This post was originally published on June 4, 2014.
Anyone who’s spent more than a few months in a 12-step program has heard other addicts’ tales of parents who never said they loved them, never showed they loved them, or never showed up in the first place. These stories usually end with the adult addicts finally learning to love themselves through the love they found in the program or through their Higher Power. Basically, the pain of feeling unvalued led to drinking and drugs; feeling valued kept people clean and sober. So when I opened up an article called “Low Self Esteem is Good For You,” I practically slammed my fist against the desk with the conviction that this was not remotely the case.
The ‘Everyone Deserves a Trophy’ Syndrome
Then I noticed that the article is an excerpt from a book Anneli Rufus called Unworthy: How to Stop Hating Yourself and did a double take. With a title like that, the author clearly is not outright anti-self-esteem. What she is against, it turns out, is the excess of praise and entitlement that has stemmed from the self-esteem movement of the late 1980s. The movement has backfired, she argues, producing a whole generation of Veruca Salts who don’t care about helping others, saving the planet, or anything much at all besides themselves. According to one study, today’s college students are twice as narcissistic as their 1982 counterparts. I’m not sure how one quantifies narcissism, exactly, but considering everyone and their grandma was on cocaine in 1982, it’s a pretty dismal finding.
By the time I started kindergarten in 1990, the War on Low Self-Esteem was well underway, and I can say with certainty that it didn’t work for me. It was definitely a thing, though: primary school subjected us to a series of self-esteem assemblies that may or may not have involved giant animal costumes. Every year seemed to require some form of artsy expression of identity. Fourth grade brought the autobiographies; 7th grade brought the personal mandalas. In 12th grade AP English (I kid you not), we decorated papier maché masks to represent our inner and outer selves and wrote eight-page essays about how Hamlet related to our own lives.
The Danger of Self-Entitlement
Somehow, no amount of papier maché could stop me from being a hot mess by my mid-20s. Maybe I identified with Prince Hamlet too hard. So I shouldn’t be shocked at Rufus’ conclusion that all this self-esteem isn’t making kids happier. In fact, research shows it’s making them more depressed than ever: “Raised to believe that they are special and perfect and entitled to all good things,” she writes,” they face terrible comedowns in the real world.” Worse, evidence shows this self-esteem boost can actually predispose people to violence. We need look no further than the UCSB tragedy to see what happens when mental illness and entitlement cross paths.
In my work with teenagers and their parents over the past few years, I’ve observed some milder versions of these tendencies. But “low self-esteem” can’t possibly be the only alternative to Everyone’s A Winner Syndrome. Rufus’ article does acknowledge that not all self-esteem is created equal. In fact, like fats and cholesterol, it comes in healthy and unhealthy varieties. The real culprit is “fragile self-esteem,” the trans-fat of attitudes. Parents who believe their children can do no wrong? Kids who break down or freak out at the slightest criticism? That’s fragile self-esteem and a guaranteed trip to the Mental Hygiene department come freshman year of college. By contrast, “secure self-esteem” is based on actual achievement rather than mere existence, and it tends to be less overinflated.
Maintaining the Good Parts
I completely buy this distinction between “good” and “bad” self-esteem. But how can parents, teachers, and society foster the healthy kind of self-esteem and avoid its more malignant cousin?
I think back to the stories I’ve identified with in recovery. Yes, there are countless stories of loveless, broken homes. But other addicts did grow up with unconditional love, yet it somehow never translated into kindness towards themselves. It seems like most addicts, regardless of how much affection they received, grow up feeling more different and defective than special and deserving. I shared this sense of alienation and inadequacy. Despite two loving and still-married parents, I could never shake the feeling that something was wrong with me. Maybe I was special, the way my friend’s dog who kept running into walls on purpose seemed “special,” but I certainly wasn’t good enough.
As anyone who’s worked a Fourth Step knows, typical addicts suffer from both egotism and self-loathing with very little in between. To use Rufus’ words, “if only we could just reach medium.” In recovery, we learn how to “be right-sized”—recognizing that we are neither as important nor as awful as we have led ourselves to believe. We’re not God, but we’re not gum on the bottom of somebody’s shoe, either. Humility is crucial, yes—and not superficial modesty either, but deep, ego-effacing submission to truly bigger things. But for the program to work, our Higher Power is supposed to be loving, and by extension, we must come to see ourselves as worthy of love to begin with. Whether or not we felt love growing up, this is hard for many of us to do. Maybe the challenge comes from having plenty of inflated “self-esteem” but so little real self-worth.
Finding the Perfect Medium
“Most spiritual paths advocate a conscientious middle ground,” Rufus explains, before citing examples from both Eastern and Western traditions. And this is a huge part of why 12-step depends on spirituality. Addicts tend to live in a black-and-white world and struggle to even see a middle path, much less walk on it. But Rufus isn’t even writing about addiction. When our culture as a whole fails to promote being “right sized,” it’s unsurprising that a whole generation would emerge with diseased mindsets.
To curb the entitlement epidemic, maybe we should stop talking about “self-esteem” and start talking about self-worth and self-acceptance. Maybe every kid doesn’t deserve a trophy just for showing up to the ballgame. But do they deserve a “good game” high five and a pizza dinner? Why not? Kids need to experience the feeling of losing, but they shouldn’t be made to feel like losers. Praise, grades and awards should be earned through hard work, but a feeling of basic worthiness should go without saying. Instead of insisting on telling our kids they’re beautiful and talented and deserving of success, why not teach them it’s okay to be skilled at some things and not at others? More important than being good, why not teach them to do good? If we teach the next generation to see themselves as “right-sized,” healthy self-esteem will follow by itself. I’m no expert in parenting or pedagogy, but I can think of a couple of books that seem to have the right idea.
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