William James’s Formula for Self-Esteem

Personality is one of the courses that I have been most looking forward to taking this year and I must say it has not disappointed. The class has quite a lot of reading but it is completely worth it. The material is fascinating, fun, and thought provoking. Not to mention Tomi-Ann Roberts is a wonderful teacher whose enthusiasm really makes the class. My friends got pretty sick of me constantly referencing class last time she was the teacher and I can already tell that this time will be no different. There are just so many exciting things to think about!

The main idea for the class is to survey the major personality theorists of Western civilization. This makes for quite a bit of reading but also gives the class a very broad scope. Each of the theorists has a very different perspective and makes you think about personality in a completely new way. Thrown into the class is a viewing of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the novel When Nietzsche Wept, and some analysis of our own personalities. Each of the theorists is evaluated by us for perceived strengths and weaknesses and then rated according to their investment in free will vs. determinism, nature vs. nurture, causality vs. teleology, uniqueness vs., universality, equilibrium vs. growth, and optimism vs. pessimism.

One of the most interesting things we have talked about so far was William James’s completely brilliant equation for self-esteem. It has been bouncing around in my brain all week. His idea was that self-esteem is equated to one’s successes divided by one’s expectations of success (or as he called it, pretensions). When discussing this in class Tomi-Ann pointed out that most people tend to focus on the top half of that equation. When discontented with our lives or ourselves we generally tend to blame our lack of successes. The line of thinking is somewhat along the lines of, “Oh if only I can get that new job/spouse/car then I will be happy.” We aim our ambitions higher and higher in an attempt to improve our satisfaction. What we forget is that success is only half of the equation. Why not learn to adjust what we expect a little bit?

When Tomi-Ann brought this idea up in class it met with a lot of blank stares and startled questions. I even felt myself get a little bit tense. I could hear the overachiever in me say, “but if I don’t have high expectations of myself then how would I ever get anywhere??” After thinking it over a little while though Tomi-Ann’s words sank in a bit and a few things occurred to me. Firstly, what does success even mean? Does it mean a big house and a high-powered career? If so then large ambitions are probably the only chance most of us have of getting there. But what if success is more about being just (gasp)… happy?

Too many expectations can make reality feel like a consolation prize. Realistic ambitions are a good thing but ambition unchecked can be all consuming and destructive. After all, there is always higher we can climb. Perhaps the key is to keep striving for our own personal best but maintaining a realistic awareness of what that really is. If we understand ourselves well enough then our successes will always balance our expectations and we will achieve a balanced equation for self esteem. In any case, an interesting thought to keep in mind.