Self-esteem, the kind that comes from finding the sweet spot between a healthy fondness for yourself and healthy self-skepticism, tends to get harder to come by the older we get. For a kid, self-esteem can be as close at hand as a sports victory or a sense of belonging in a peer group. It’s a much more complicated and elusive proposition for adults, subject to the responsibilities and vicissitudes of grown-up life.
For college students, caught in that muddy crossing between childhood and independence, going through a phase in which they can’t tell the difference between caring for themselves and declaring their own importance at every turn may actually be something of a rite of passage, albeit one as ridiculous as returning from a semester abroad with a foreign accent.
But if, in fact, this confusion is more than just a phase, if what we’re dealing with is a generation ”” and, increasingly, an entire culture ”” for whom self-righteousness and self-esteem are essentially interchangeable, we’re in trouble. Because self-righteousness, when you think about it, is a contra-indicator of self-esteem. It’s what sets in when genuine righteousness eludes us. And if we spend our lives inside safe spaces writing love letters to ourselves, just about everything else will elude us too.