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Objectivism and Self-Acceptance

Objectivism and Self-Acceptance

10 Mins
February 1, 1997

Dr. Nathaniel Branden was a psychologist in private practice, author and speaker on psychology, and a pioneer of self-esteem psychology.

His first book on that subject, The Psychology of Self-Esteem, was published in 1969 and had more than 30 printings. In this talk, Dr. Branden discussed the essential requirements of self-esteem and how Objectivist ideas have influenced his thinking on this subject. Following are excerpts.


...How do I see the relationship of Objectivism to the work that I have done since the time of the break [with Ayn Rand] in 1968 summer...? Let me tell you one of the difficulties in even answering this question. The more deeply I've found myself thinking about it, the more complex I saw the issues concerning: What is Objectivism? And I want to talk about that first.

Some distinctions are very easy to make... One can certainly abstract out the pure propositions that represent distilled Objectivism. That is not difficult. It is easiest, for example, to talk about Rand on epistemology or metaphysics; but for reasons I want to explain, it's much harder to keep those lines clear if we enter the sphere of ethics and psychology, which is my chief interest... Here is the reason: The great bulk of what we call Objectivism was communicated to us through novels.... And, unfortunately, the requirements of fiction and the requirements of technical philosophy are often at odds. For example, you cannot have John Galt say "and/or." The very requirements that the speeches be dramatic, be exciting, be fiction, impose certain demands, which sometimes militate against the kind of precision and exactitude that is much easier to achieve in nonfiction. In fact, I see this as a towering example of Ayn Rand's genius: that she pulled it off with the inconceivably high level of precision that she achieved in a novel speech, and managed to be so faithful to her philosophical ideas and so dramatic at the same time. But nothing is infinite.

But [making her an] even a more extreme example is the fact that her novels are understood to be dramatizations–certainly The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged are–of what the ideas mean as lived by people who embody the principles of Objectivism. Therefore, if we see Howard Roark behaving in such a way, or we hear or read about his thinking processes, or how he relates to his own emotions, we are legitimately entitled in the context to assume that that also is part of what we mean by Objectivism. Or, for example, in Atlas Shrugged, we are entitled to assume that the behaviors of the clearly heroic characters in the book and the things they say to each other are also part of the Objectivist message. Yet, they are not presented to us in the form of propositional speech. And that led me (I'll give illustrations later on) into some difficulties: Are there disagreements, or are there not? It may surprise you to know that for a long time I couldn't answer that question.


Let me stay with certain core Objectivist ideas, which are by now "cellular" in me, and which certainly are background and context to my work in the field of self-esteem. I mean it–I don't know how to communicate strongly enough–that it operates at so deep a level in my psyche that it becomes a way of perceiving and interpreting and experiencing the world.

1. The concept of reason as the basic tool of survival.

2. The practice of relating all value questions to their significance to our survival qua rational beings.

3. The idea, which is at the core of all of my work, that the conceptual faculty is a self-regulating faculty, which means that here we see a very novel phenomenon in nature–namely, a natural process over which we have a measure of volitional control.

4. Proceeding from these, the idea that, because we are volitional beings, one of the basic tasks of life is to make ourselves into the kind of being who is appropriate to life. (What Rand calls, "able to live.")

5. And finally, and for the same reasons, the realization that we are beings who need to learn to value the beneficiary of our own actions if we are to be able to act competently and effectively in the world. (Which Rand calls, "worthy of living.")

I would name these as the most important ideas that set my core context when thinking about psychology in general and self-esteem in particular....

[Dr. Branden described the early development of his theory of self-esteem during his first practice of psychotherapy and his intellectual exchanges with Ayn Rand.]

...[T]here is this in common, for sure, between Rand's ethics and all of my writings on self-esteem (and you'll certainly see this in my book Six Pillars of Self-Esteem): It's a process approach, it's not a content approach. It's all about how the mind processes experience, what is the mind's relationship to reality. It's not about the content of consciousness; it's about the processes by which consciousness operates. Her ethics is a very psychological ethics; my psychology is a very philosophical psychology. Because in both cases...the key issue is: This confronts you, what does your mind do about it?

