SACRAMENTO — It once was the stuff of snickers, the butt of those "only-in-California" jokes, like hot tubs and vanity plates and goat cheese pizza. But they're not laughing any more. The gospel of self-esteem has gone mainstream, and that makes John Vasconcellos feel good.
Nine years ago Assemblyman Vasconcellos hatched a state task force to improve Californians' self-esteem. His theory: People with a strong self-image are more likely to live productive, moral, law-abiding lives.
It wasn't a radical thought, but the task force drew sneers from coast to coast. Garry Trudeau took the most memorable potshots, lampooning California's latest goofy obsession in his "Doonesbury" cartoons.
Today, however, faith in self-esteem as a weapon against social ills seems ubiquitous. In schools, on the job, in church, in prisons, at the dinner table and, yes, on the therapist's couch, millions of Americans are working on improving their sense of self-worth.
Reflecting this preoccupation, there are special toys billed as "self-esteem enhancing" and even a song, by the rock group Offspring, called "Self Esteem." Pitchmen peddling programs to boost self-esteem are ever-multiplying, while Oprah and others in talk show land rarely go a day without touting the importance of taking care of No. 1.
"At first everyone thought our concept was California-freaky and weird," said Vasconcellos, a Democrat from San Jose serving what will be his last of 30 years in the Assembly. "But that's no longer the case. Our major accomplishment was to legitimate self-esteem as a force in people's lives."
This does not mean, mind you, that the self-esteem crowd is one big happy family. There are raging disagreements over how best to raise self-esteem, and also a backlash by some who blame the movement for an assortment of sins, including lower academic standards and inflated grades in schools. These critics say misguided self-esteem apostles are showering kids with empty praise that makes them self-absorbed and ill-equipped to handle the potholes of life.
"I don't disagree that self-esteem is important, but you don't help children by giving them a 'You're Special' certificate for doing nothing at all," said Lilian Katz, a professor of early childhood education at the University of Illinois. "That's nonsense, silly flattery. It leads not to self-esteem but narcissism."
Vasconcellos has heard such criticism, and he admits some self-esteem gurus have gone too far. It's like many things, he argues: "When you're starved for it for years, at first you eat too much."
The assemblyman also concedes that much work remains to be done. When the task force issued its 144-page report in 1990, Vasconcellos declared the self-esteem movement "a modern-day miracle" and made grand predictions about its potential to heal America. Six years later, our nation's social problems--from teen pregnancy to violence, poverty, drug and alcohol addiction and child abuse--seem more vexing than ever.
"We asked the right question--'Is self-esteem important?'--and the answer was clearly yes," Vasconcellos said. "Now we have to do the tough work, to make all the possibilities a reality."
It was his own personal odyssey, as much as anything, that turned Vasconcellos into California's sultan of self-esteem. The eldest son of a school principal, he was raised a strict Catholic, laden with "guilt and shame and all of that 'I'm not worthy' stuff."
For awhile, the formula worked, as Vasconcellos excelled as high school valedictorian, buttoned-down lawyer and finally, state assemblyman. But in his early 30s, he recalled in an interview, "I cracked. And then it took 20 years of therapy to make me whole"--to help him grow some self-esteem.
Today, Vasconcellos is 63 and therapist-free. Once known for turbulent moods and quirks such as not cutting his hair for months on end, the tall, sad-eyed assemblyman says he now feels "grounded." Occasionally he loses his grip, like last summer, when he flipped off a female colleague on the Assembly floor. So he still pays close attention to his inner self, practicing bioenergetics--"basically breathing, stretching, muscle work"--each day to help him deal with "the unpleasantries of life."
It was no easy victory, winning legislative support for a task force on self-esteem. Vasconcellos tried twice and failed before Gov. George Deukmejian finally signed a bill that brought the panel to life in 1987.
Once assembled, the task force took a load of abuse, much of it aimed at its eclectic membership. Among the 25 panelists were a neuroscientist who taught kundalini yoga, an "ultra-marathoner" who described himself as a "recovering expert," a pioneer in self-hypnosis, and the editor of a book titled "Gourmet Parenting." (In "Doonesbury," Trudeau appointed another panelist--Boopsie, a "channeler" who had out-of-body experiences.)