Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Why Too Much Self-esteem Is Also Bad For You...

‘The greatest love of all’, sang Whitney Houston, ‘is easy to achieve. Learning to love yourself: it is the greatest love of all’.
Reading The Narcissism Epidemic (by Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell) during the holidays, written by two American professors of psychology, suggests that these words were extremely well-written to describe our era – and its zeitgeist. The authors of this book explore the current obsession that self-esteem , not least in education, is key to humans’ success and happiness.
It’s true that we are constantly told by our culture that the more self-esteem you have, the better your life will be. Super high self-esteem must lead, it is assumed, to higher levels of achievement and higher levels of happiness.
What Twenge and Campbell find is this: there is NO statistical link between super-high self-esteem and success, or happiness. In fact they cite evidence of links between super high self-esteem and lower levels of success and happiness.
Super-high self-esteem is associated with having an idea that one is special, that one is entitled to success, that success is guaranteed, that riches, luxury, good relationships are the natural consequence of the individual’s attributes.
Super-high self-esteem is the consequence of – the authors write – a culture of self admiration. Self-admiration – or narcissism – is not only prevalent, it is practised by many people who act as role models in our society. As an example, they cite a well known celebrity who has a huge picture of herself in pride of place in her home, and who was found to have pictures almost entirely of herself on her phone.
Narcissists – and psychiatrists – are diagnosing increasing numbers of people with Narcissistic Personality Disorder: describing this as a condition of poor mental health. And narcissists are more likely to seek to attract attention to themselves with risqué profile pictures on social networking sites, they are more likely to spend a good deal of time in front of the mirror, and they are more likely to expect to be heard, rather than to listen. They don’t sound like nice people – but a great deal of education is now geared to make individuals feel ‘special’: praise is universal, and often unearned, academic grades are inflated (cited of American secondary education, but surely as true in England, if not the UK as a whole), and the appearance of success is the over-riding goal of education.
So, if we are to have (or to teach) healthy self esteem, without being (or teaching) self-admiring, or worse, self-adoring (behaviour), how are we to do this? Twenge and Campbell draw a critical distinction between self admiration, and self exploration, and here lies the beginning of potential solutions.
Self exploration is trying to find the limits of one’s capabilities by trying as hard as possible at different things. Self exploration is what happens if you practice your musical instrument for two hours a day for a year – you find out how good you could be; or if you work as hard as you could at a subject you find difficult – you find where your limits really lie. Or, again, if you get really fit for a sports season, you find out just what level of performance you are capable of.
I once skied with an international skier: he encouraged us to spend our time ‘exploring our envelope’ on skis. He had read that the role of a test pilot when a new airplane is made is to find the limits of what it can do, and he encouraged us to do the same with our capabilities on skis. This is self-exploration, I now realise.
So, at New Year’s resolution time, perhaps it is a good time to challenge students (as I will in assembly next week) as to whether 2013 will be a year of self-admiration, or self-exploration. Will it be a year when skills in the close reading of poetry, or the understanding of the algebra of irrational numbers, or the implications of post-modernism, attract the same – or even greater – levels of attention than the student’s Facebook profile picture, or the ‘brand’ they project in social media space? Will our students explore their capabilities, and thereby grow them, or merely admire themselves, and stagnate?

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