How We Learn to Value and Accept Ourselves

Saturday, 02 April 2011 01:59

Royal Society of Arts Lecture, November 11, 2004

 

How We Learn to Value and Accept Ourselves

 

A few months ago I went to stay with a friend who lives some distance from me. One afternoon we visited Louis who is the most wonderful child the world has ever seen. I know this because my friend, Louis’ grandmother, told me. I had met Louis a year before when he was only a few weeks old. Wonderful though he is, it was unlikely that he would remember me. I was concerned that I shouldn’t upset him in any way. The received wisdom amongst child rearing experts is that from about eight months onwards children recognise the difference between the people they know and strangers, and they become anxious when they meet a stranger. Moreover, Louis would be tired because he would have been at nursery that day. So I resolved to smile at him from afar and not invade his space.

 

Things didn’t turn out like that. I sat myself at the table at the far end of the kitchen while Louis’ mother and grandmother made tea and talked over the events of the day. Louis checked the kitchen to see if all was satisfactory and then he used my knee to heave himself upright and with a big grin invited me to join him in a kind of peek-a-boo game with him under the kitchen table. Two hours later when Louis had had his tea and his bath and was in his mother’s arms on his way to bed his mother said, ‘Kiss Dorothy goodnight.’ Most 14 month old children in that situation would bury their face in their mother’s shoulder while the adults coo, ‘He’s shy.’ Not Louis. With a big smile he planted a big soppy kiss on my cheek.

 

Why did Louis not behave in the way the experts expect? I know the answer to that question because I know his family. One of the advantages of growing old is that you see how things turn out.

 

I’ve known Louis’ father for about ten years. I met Louis’ mother when she was one week old. I met his maternal grandparents when they were in their early twenties, and not long after I met their parents. I know this family’s style. All families have a particular style, a way of thinking and behaving which gets handed down from one generation to another. Like all families, Louis’ family has had its troubles but, no matter what, the family style has remained.

 

All the family members have always been highly idiosyncratic individuals. Even those who think of themselves as being conventional are conventional in an idiosyncratic way. One striking feature of this family is their extraordinary tolerance of one another’s idiosyncrasies. Of course they laugh and gossip about one another, but there are no ruptures or rejections. This acceptance of one another shows itself in the way the adults treat the children in the family. They see children not as strange little creatures which have to be tamed and trained but as individuals like themselves. In short, they see children as people not objects.

 

We all know how we feel when another person treats us as an object without feelings and a point of view. When other people humiliate us, ignore us, laugh at us, pay no regard to our needs and wishes, when they betray, injure, and punish us, we know that they are denying our existence as a person. We find this extremely painful and frightening. We can try to fight back to force those who are treating us as objects to acknowledge us as we wish to be acknowledged, but when we are children we are small and helpless. We can be punished for protesting against the cruelty inflicted on us. If the cruelty continues we can come to feel that we have no right our own point of view. Indeed, we can come to feel that we have no right to exist.

 

Children born into families like Louis’ family do not suffer the threats to their sense of being a person that destroy self-confidence. Babies are born full of unself-conscious self-confidence. They don’t come into the world wondering whether people will like and accept them. They are unsurprised when people smile at them. However, most babies lose the self-confidence with which they were born, and become shy, uncertain toddlers well acquainted with shame and guilt. These babies have been born into families where the adults do not see the children as individual people with their own point of view. It is possible to be loving and kind to a child but still see that child as an object. After all, this is what many people do to their pets. They project their own ideas on to their pets and never attempt to try to understand how that animal sees his world.

 

In past generations any child who managed to retain a vestige of self-confidence was considered to have been spoilt. Not only was the biblical injunction, ‘Spare the rod and spoilt the child’ adhered to but the belief that children were objects not people was enshrined in our language. Men and women were distinguished by the pronouns which refer to them but a child was ‘it’. Only comparatively recently have the pronouns ‘he’ and ‘she’ been applied to boys and girls.

 

The legacy left by Sigmund Freud means that nowadays some adults think about children differently from our forebears. The majority of adults still see children as expendable objects. If they did not, children would not continue to die in wars and conflicts, from poverty and curable diseases. In wealthy countries many parents are concerned solely with forcing their child to be a credit to them as parents. The child should be what the parent wants him to be, not what the child knows himself to be. Many politicians and pedagogues want to make all children conform to some educational theory and have no regard for how children see their situation. Freud’s legacy has meant that nowadays some people think about children as persons and not merely objects. Fascinated though he was with sex, Freud couldn’t help noticing that his clients did not think much of themselves. Freud wasn’t greatly interested in this but therapists who followed him came to see that their clients’ low opinion of themselves was central to their mental distress. Indeed, people demonstrate their mental distress in many different ways, ways which psychiatrists call the symptoms of mental illness, but whatever form the behaviour takes, the cause of it lies in the person’s self-hatred.

