Understanding Self-Esteem
California Psychologist, May, 1993

An Ecological Model Of Self-Esteem
James O. Henman, Ph.D.

The American culture is presently faced with a crisis of values. President Clinton is trying to motivate voters to think of "we" rather than just "me", building toward a future quality of life rather than demanding immediate gratification in the present, and embracing personal responsibility rather than personal entitlement. He has made it clear that the future of our nation depends on the development of these values. As psychologists, we have an ethical responsibility to contribute what we can to this crisis. The president is calling for a change of character in Americans that reflects healthy self-esteem.

The California Task Force has defined self-esteem as "the process of appreciating our own worth and importance, having the character to be accountable for ourselves, and to act responsibly toward others." This crisis requires psychologists to rethink the underlying assumptions that support and direct our clinical interventions. We must develop alternative treatment modalities and models that address these value issues. One such model which focuses on building healthy self-esteem is presented in Changing Attitudes In Recovery - A Handbook On Esteem (Henman, 1990). Exploring some of the presuppositions in the C.A.I.R. model of developing healthy self-esteem can help illustrate the impact of our assumptions.

There are psychologists who are so immersed in the scientific method that they try to remove spirituality and values from psychology. The C.A.I.R. model embraces both spirituality and values by translating the Task Force definition of self-esteem into a series of eight fundamental principles of "New Program" (see the September 1992 California Psychologist for a full description of "New Program").

There is a qualitative difference between labeling a set of behaviors as pathological and describing the processing strategies that maintain a set of "dysfunctional" behaviors. The C.A.I.R. model assumes that people's current behavior represents the best choices available, given their present emotional ecology. This distinction reflects the paradox of accepting where we are starting in recovery. Acceptance of our starting point facilitates the change process. In the same paradoxical way, respecting our resistances to change and seeking their intentions actually reduces the power of the resistances.

The concept of "self" is a central issue in any model of self-esteem. The C.A.I.R. model assumes a dialogical view of personality with a dynamic, interactive process between the different parts of self. Although we may not be conscious of these interactions within ourselves, the emotional climate in which the parts of self relate to each other has a profound impact of the subjective sense of self-esteem. The concept of an "adult child character" reflects this dialogical view. Hermans, Kempen and van Loon, in their January 1992, American Psychologist article explores in more depth the implications of a dialogical view of self compared to an individualistic view of self.

Traditional schools of psychotherapy assume a "cause-effect" perspective of human behavior (the definition of "cause" may include a cognitive filtering process). This view has different treatment implications than a cybernetic, ecological model which assumes that the present behavior represents a homeostatic balance of many interacting forces or vectors. With this ecological model the issue of change in human behavior involves altering the dynamic balance of these forces in the present. The concept of blame depends on adopting a cause-effect rather than an ecological model. The heavy emphasis on the content of a person's story, which comes from a cause-effect perspective, is not supported by an ecological model.

Michael P. Andronico, in the Winter 1992-93 issue of The Psychotherapy Bulletin, concluded that "the most important aspect of the group psychotherapist's role is to establish and maintain a safe environment in which group members can interact and explore their feelings. The group leader points out the commonalties and differences among members, with an attitude of value and appreciation of differing points of view." The traditional schools of psychotherapy assume that there must be a trained therapist to achieve Andronico's group goals.

The C.A.I.R. model assumes that much of the learning and valuing atmosphere of group can be achieved in a self-help context. The C.A.I.R. Handbook presents a self-esteem model for the general public in a form that is designed to be read aloud and discussed. Each paragraph requires time and thought. The format, principles and tools help create a safe atmosphere for learning and practicing the recovery of healthy self-esteem. The C.A.I.R. Handbook embraces an attitude of "No-Fault Learning" that allows the reader to relax into recovery. This sharing process can be between spouses, family members, co-workers, friends, or in C.A.I.R. Self-help groups. The following is an example of how the Handbook stimulates thought and discussion:

"There is a common trap we can fall into as we become more accurately aware of ourselves. When we begin to see the hurtful things we have done in Old Program, we often begin judging the past actions as if they were happening in the present. The result of this reaction is, we end up punishing ourselves for seeing accurately. If Old Program is still going on in the present, we can choose to change our mind and go in a different direction now, following New Program. If Old Program is no longer going on in the present, we need to realize that fact, and remember how we are in the present. If we feel good about our awareness, rather than bad about what happened in the scene (the content), we can put our energy into change and healing. (Stop and discuss.)" (C.A.I.R. Handbook, p. 130)."

The Handbook presents a developmental view of the adult child character which emphasizes the ecology of a dialogical self. The "Recovery Tool Box" identifies many common cognitive and perceptual distortions such as "The Giant Me", "The comparison Trap", "That's Just How I Am!", "Guilty Until Proven Innocent", "Why, Why, Why?", "Who Defines My Reality", and "The Time Machine." Specific tools to remediate skill deficits include such topics as "Personal Rights", "Owning Our Feelings", "Understanding Communication", "The Problem Of Knowing", "Understanding Our Commentator", "Self-Image Thermostat", and "Living Through The Rear View Mirror."

This integrated model has been applied in a variety of contexts including C.A.I.R. Self-Help groups, Head Start Parent Education programs for Self-esteem, In-patient general psychiatric and chemical dependency units, and as a supplement to brief psychotherapy. It allows people with a broad range of presenting problems to focus on the common goal of developing healthy self-esteem. The underlying ecological assumptions of the C.A.I.R. model put the emphasis on learning rather than blaming or defending.

Further information about the C.A.I.R. Model of developing healthy self-esteem is available from Psychological Associates Press at www.CAIRforYou.com.


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