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At the end of the last century, the idea of self-esteem became enormously influential. A staggering amount of psychological research and self-help literature was published, and before long was devoured by readers. Self-esteem initiatives permeated American schools. Self-esteem became the way of understanding ourselves, our personalities, our interactions with others. Nowadays, few people think much about the idea of self-esteem—but perhaps we should.

Self-Esteem: An American History is the first historical study exploring the emotional politics of self-esteem in modern America. Written with verve and insight, Ian Miller’s expert analysis explores the critiques of self-help which accuse it of propping up conservative agendas by encouraging us to look solely inside ourselves to resolve life’s problems. At the same time, he reveals how African American, LGBTQ+ and feminist activists endeavored to build positive collective identities based upon self-esteem, pride and self-respect.

This revelatory book will be essential reading for anyone with an interest in the history of mental health, well-being, emotions in the United States’ unique society and culture.


“Low self-esteem is a political, structural, capitalist problem. It is not rooted in individual failings, even if it is experienced as such. Miller’s <i>Self-Esteem</i> is a captivating history of emotional modernity and a sustained, pointed critique of the therapy industry’s narrow focus on self-help.”

Rob Boddice, Tampere University


“Most of us live lives troubled by self-comparison and the sadness and anxiety that this habit brings on. Modern psychology promises us a kind of salvation, urging therapeutic self-help or politicized pride to rescue our self-esteem. In this important new work, Ian Miller offers an alternative solution, showing how an understanding of self-esteem’s conceptual history can give us a new perspective on our lives.”

Rhodri Hayward, Queen Mary University of London


“This fascinating and nuanced book is a much-needed reassessment of the role that self-esteem has played in shaping how Americans understand themselves. By focusing on how African American, LGBTQ+, and feminist activists have adopted ideas about self-esteem to build collective and individual pride, Miller reveals how self-esteem has been used as a tool in the fight for social justice – not just as a band-aid to cover up injustice.”

Louise Settle, Tampere University

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