 

Thus therapists began to see that their main task was to help restore their clients’ self-confidence. This led them to question how children should be brought up.

 

It was clear that children need to be given some kind of discipline. Children have to learn how to fit into society. If Louis’ parents don’t say, ‘No’ to him occasionally and point out to him how he could improve his behaviour he’ll grow up to be an outlaw. But how to do this without destroying the child’s self-confidence?

 

This question has occupied the minds of psychologists, therapists and teachers for several decades. This question became a matter of public debate, a debate informed, and often misinformed, by the media. However, most people, and this includes most of the experts, hate thinking, especially thinking about dilemmas which allow no simple, once-and-for-all solutions. So the experts who hate thinking came up with a solution, and a complex set of ideas was transmuted into a simplistic dogma, the dogma of self-esteem. All that therapists had to do was to turn self-hatred into self-esteem, and parents should make sure that their children grow up with loads of self-esteem. There is now a self-esteem industry where counsellors and life coaches teach people how to increase their amount of self-esteem. And not before time. Oprah Winfrey has said that boosting people’s self-esteem was ‘the most important issue facing society today.’ Not to be left out, the government’s employment programmes for lone parents have been designed to ‘excite the imagination, to build self-esteem and mutual self-help.’[i]

 

How do you turn self-hatred into self-esteem? Self-hatred can take many forms. We can hate our appearance, our gender, our apparent lack of ability. We can feel that other people don’t accept us and we don’t accept ourselves. We can feel that we have no right to exist and must creep around the margins of the world. The advocates of self-esteem ignore these different ways of hating ourselves and simply declare that a person has ‘low self-esteem’ or ‘doesn’t have much self-esteem’, as if self-esteem is a thing which can exist in some greater or lesser degree and is lodged in the person like a boiled sweet in a jar.

 

The dogma of self-esteem advises to parents to shower on their children endless praise and protestations of love. The children of parents who believed in the self-esteem dogma heard little from their parents other than ‘You’re wonderful darling’ and ‘Love you darling.’ Have these children developed into strong, self confident people ready to be good members of society? Alas no. Continuous praise creates problems just as continuous criticism did.

 

Continuous praise treats a child as an object just as continuous criticism does.

The parent who uses constant criticism wants to see his child being unhappy because for the parent that is evidence that the child is learning to be what the parent wants him to be. The child’s unhappiness shows the parent that he is a good parent. The parent who uses constant praise doesn’t want to see his child as being unhappy because to the parent this is evidence that either there are aspects of the child which aren’t praiseworthy or that the parent isn’t a good parent. A parent may think that he is being a very good parent when he says, ‘I don’t mind what you do, darling, just so long as you’re happy’ but what he is actually saying is, ‘Be the person I want you to be, that is, a happy person.’ The child knows he cannot be sad, or angry, or lonely, even though this may be what he actually feels, because if he is sad, or angry, or lonely he will not please his parent. When a child feels he cannot be the person he knows himself to be he comes to believe that the person he knows himself to be is unsatisfactory and thus unacceptable.

 

Constant praise from adults robs some children of the opportunity develop a critical, discerning attitude towards their work. If everything you do is supposed to be wonderful why try to improve? Why try to discriminate between those areas of your work where you have a natural talent and interest and those areas where you need to apply yourself in order to meet a standard which other people would call satisfactory? Some children come to see the constant praise as the only source of their motivation. Thus the child works well while an adult is beside him praising him but loses interest when the adult moves away.

 

Children know that an adult’s words are cheap. They know that an adult reveals what he actually thinks in his actions. A child who receives constant praise but who sees his parents act without any recognition, much less consideration of, how he sees himself and his world feels that he is not loved and valued by his parents. He sees himself as unacceptable and valueless and his parents as untrustworthy. In some families the parents do see their child as being praiseworthy and loveable but the child also receives much destructive criticism from others, perhaps from older siblings, or grandparents, or teachers. The parents fail to see this, or fail to see how much the child is hurt by the constant criticism. The child suspects that his critics are right and that his parents are gullible and blind. He comes to feel that he is an impostor who will one day be exposed as a fraud. No matter what he achieves, the feeling of being an impostor can last for the rest of his life.

