Sunday, March 2, 2014

"Entitled, Egomaniacal Narcissists"

The self-esteem movement must count as a pillar of the American therapy culture.

Allow one of its important theorists, Carl Rogers to define the term:

Every human being, with no exception, for the mere fact to be it, is worthy of unconditional respect of everybody else; he deserves to esteem himself and to be esteemed.

This sounds like a definitive assertion of human self-worth. Perhaps it is symptomatic of the movement itself, but this sentence is also a poorly written syntactical jumble.

Be that as it may, Rogers is not just saying that you need to feel good about yourself, no matter what. He is also dictating how other people must treat you. If you believe that you are great and special, regardless of what you have or have not done, everyone else is enjoined to feed your illusions.

By all appearances, the theory leaves no place for competition. It certainly rejects status hierarchies. If everyone, by the mere fact of being, is just as good as everyone else, why bother to compete for status or success.

If you respect the thief or the beggar as much as you respect the physician or the musician, what does that say about your capacity to form judgments?

If you respect the man who is rude to you as much as you respect the man who is polite to you, how good are you going to feel about yourself?

If you respect the scoundrel as much as you respect the person who is responsible, reliable, loyal and trustworthy, how will you make your way through life?

Has the self-esteem movement abolished your right to choose your friends by the “content of their character?”

Self-esteemists will reply that Nathaniel Branden and Abraham Maslow, two major gurus of the movement, believe that your goal in life should be total self-actualization.

But, must we then offer more esteem to those who are perfectly self-actualized? If we do, does that contradict the non-judgmental predicate in Rogers’ thought?

With all the emphasis on being, what about doing? You are an ethical individual because of what you do, not because you have actualized your being. You function in society because you follow rules and get along with other people, not because you have actualized your full potential. 

When all is said and done, self-esteemism is making a virtue of anomie.

Strangely enough, that most competitive of organizations, the United States Army has been using, as a slogan: “Be all that you can be.” Apparently, the Army knows its constituency. Surely, it’s strange to imagine that the purpose of military service is self-actualization.

Imagine a military officer saying to his troops: Win or lose, no matter what, we want you to be all that you can be.

Recently, Will Storr offered a valuable overview of the self-esteem movement in an essay on its primary detractor, Prof. Roy Baumeister.

Storr recalled that when self-esteem was all the rage, its proponents claimed that a mere boost of self-esteem could solve all of the nation’s problems. It sounds a bit like hubris, don’t you think?

In Storr’s words:

The idea of self-esteem as a social panacea was too good to question. It spread through the country and much of the Western world. Heads big and small were systematically stuffed full of their own wondrousness. As the 1980s became the 1990s, schools and kindergartens began boosting self-esteem in classes, encouraging children to write letters to themselves, telling themselves how special they are. Five-year-olds in a Texas nursery were made to wear T-shirts that said ‘I’m loveable and capable’ and to recite the mantra daily. High school awards were dropped by the thousands, and grades were inflated to protect the esteem of low achievers. (One teacher argued, “I don’t think it’s grade inflation. It’s grade encouragement.”)

Baumeister decided to evaluate the claims of the self-esteem movement. As I have reported in other posts, he created a study that would show whether students with high self-esteem outperformed those with low self-esteem. It seems like a fair enough question.

Storr reported on the shocking results:

So, the logic went, if you boosted self-esteem you’d also boost grades. But the authors had made one of the most elementary mistakes in science. “When they tracked people over time,” says Baumeister, “the grades came first, and then the self-esteem. High self-esteem was a result of good grades, not a cause.”

Baumeister realized that efforts to boost self-esteem hadn’t improved school performance. Nor did self-esteem help in the successful performance of various tasks. It didn’t make people more likeable in the long term, or increase the quality or duration of their relationships. It didn’t prevent children smoking, taking drugs, or engaging in “early sex.” His report made the claims of the self-esteem movement look like those of a street-corner wizard.

Some self-esteem gurus did pay lip service to competition. When their theories were put into practice, a different truth emerged. Policies promoted by the movement made children less competitive, thus, less likely to fulfill their human potential.

Since the movement tends to believe in the intrinsic value of offering up empty praise, it can be also judged by what happens to the human brain when it is fed quantities of empty praise.

Baumeister and his colleagues discovered that overloading a child with empty praise produces an state that resembles the effect produced by certain drugs, like cocaine.

Storr explained:

In A 2000 paper in the journal Advances in Experimental Psychology, Baumeister and colleagues proposed a new way of thinking about the problem. In their “sociometer” theory, self-esteem is a system for monitoring how well we’re doing in our quest for social acceptance. Assaults on our self-esteem trigger a form of pain signal that alerts us to the fact that damage is occurring to the opinions that others hold of us. “Self-esteem,” they wrote, “is one’s subjective appraisal of how one is faring with regard to being a valuable, viable and sought-after member of the groups and relationships to which one belongs and aspires to belong.”

The paper also contained a warning. It compared the pleasure of hollow self-esteem boosting to cocaine abuse.

“Drugs take advantage of natural pleasure mechanisms in the human body that exist to register the accomplishment of desirable goals,” they wrote. “A drug such as cocaine may create a euphoric feeling without one’s having to actually experience events that normally bring pleasure, fooling the nervous system into responding as if circumstances were good. In the same way, cognitively inflating one’s self-image is a way of fooling the natural sociometer mechanism into thinking one is a valued relational partner.”

