In Kathleen Kelleher's article "Too Much of a Good Thing Can Lead to Trouble" (March 4), the debate about whether self-esteem is good or bad seems to come from a confusion in definitions of self-esteem. Opposing views can be reconciled in the following definition.
Healthy self-esteem is based on a balanced evaluation of oneself, one that incorporates a realistic blend of both strengths and weaknesses.
Healthy self-esteem suffers in both of the following cases, which appear to be polar opposites upon first glance: (1) people who focus on their human weakness at the expense of acknowledging and developing their strengths, convinced that they are less valuable or less competent than others, and (2) people who have distorted their strengths and repressed their human weakness, e.g., the "bully." Bullies, or "self-enhancers," then, do not have high self-esteem.
Based on the above definition, it's impossible to have "too much self-esteem."
Your article criticizing the self-esteem approach to social improvement may indeed herald the much-deserved demise of a pernicious doctrine.
I believe that the article sets forth the uselessness of the whole self-esteem movement for providing any helpful conceptual framework for social or educational policy. Those who formulate such policy would be well-advised to return to the traditional mode of enhancing the well-being of society--that is, by finding and upholding a moral consensus and providing institutional forms for peacefully doing so.
"Enhancing self-esteem" in practice means being able to impose one's own conception of truth and justice upon others. This may be helpful in bolstering the oppressed in their demand for justice, but it also enhances the egoism and group chauvinism of the traditionally advantaged groups.
Indiscriminate fostering of self-esteem sharpens aggressiveness on both sides and thus leads our society to continue on the path to fragmentation, violent confrontation and self-destruction.