 

Some parents want to see their child as deserving all possible praise because they want to see themselves as the best of all possible parents. The child must be a mirror in which they can admire themselves. They don’t teach the child to look outwards and take account of other people, and the child grows up to be as self-regarding as the parents are. An example of this kind of parent-child relationship is given in Sarah Harris’s novel Closure which is about a group of middle-class thirty-year-olds living in London in the 1990s. Anna is the central character and she and Roo have been friends for years.

 

Anna agreed to drive over to Roo’s house, although she was not in the mood for Roo’s five-year-old daughter, Daisy, who, last week, had laughed at Anna’s shoes.

‘They’re ridiculous,’ she had said, as if trying out a new word for size. ‘Mummy says you dress like a teenager and if you leave it much longer you won’t have any children.’ She had paused, as if to allow Anna to reflect on her words, before saying, with horrified indignation, ‘Why is your hair so straggly?’

 Roo had praised Daisy for the proper use of the word ‘straggly’.”[ii]

 

In the USA where self-esteem became a dogma some years before it did in the UK, the first recipients of their parents’ continuous praise are now in their late teens and early twenties. Jonathan Franzen portrays one of these people in his novel The Corrections. This is Melissa, a college student who seduces and ruins her college lecturer Chip Lambert and then leaves him when he ceases to interest her. Melissa is a monster. She certainly does not lack self-esteem. When she invades Chip’s office it is ostensibly to tell him that her parents had split up but when he suggests that she talk to a college counsellor she replies, ‘On the whole I’m doing brilliantly.’ She pries her shoes off on the arm of the sofa and lets them fall to the floor. She goes on, ‘I had an excellent childhood. My parents have always been my best friends.’[iii]

 

Chip allows himself to be seduced and led astray by Melissa, but when she makes it clear that she was leaving him Chip ventures to say that perhaps her relationship with her parents was not quite right. Melissa replies, ‘I like myself very much but you don’t seem to like yourself so much.’ Chip comments, ‘Your parents seem very fond of themselves, too. You seem very fond of yourselves as a family.’ Melissa becomes very angry. ‘I love myself,’ she said. ‘What’s wrong with that?’[iv]

 

Chip is unable to say what was wrong with it. Although he taught literary theory he seems not to have understood how important it is to respect the language we speak and not use it to lie to ourselves and to mislead others. Unfortunately this happens all the time and in all walks of life. Those who work in the self-help industry are particularly prone to do this. The English language is very flexible and has a huge vocabulary so that it is capable of describing every variety of human thought, feeling and behaviour. There was no need to coin the jargon term ‘self-esteem’ when there was already an excellent word to apply to Melissa and other self-regarding people. It is ‘vanity’.

 

The essence of vanity is not just admiring yourself. It is thinking of yourself to the exclusion of all else. Freud called this way of thinking narcissistic, referring to the legend of Narcissus who was so entranced by his reflection in a pool of water that he could not leave the pool but remained there and, trapped by his vanity, he died. Freud knew from his patients that not all narcissists are trapped by self-adoration. Many narcissists are trapped by self-hatred. They are completely focussed on themselves, absorbing in noting and exaggerating every nuance of their inadequacy and sin while denying every aspect of their competence and virtue, in the same way as Melissa was absorbed in noting and exaggerating every nuance of her imagined superiority while refusing to be aware of how much people disliked her. Self-hating narcissists take great pride in their humility and awareness of their wickedness, while self-adoring narcissists focus on their virtues and their abilities in order to hide from themselves their inadequacies and their hurts. Both ways of being are defences against the fear of being annihilated as a person.[v] Desperate defences like these take no account of other people. If narcissists think of other people at all it is only in terms of other people in relation to themselves. The self-hating narcissist thinks that everyone hates him: the self-adoring narcissist thinks that everyone loves and admires him. Both are wrong.

 

In the rearing of children relentless praise and rewards produces the same result as relentless criticism and punishment. Both produce adults who are incapable of seeing other people as persons existing in their own right. They see other people as objects, not as persons.

 

The self-esteem advocates have produced this result because they couldn’t bear to examine that complex set of ideas which determine how we feel about ourselves. They also refused to acknowledge that each of us is, day by day, trying to find some optimum balance between being an individual and being a member of a group. Disregard other people’s existence and live solely as your vanity and selfishness dictate and you will become ostracised and lonely. Disregard your own needs and wishes and devote yourself totally unselfishly and humbly to others and you will vanish as a person.

 

How we feel about ourselves is made up of three components, how much we care about ourselves, how much we value ourselves, and how we judge ourselves.

