Friday, March 11, 2011

American Exceptionalism, Bullying and Mean Girls – An Excess of Self-Esteem Or Just the Opposite

As much as I respect and admire David Brooks, he got it wrong this time.  In his March 10 op-ed piece, “The Modesty Manifesto,” he notes how we have turned into a culture of self-aggrandizement.  How we have become a society of individuals who think they are special and that they are entitled to things, rather than having to earn it.

While I would agree with Brooks’ observation, he is mistaken when he equates this common bravado for an increase in Americans’ self-esteem.  On the contrary, it is yet further evidence of how insecure and hollow Americans’ lives have become.

It is a well-known psychological fact that having a huge ego is typically a façade, a coping mechanism for deep feelings of insecurity and anxiety.  And the size of the ego and extent of aggression is directly related to the amount of insecurity.

Brooks sites several writers who point out that the generation of people now in their 20s grew up bathed in praise and messages that they are special.  While it may well be that such action on the part of parents was meant to increase self-esteem, in fact it increases insecurity.  When a child is told he is special, but knows deep down that he is not and that the praise is not grounded on anything specific, he feels he is being told that he is expected to be special and thus feels under pressure to indeed be special, creating huge insecurities.

If we were to search for a poster child for this American feeling of exceptionalism, we would have to look no further than George W. Bush.  While I have no idea how he was raised, he certainly would have had the burden of feeling that he was supposed to be special because of his family’s history. 

Instead, he knew he was a nothing and failed at one thing after another.   But he did find the gift of gab; of giving the impression that he was very sure of himself.  As President, he certainly displayed great bravado and certainty … he was “the Decider” … but it was such a pathetic façade.  One just had to look into his eyes, and watch his facial expressions to know that here was a man who felt totally insecure and out of his element.

Brooks is correct when he wonders whether this phenomenon is connected to the “social and political problems we have observed over the past few years.”   But the cause is our increased insecurity, not an increase in our self-esteem.

Which brings me to an article that I had just completed yesterday before I read David Brooks’ piece:

"The Societal Cost of Low Self-Esteem"

If you look at all the suffering in the world, at the people who do bad things to their fellow man and environment as well as to themselves, you will find a person who has low self-esteem. 

Whether it’s the bully on the school playground, the mean girls in the classroom, the drug addict, the father who verbally abuses or just isn’t there for his children, the business manager who is a tyrant in the office, the politician or commentator who is a demagogue, spewing hatred against those who do not think as he does and not believing in the American social contract, or even the terrorist … all of these people suffer from low self-esteem.

“Now wait a minute,” you might be thinking, “these are people who often exhibit huge egos.  Where does he get off saying that these people have low self-esteem?” 

Having a huge ego is typically a façade, a coping mechanism for deep feelings of insecurity and anxiety.  This is a well-known psychological fact, with the size of the ego and extent of aggression being directly related to the amount of insecurity.

I make this point because we live in a world with so much suffering at so many levels … not just now but throughout history.  These problems seem overwhelming and not susceptible to easy or even hard and costly solutions.  Certainly force, whether military or societal, is not an answer.

Is there a way to apply our knowledge regarding the effect of low self-esteem to address this large societal issue?  As a Buddhist, I believe that there is.

First let me state, briefly, the Buddhist perspective on suffering.   We are all born essentially perfect with the true Buddha nature inside us.  What happens after birth is that we are exposed to numerous environmental factors, first from our immediate family and then our peers and the broader society, that cause us to put labels on both ourselves and everything in our lives. 

These labels create conflict and stress, they are the causes of our neuroses.  Over the years, these layers of learned experience form an almost impenetrable barrier between us and our true Buddha nature … and between us and the world around us.  They are the clouds that keep us from seeing the blue sky that is always there.  We come to think of ourselves as being our ego.

The Buddha taught that the way to end suffering is to first be aware that we suffer, then understand the causes of suffering, realize that there is a path to stop our suffering, and finally follow that path.  Central to this process is understanding the impermanence of all things and the illusory nature of all perceptions, because they are all dependent on our learned experience. 

When we experience something, we see and feel it as filtered through our mind.  A key part of Buddhist training is to become able to experience things directly as they really are without the intervention of thought.

I need to note here that while Buddhist philosophy is not inconsistent with Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism, it is at odds with the concept of original sin in Christianity, under which man is seen as being born into a general condition of sinfulness.

But regardless of that doctrinal difference, all would agree that no child anywhere in the world, no matter what culture they are born into, are born with low self-esteem.  For that curse we have to thank the impact of their families, their peers, and their culture on their development.

Now don’t misunderstand me.  I am fully aware that people are born subject to all sorts of things … their socio-economic status, IQ, physical or mental condition, etc.   But none of these is inherently a source of low self-esteem.   It is how either the family, peers, or culture react to those conditions and what the child learns from that experience that cause low self-esteem.

So if our families, peers, and culture cause low self-esteem, then those same forces have the ability to not cause low self-esteem.   The question, however, is, since one is not starting with a clean slate where to begin to break the vicious cycle that we are in?

Because the older we are, the more invested our psyches are in our ego-driven low self-esteem, creating more of a challenge both to be aware of our suffering and to free ourselves of it, it makes sense starting to break the cycle with the newly born and young children.

The key to self-esteem for the newly- born and toddlers lies with parents.  Unfortunately, parents receive no training in being a parent, other than their own experience as a child, which rarely provides a good role model. And they are usually not well equipped to deal with the stresses of child rearing because of their own self-esteem and psychological stresses.  This is true even for those parents who read child-rearing books assiduously, because the implementation of any recommendations depends on their own mental state.

So the first step is to educate parents, both regarding the importance of childhood self-esteem, but also to boost their own self-esteem.  This can happen at various junctures.  One is when they apply for a marriage license.  All prospective parents should be required to undergo a course in parenting skills.  Another juncture is secondary education.  All seniors should take a course regarding functioning in an adult world, part of which would include lessons on parenting skills.  In both these instances, the process should include building up the individual’s own self-esteem.

Regarding young children, the forum for improving self-esteem needs to shift primarily to the school system because that is where the greatest chance for affecting change lies.  There is no shortage of stories about teachers who expect nothing of their students, berate them, and treat them like they were stupid.  But, there are also models of schools that have no tolerance for that type of teacher behavior and that foster positive self-esteem among their pupils.  To date, this has primarily been looked at from the perspective of how to improve student performance.  Equally important is how good self-esteem will impact their interaction within their future families, with colleagues, and with the world at large.

To the extent possible, parents of these children need to be brought into the self-esteem program through parent-teacher conferences and other mechanisms. This will increase the likelihood that the children will benefit meaningfully from the program.

Some conservative critics may say that this is an example of government stepping in where it has no business.   I would strongly disagree and say that government has few tasks more urgent than ensuring that children grow up to become good productive citizens.  And increasing self-esteem is an essential part of that process.

It will take generations to affect such a change in our psychological health across all age groups.  But if we want to achieve anything even approximating peace in the family, peace in schools, peace in the workplace, peace among citizens, and peace in the world, then we have no choice.  If we continue as we have for generations, nothing will change.  The path is clear.  We have but to embrace it whole-heartedly and with dedication.