You know there is, in a certain sense, no "Objectivist theory of self-esteem." There's an Objectivist definition of self-esteem. The whole idea of self-esteem, as a theory of motivation...leaves the realm of philosophy and becomes the realm of psychology, when you begin to think about it in motivational terms. Because now you're into empirical observation and you're into a whole other kind of process of arriving at knowledge....


...Let me put it this way. In my thinking about self-esteem today, I tell people...there are two aspects to working on self-esteem. One is the elimination of negatives: dealing with trauma, dealing with anxiety, dealing with depression, dealing with very damaging, condemning parental voices telling a person perhaps "You're no good, you'll never amount to anything..."

And the other is building those positive practices, those positive ways of operating mentally, that build high self-esteem. You see, the absence of the negative doesn't equal the presence of the positive. The elimination of trauma doesn't produce happiness; it just clears the ground better for the achievement of happiness. The elimination of anxiety doesn't give you self-esteem. It merely clears the road. The elimination of depression doesn't give you joy. So...there are two tasks that bear on self-esteem. One is the elimination of negatives; the other is learning the positive practices...that would eventuate in a healthy self-esteem....

I want to share briefly what I learned about the building of positives, and how some of that relates to Objectivism.....I would say, with complete conviction, that if I were not the author of The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem, there is not a sentence in it that, if Ayn Rand were alive, she would not agree with. And yet, I say certain things that do clash with certain things she has said, so that's the paradox I want to address....


I want to move along to an issue which, in my work, I found to be supremely important for growth in therapy and for building self-esteem. And here is where the big issue with Objectivism...first enters.

The second of the six pillars that I write about is what I call "the practice of self-acceptance." And about self-acceptance I want to say two things to begin with... [O]ne, I don't know of anything more important for every kind of growth than practicing self-acceptance. I don't know of anything I have to teach that's harder for people to fully "get" than the practice of self-acceptance. So let me first of all formulate what I mean by it, briefly, and then bring in some Objectivist references.

I mean this: my willingness to respect facts and make facts fully real to myself when the facts we are talking about involve me, my thoughts, my feelings, my behavior... [W]e have the ability to make facts more real or less real. It isn't only: Is this real to us, or is this not real to us? We can hold a fact with many different degrees or shadings of reality inside our psyche. Are you aware of that? You would have to be, I think. You say..."I get it, but it's not fully real to me." Okay? Everyone knows what that means, whether they can fully articulate it or not.

What does it mean to practice self-acceptance? It means to be interested to know what is so about ourselves without avoidance, without denial, without disowning, without intellectualizing, without changing the subject. The ability to be aware in the fullest sense possible of what is so about me...and it does not mean to be judging or condemning or self-repudiating, but to be one hundred percent in an observer-awareness mode.

Let me concretize what that means. Let's take the issue of thoughts, first. I am going to tell you a secret about the human psyche. It's an open secret, rarely discussed. Sooner or later, everyone thinks everything. You understand what I mean? I mean by that, for example, I love my parents. One day, a thought passes through my head. I notice they're in their eighties. "Gee...I wonder what I'll inherit..? Ohh! What kind of a monster am I to have had such a thought! I didn't really think that. It didn't really happen."

I love that line of Nietzsche's: "I did it, says memory; I couldn't have, says pride–and remains implacable. Eventually, memory yields."

So we have to have complete freedom of action in consciousness. We can't have complete freedom of action in the world, obviously; there are limits on what we can do.... So we make a distinction between [that and] the complete absence of controls...

A bigger and more formidable issue is the realm of feelings. What became very clear in the practice of psychotherapy is that there is no more formidable cause of psychological problems than peoples' difficulty in being willing to face, experience, accept, and fully own their feelings and emotions. Now there are lots of reasons why this happens. It happens because when we are little we get many messages. "No son of mine feels this..." "No daughter of mine feels this..." "You shouldn't feel that. What's the matter with you?" We get a lot of messages that we are not acceptable, or that we aren't good, if we have certain kinds of feelings.