 

How much we care about ourselves is made up of two parts, how much we care about ourselves and how much we care for ourselves. How much we care about ourselves means loving and liking ourselves. Self-regarding narcissists care only about themselves. Proud of their self-love or self-hatred, they do not care about other people. Lost in self-regard, they can never get to know other people and so they are always lonely. Caring about ourselves should include caring about other people. Caring for ourselves means taking care of ourselves. People who hate themselves fail to give themselves the basic physical care which all people need because they feel that they don’t deserve to be looked after. Those people who are lost in vanity have no interest in the needs of other people. When forced to acknowledge the real existence of other people they cannot comprehend why other people hate them so much.

 

How much we value ourselves needs to be in proportion to how much we value other people. The pride that people who hate themselves take in being humble leads them to overvalue others and undervalue themselves, while those who are lost in their vanity undervalue others and overvalue themselves. The right balance comes with understanding that everyone is special and everyone is ordinary.

 

How we judge ourselves consists of the dimensions on which we have chosen to judge ourselves and how harshly we judge ourselves on these dimensions. The dimensions on which we choose to judge ourselves come from the conclusions we drew from our experiences in childhood. As children we tried to please our parents and so we studied very carefully what did please them and what did not. For some parents their child’s appearance is very important. If the parents continually focus on the child’s appearance the child is very likely to come to see her appearance as the most important dimension on which to judge herself. Neither the child who is continually criticised about her appearance nor the child who is continually praised for her appearance can regard how she looks as being unimportant. The only difference is that the child who is continually criticised for her appearance sees herself as extremely ugly while the child who is continually praised for her appearance sees herself as extremely beautiful. Neither child can see herself as she is.

 

 Most of us judge ourselves on a number of dimensions and we set ourselves different standards on each of these dimensions. For instance, we may choose as our dimensions the quality of our work and the cleanliness and tidiness of our home. On the first of these dimensions we may set ourselves the highest of standards and want to reach near perfection with every task we undertake but in our home our aim to be no more than reasonably clean and tidy. However, some people choose an array of dimensions and demand perfection on all.

 

The journalist Simon Hatterstone interviewed Jonny Wilkinson, who at 25 is the English Rugby captain famous for the drop goal which won the England side the final of the World Cup against Australia in 2003. Hatterstone described Wilkinson as a ‘fearful, obsessive man with a strict moral code’. He wrote,

 

Wilkinson isn’t a religious man, but he could easily be mistaken for one. He likes to imagine he lives his life in front of a 24-hour camera (ironic, considering his desire for privacy) and that at the end of each day he can rest assured that he’s not let anyone down. ‘It’s a kind of religion, a set of standards that you live by. And it’s having the pride not to drop below them, regardless of what outside pressures creep in. To say this is the way I am, this is the way I want to be, and to try to stand strong through whatever else happens. There are certain vows and you stick to them.’[vi]

 

Jonny Wilkinson has chosen a set of dimensions on which to judge himself which gives him a life dominated by what he ought to be. Moreover, the standard of never letting anyone down is impossible to reach as not letting one person down often has to entail letting several other people down for the practical reason that our time is always limited and we cannot be in two places at once. As they get older the problem for children who have been overly criticised and overly praised is that self-hatred and vanity take no account of what actually goes on in the world. Self-hatred is accompanied by a critical conscience that demands the impossible, while, for the overly praised child, as the years pass, the chorus of the external, praising voices dwindles away.

 

I don’t think that either of these fates lies in wait for Louis. Louis’ family don’t set impossible standards for themselves or for their children, nor do they behave in a way that would encourage him to grow up to be a narcissistic monster like Melissa. After Louis had said goodnight to me his mother put him in his cot and a few minutes later joined us all in the kitchen where supper was about to be served. She brought the baby monitor with her and set in on the table. We could hear Louis complaining that he was upstairs and all the fun was going on downstairs but it wasn’t a serious complaint. He knew his parents would come to him if something was wrong so he didn’t have to keep checking that he could trust them to come by refusing to settle down and go to sleep. He was learning that other people have their own needs and wishes and that he must always take that into account. Because his family treat him as a person, not as an object, Louis is learning that he has to balance his need to be an individual with his need to be part of a group. With such a beginning I am sure that he will always be able to live comfortably with himself and with other people.

 

 



[i] Jamie Doward ‘It’s the modern world, so don’t get a life: get a life coach’ Observer, October 24, 2004.

[ii] HarperCollins, London, 2000, p.53.

[iii] Fourth Estate, London, 2002, p.57.

[iv] ibid p.68.

[v] Dorothy Rowe Beyond Fear second edition, HarperCollins, London, 2003.

[vi] Weekend MAGAZINE, Guardian, October 23, 2004, p.16.