If this is true, children are being primed to believe that drugs are the solution to all problems. And they are trained to become addicted, if not to drugs, then to something else.

In Storr’s words:

Narcissism, then, is a kind of addiction to self-esteem. So what would happen if you took an entire generation of young people and systematically and repeatedly masturbated their self-esteem mechanisms? Could it be true that the children raised in the school of Rogers, Branden, and Vasconcellos were growing up to be entitled, egomaniacal narcissists?


n.n said...

He's confusing self-esteem and intrinsic value. The former is a product of ego, while the latter engenders a gesture of respect. The former is especially volatile when it displaces self-confidence, which is egoism backed by achievement. This is analogous to money and wealth, respectively, where the former is virtual, and the latter reflects productivity.

Intrinsic value is destroyed with denigration of individual dignity (e.g. "diversity") and devaluation of human life, especially through normalization of abortion/murder.

Ares Olympus said...

n.n is right about self-esteem being connected to ego, but we still have to find what it can and can't do for us.

It seems clear the "self-esteemers" have overstepped, but I keep trying to wrap my brain around what they're trying to do, what social evil they are fighting, and it does seem to come down to the idea of status and competition as raising some people by lowering others.

One of the long advocates is Alfie Kohn, like this article against competition, so I wonder why he's wrong, and my conclusion is that he attributes the excesses of competition as CAUSE of aggression, rather than seeing competition as a way for kids to learn how to manage and direct their aggressive impulses, and how to defend themselves against the same in others.

Competition brings out parts of ourselves we don't immediately recognize. In 5k, 10k running races, I'm always competing against the clock, and don't feel competitive against other people until perhaps the last quarter or half mile, and that's what helps me push harder at the end when I need more motive. These adult races also have "age group awards", so I learned very early all things aren't equal, like getting third place for M30-39, while there was 6 M40-49 ahead of me, so I could see those midlife crisis men above me were using each other to excel while my generation still just wanted to have fun!

OTOH, a woman friend "Jane" who also started running and racing ended up fastest woman in one small 10k race, or up to the last 10 feet where she was passed by another woman. "Jane" thought it wasn't good sportsmanship to sneak up and pass someone at the end, and later "Jane" shocked me, called the other woman a very unladylike name to the race director later for the sneaky tactic.

And in the next race, "Jane" was critical of the fastest woman, who was like 5 minutes ahead of all the other women, but still 5 minutes behind the fastest men. So "Jane" was convinced the fast woman was just trying to feel superior and, as a college track star, had no business running in a neighborhood race. I could only point out that the fast woman was competing quite well with the mid-fast men, so she wasn't just running alone.

So that's one experience to see what a lack of self-esteem looks like - it means you project your own aggressive feelings onto others rather than admit them in yourself.

And the sport did exactly what it intended - encouraged "Jane" to compensate and work hard, and now can frequently win mid-level races, and often win her age group. And because she can remember what it felt like to be a beginning, she's very encouraging and supportive to other woman runners, so its interesting to see aggression that leads to success might promotes encouragement to others who aspire.

The problem I see with self-esteem is whether and how it transfers from one achievement to another. Good grades in math didn't necessarily make me care about English grades. And then we have the ultimate source of status and self-esteem - MONEY - and its clear having money can feel like an achievement, and proof of hard work, but it also defines a protective bubble, so you don't have to put yourself on the line in the future.

I like Kipling's poem If:
...If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;

Kipling offers advice how to not take success or failure personally, and recognize they are imposters to self-worth.

Anonymous said...

Billionaire Tom Perkins got in trouble recently - first in warning that resentment against the 1% as being similar to pre-WW2 Germany's resentment against the Jews that lead to the holocaust, and later he asserted that anyone who didn't pay at least $1 in tax shouldn't be allowed to voter, but also that what he really wanted was one dollar, one vote, income tax dollar paid I think, and admitted he was just trying to provoke discussion.

So is Perkins an "entitled, egotistical narcissist", or is he just expressing the natural state of grace entire a person of financial stature?

I can see both sides - see people who could work harder and instead exploit a compassionate system to gain unearned income that they could work for and feel better about. However I also see you don't become a billionaire by working minimum wage jobs, and once you have money (or have the status to borrow large sums of money), you can leverage that money into huge windfalls, merely for seeing an opportunity of expansion and making a good bet.

I might say it is confusing that an 18 year old is able to sign a contract to student loans that can never be canceled by bankruptcy, for an unknown job market he's betting will be there for him, and if he's forced to take a low wage job that has no future, and nothing to do with his education, he's going to be resentful toward a billionaire who made some good bets, and deserved his success while other failed by their own lack.

If you believe in a competitive world of winners, you also have to believe in a competitive world of losers, and so if the winners look down on the losers, and the losers see no opportunity to win, you shouldn't be too surprised a fraction of them will create BILLIONS of dollars of harm to the economy - from the drug trade and policing and imprisonment of nonviolent criminals and all that.

So competition has a real dark side that can't be ignored. But I accept self-respect is the key to escape not self-esteem.