But it isn't just parental training. Sometimes the feelings are so disturbing to us that, even though no one is doing anything, we ourselves will spontaneously induce a process of avoidance or suppression or repression.... I have some grandchildren I saw grow up from birth, and it was very fascinating for me to see my two-year-old grandson. I don't think he was more than two, but something happened and his sister or somebody hurt his feelings. Now no one told a two-year-old, in that house, that you're not allowed to feel hurt. But I could see him sitting there, and his lip was quivering; I could see him tightening the muscles...constricting his breathing to block the feeling of being hurt because he didn't want his sister or whoever it was to know that they had the power to hurt him. It was like a humiliation. So he had somehow discovered, as children somehow discover at an incredibly early age, that they can control certain of their own physiologic processes and actually throw up a block against the awareness of the feeling.

So that it's not just something that we're taught. In fact, nobody teaches us how to do it. If you're angry, and your mother says, "Don't you be angry in this house!" she doesn't tell you how not to be angry. But you learn. You learn how you control your breathing; you tighten these muscles here; you tighten these muscles here. Why? Because those are the muscles that would be activated if you were punching or kicking... what happens is, you dim or numb the feeling....

I've had a lot of Objectivists...as clients, and I've seen a lot of self-crucifixion in the name of what I'm supposed to be, or what I'm supposed to feel: a lot of self-repudiation, a lot of self-rejection, a lot of disowning of the obvious reality of where the person is and what the person is feeling. Because it doesn't fit a certain theory of how I'm supposed to be. Whether the motives are good motives, heroic motives, or bad motives–I'm not interested in motives, right now. I'm talking about the fact that when we deny and disown and kid ourselves about what we are feeling, we drive the process underground. We make ourselves more unconscious about ourselves, and our subsequent behavior is less adaptive, less appropriate, less functional than if we were more aware. So it's actually imposing a limitation on the efficacy of our minds...


In Objectivism, there are very confusing messages. In some contexts, you get absolutely the right communications about how to look at emotions and feelings, but in others you don't. An example...of what I would call a "rational approach" to emotions is in the characterization of Hank Rearden in Atlas Shrugged. Because his mistake is clearly that he spends a great deal of time ignoring his feelings and emotions and yet, as the story develops, it's his emotions that prove to be correct and his belief system that in certain areas is mistaken. And in that characterization we dramatically have our attention drawn to the fact that, if there is a clash between our convictions and our emotions, it's not a foregone conclusion that it's the convictions that are correct and the emotions that reflect an error. That's something we have to find out. How? By examining the feelings. So that's what Francisco tells Rearden to do: Examine your feelings. You've been sacrificing them too long. And that's very good in terms of teaching the attitude: "You don't follow the feelings blindly, but neither do you dismiss them or ride roughshod over them." You pay attention....

Now, if you want to see a really fantastic teenage repressor, denier, and disowner, your humble servant stands before you....I would like to read to you a very influential passage from The Fountainhead. This is...not anything you will find in Rand's theoretical statements but, having worked with as many Objectivists as I have, I must tell you that this paragraph, or its emotional equivalent, is written into the psyche of a great many people. It sure made an impression on me, and I'll be very surprised if it doesn't push some buttons somewhere else in the room.

It's when Roark is working in the granite quarry, at the low point of his career. He has no money, he has no prospects, he has no hopes. Question: Would you say-human being to human being-does Roark have a right to have some bad days? Does he have a right to suffer, from time to time? Is his suffering legitimately entitled to be honored and respected? [Here is the passage.]

Sometimes, not often, he sat up and did not move for a long time; then he smiled, the slow smile of an executioner watching a victim. He thought of his days going by, of the buildings he could have been doing, should have been doing and, perhaps, never would be doing again. He watched the pain's unsummoned appearance with a cold, detached curiosity; he said to himself: Well, here it is again. He waited to see how long it would last. It gave him a strange, hard pleasure to watch his fight against it, and he could forget that it was his own suffering; he could smile in contempt, not realizing that he smiled at his own agony. Such moments were rare. But when they came, he felt as he did in the quarry: that he had to drill through granite, that he had to drive a wedge and blast the thing within him which persisted in calling to his pity.

Now, I don't think we can reasonably doubt that the author meant this to be heroic on Roark's part. There's nothing in the text to suggest that she thinks Roark is mistaken in handling his suffering this way. But...is contempt the appropriate response to your own perfectly legitimate, real, human suffering?

