containment and remediation;
almost none attempted prevention, much less cure. Most were based on the traditional
assumption that we really can't hope to do much better, because people are intrinsically
evil. The all-too-frequent failures were self-fulfilling prophecies, in terms of
both human misery and financial efficiency. It seemed foolish and tragic to keep
spending billions of dollars without ever wondering how we could get ahead of the
game by searching out causes and developing strategies for prevention.
More and more frequently, I found, both the researchers studying social problems
and the practitioners dealing with the individuals involved were citing self-esteem
as a factor believed to be central to these problems. In light of the emerging evidence,
it seemed both morally and fiscally responsible to create a formalized governmental
effort to explore whether in fact self-esteem might be a "social vaccine,"
a quality capable of strengthening people, making them less vulnerable to problem
Although I recognized that such a notion might sound "California-weird"
and pose some political risks, my interest, my own growing self-esteem, and my supportive
relationships outdistanced my caution. I consulted my long-time friend Jack Canfield
-- a self-esteem expert -- who said, "It's time. Let's do something about it."
I took the chance and introduced legislation in 1984. Somewhat to my surprise, that
bill passed the assembly, although it died in the state senate.
I personally lobbied every state senator who had voted against the legislation
in 1985, and the senate finally passed the bill unanimously. Our campaign moved on
to focus on Governor Deukmejian. We enlisted key members of his cabinet and staff,
as well as my Republican colleagues, to lobby the governor. With grassroots organizing,
we generated more than four hundred letters, personalized and passionate, urging
him to sign the bill.
The governor and I had three very intense one-on-one conversations about this
bill. The turning point came during our third meeting, when he said, "I know
that self-esteem is important, but why should the government get involved in this?
Why not the university or somebody else?"
I responded, "First, Governor, there's so much et stake here that we can't
afford to have it hidden away in a university. We need to involve the entire California
public. Only the government can accomplish that. Second, think of it this way: By
spending a few tax dollars, we can collect the information and get it out. If that
helps even a few persons appreciate and understand self-esteem and how they can live
their lives and raise their kids better, we may have less welfare, crime, violence,
and drugs and that's a very conservative use of taxpayers' money."
Suddenly the governor replied, "I've never thought of it that way before."
He began raising questions about details of the bill. I immediately made a commitment
to negotiate them to his satisfaction, and he promised to let me know his decision
within a week. For the first time, I left his office feeling hopeful.
The next week, the governor's staff called to say that if minor amendments were
made, the governor would not veto the bill. The changes were made almost immediately,
and Deukmejian signed Assembly Bill 3659 into law in September. It created a twenty-five-member
task force with a three-year span of activity and a yearly budget of $245,000 (the
cost of incarcerating one felon for fourteen years).
The enactment of the legislation occasioned a truly astonishing outpouring of
excitement and good will throughout the state. More than four hundred Californians
applied for appointment to the task force. Even greater interest and enthusiasm followed
cartoonist Garry Trudeau's lampoon in the comic strip "Doonesbury" in March
of 1987. Ironically, his attention made us famous, providing us with a national stage
and a large audience.
Assembly Bill 3659 directed the task force to carry out three charges. The first
was to compile research concerning the role of self-esteem as a possible causal factor
in six areas of major social concern: crime and violence, alcohol and drug abuse,
teenage pregnancy, child abuse, chronic welfare dependency, and educational failure.
These are among the most compelling and the most lamentable social ills we face,
and they are certainly problems on which we spend billions of tax dollars without
seeming to make much headway. Collecting and analyzing research on the role of self-esteem
in these areas could provide a foundation for designing more effective public policy
The second charge given to the task force was to compute current knowledge about
how healthy self esteem is developed, how it is damaged or lost, and how it can be
The task force's third charge was to identify model self-esteem programs, including
institutions to which people can turn when they need help for themselves or their
families. We have begun to develop an inventory of available programs and materials
and a set of criteria Californians can use to assess the legitimacy and likely value
of these resources.
Because of the enthusiasm and interest generated by the state task force, it seems
clear that the self-esteem movement is becoming a broad-based social movement, engaging
Californians at every level. The work of our task force has touched a deep nerve
among the public, leading many individuals to enlist in this effort to look anew
at who we are and how we address our problems. Nationally, reports from across the
United States indicate that our endeavor has also served to legitimate the notion
of self-esteem as a respectable focus of concern and analysis.
My father, who was an educator, early taught me a lesson whose significance I
recognize more each day: "You can't give what you haven't got." Virginia
Satir, in her characteristic way, stated the same lesson positively: "What each
of us most profoundly teaches is not 'what I say,' but 'how I model. '" By the
character of your own presence, you will either encourage or discourage others' sense
of themselves. Your own self esteem and practice of responsibility inevitably affects
these qualities and actions in others. Developing self esteem and responsibility
-- a potential "vaccine" against the social problems we face -- may be
the most compelling of human ventures.
The success of our endeavor now depends on each of us. Will we recognize the centrality
of self esteem in our lives? Will we commit ourselves to developing our own self-esteem
and modeling it in our relationships with every other person in our lives? It is
a cause well worth our personal commitment and participation. Together we can truly
grow more self-esteeming and responsible. Together we can truly make a difference.
Together we can make history-better. Let us begin -- right now!
This article is excerpted from John Vasconcellos's Preface to The Social Importance
of Self-Esteem, edited by Andrew M. Mecca, Neil J. Smelser, and John Vasconcellos,
University of California Press.
John Vasconcellos is serving his 12th term in the California State Assembly (second
in seniority) and has chaired the Ways and Means Committee since 1980. His legislative
focus is on preventive, bipartisan initiatives, including his comprehensive and effective
Toward a Healthier State program. He has authored A Liberating Vision: Politics For
Growing Humans and A New Human Agenda; Next Generation of Leadership. He has been
called a "pragmatic idealist," the "conscience of the Legislature,"
and the "Johnny Appleseed of Self-Esteem."
John Vasconcellos, State Capitol, P.O. Box 942849, Sacramento, California 94249-0001.
Phone 916-4454253. Fax 916-323-9209.
Copyright © 1996. The Light Party.