[This interview was conducted via email in April 2005 and published in a local (metro Atlanta) freethought newsletter. Dr. Branden died in 2014. –JCS 12/24/2021]
Nathaniel Branden is a psychotherapist and a pioneering expert in the psychology of self-esteem. He’s also one of the founders of Objectivism, the philosophy originated by the late novelist Ayn Rand (The Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged).
As a young man, Branden became a disciple and colleague of Rand; in fact, they had a long-running romantic affair (both were married at the time and had informed their spouses at the start of the relationship). Both Branden and his first wife Barbara have published riveting accounts of those years: he in Judgment Day (republished as My Years with Ayn Rand); she in The Passion of Ayn Rand (which was adapted as a film-for-cable starring Eric Stoltz as Branden, Julie Delpy as Barbara and Helen Mirren as Rand).
Branden’s association with Rand ended messily in 1968, and in the aftermath, he became persona non grata to much of the Objectivist community. Undeterred, Branden continued in his already successful career as a psychotherapist, and emerged as a force to be reckoned with in the then-burgeoning self-esteem movement, publishing several books and lecturing all around the world.
Dr. Branden, now 75, lives and works in Beverly Hills, California. For a more in-depth exploration of his views on self-esteem, read his landmark book The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem. Visit his official website at NathanielBranden.com.
Q: Can you define very quickly what you mean by “self-esteem”?
Nathaniel Branden: I define self-esteem as: the disposition to experience oneself as competent to cope with the basic challenges of life and as being worthy of happiness.
Q: Do you think that most of the social problems in the world today are self-esteem issues?
Nathaniel Branden: I think self-esteem problems are prevalent throughout the world today, but I would not want to say that “most of the social problems in the world today are self-esteem issues.” Life is too complex for generalities of that kind.
Q: How well do your concepts on self-esteem translate into other cultures? For example, could The Six Pillars be published in the Arab world, or in Asia, and be used just as easily by individuals in those societies?
Nathaniel Branden: In my chapter on self-esteem and culture, in The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem, I argue that the six pillars are universals, applicable to humans in any cultures, and I spell out my reasons in detail. Of course, there are cultures in which the ideas in The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem are so unfamiliar, so “Western,” that there would be enormous resistance to be overcome. It would take a mind of unusual independence, in Arab countries, or in China, Japan, North Korea, and so forth. To grasp the importance of the six pillars is to grasp the importance of the ways in which they could make one’s life immeasurably better.
Q: What’s your assessment of the Objectivist movement at the dawn of the twenty-first century?
Nathaniel Branden: The Objectivist Movement is splintered. There is no “general Objectivist Movement.” To be a movement, it would have to have very specific goals by which to measure success or failure, progress or stasis.
Q: The market seems overstocked with books on self-help, self-improvement, etc. How can those who are shopping for books on this subject figure out which ones are just predatory infomercials from sham artists and which are legitimate, useful tools?
Nathaniel Branden: All one can do is look through a book in the bookstore, read a few pages, see if what the author says makes sense, resonates to anything in you, and looks like it might be helpful. There is no formula I can offer that would make unnecessary the need for independent judgment.