Now, I'm 14 years old. I'm not exactly socially adept...I was lonely a great deal of the time. I didn't really have any friends. I was a semi-disaster with girls during my teenage years. And I felt that any longing in me for human companionship, any feelings of loneliness, any pain, was something that-if I was as good as Roark-I would handle the way Roark handled: "I'm not lonely for nothing or nobody. I don't need nothing or nobody."

That laid the foundation for an awful lot of later problems in my life. I don't think I'm unique, in this respect. I think it's a perfectly natural application [of the passage]. Now the question then becomes...: Is this part of Objectivism?

It depends how you formulate the issue. It is conveying a message. I would say, "Look, no, it's not. Because it's not consistent with the dominant messages of Objectivism." Even though Ayn Rand may have said, at the time, at that stage of her development, yes it is, I would say it isn't-because it is a form of failing to respect reality. And that is more basically Objectivist than this issue. Any time you are for any reason, good or bad, noble or ignoble, putting yourself into an adversarial relationship to reality, you are in conflict with Objectivism....

Now we come to Atlas Shrugged. Two brief examples. This was a time when Rearden is walking toward his date with Dagny, and has some sickening new experiences with his businessmen colleagues and the people in Washington, and he's feeling very negative, very disgusted. Now he's walking toward the first happy romantic relationship of his life. He's walking toward a woman who already has given evidence of deep, deep caring, and deep understanding, and deep esteem for him. This is a man in love, going toward the woman he loves. [Here is the passage.]

He grasped a feeling that he had always experienced, but never identified because it had always been absolute and immediate: a feeling that forbade him ever to face her in pain. It was much more than the pride of wishing to conceal his suffering: it was the feeling that suffering must not be granted recognition in her presence, that no form of claim between them should ever be motivated by pain and aimed at pity. It was not pity that he brought here or came here to find.

Let's look at the messages that are contained here. This is the woman I love most in the world; this is the person with whom I feel freest to be myself. Under no circumstances must you ever know if I'm suffering. That's proposition one.

Two: If I were to show you my suffering, or allow you to see my suffering, my only motive could be to elicit your pity.

Really? Is that the only reason we allow someone else to see our suffering? Because we want them to pity us?

Now, I could give many more examples of passages.... They're not contained in the abstract formulations; they're contained in the dramatizations of the abstract formulations... [H]ere's only one last one: when Dagny quits for the first time, and she goes to the cottage in the country, trying to recover. She spends her time reshingling the roof, cleaning up the front yard... And of course she's missing her work at Taggart Transcontinental. Again, is this normal pain, [when] you give up the work you love most in the world? As a psychologist, I would say that the healthiest thing you can do right now is mourn your loss. Mourning is the way an organism heals itself from loss. [Here is the passage.]

She had come here with three assignments given, as orders, to herself: rest-learn to live without the railroad-get the pain out of the way. Get it out of the way, were the words she used. She felt as if she were tied to some wounded stranger who could be stricken at any moment by an attack that would drown her in his screams. She felt no pity for the stranger, only a contemptuous impatience [here we are with contempt again]; she had to fight him and destroy him, then her way would be clear to decide what she wished to do; but the stranger was not easy to fight.

You see, Rand was such a fantastically powerful writer that when she writes passages as well written and powerful as these, they make an impression....

I would say that, of any single practice that I teach, the one that people in general (it's by no means confined to Objectivists...) have great difficulty with is allowing themselves in a compassionate, respectful way to recognize their own feelings and give themselves permission to feel what they feel....

...Self-acceptance, I would say, is totally consistent with Objectivism. It's not totally consistent with everything Ayn Rand wrote. And I don't think that we thoughtfully want to insist that the two are synonymous.

For example, Aristotle, being a man of his time, in some respects, thought slavery was totally normal. (So did Jesus Christ. He never challenged the institution of slavery.) But nobody would say that part of Aristotelianism is the acceptance of the legitimacy of slavery...although he did write about it....

I think we have to use the same thinking [about Objectivism]. We have to go to what is the core, what is the essence, what is in alignment with the most fundamental features. And it is from that perspective that I see myself totally in alignment.

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