Thursday, April 19, 2007

Maybe someday, once everyone has high self-esteem, we can all be rage killers.

Interestingly enough, more and more observers, both in and out of the media, are climbing on the narcissism bandwagon in their attempts to "explain the inexplicable," otherwise known as the Virginia Tech shooting rampage. This surprises me, since it very much goes against the grain of the pat story line in covering these tragedies, which historically (mis?)labels such killers "people with no sense of self-worth." As one psychologist put it last night (I'm paraphrasing but it's close), "If you truly lack self-worth, you might kill yourself—and even suicide can be very much a narcissistic act, depending on the circumstances. On the other hand, the rage killer who's not satisfied unless he takes a lot of other people with him first—that kind of individual probably thinks way too much of himself and his role in life." And death. It's a perspective that's supported by the tapes killer Seung-Hui Cho sent to NBC, which underscore his messianic self-appraisal and clarify the "message" that this slaughter was supposed to impress on America-at-large.

Still, very few of these same observers trace the malaise back to what is, at least in my view, its roots. For more than a generation we've been telling kids, "You're special! You're amazing! You can be/do/have anything/anyone you want! Never give up your dreams!" And yet we react with such clueless astonishment and wide-eyed horror when kids who've been unusually frustrated in their efforts to find the adulation they "deserve," and who were always a little bit "out there" (as this guy clearly was), act out in rage.

Just mark my words: We're haven't heard the last from Jack Canfield and the rest of the self-esteem set, who made their fortunes* selling a totally untested principle to unsuspecting school systems; they'll come out of hiding when the time is right in order to trumpet that same old argument about how the real problem in society is that kids still don't think enough of themselves.

* And still make a fair chunk of change today, doing "uplifting" programs and designing self-esteem-based curricula. You think they want to see that golden goose disappear?


a/good/lysstener said...

I think this series of posts is one of your most powerful and important for people to read, Steve. All the more so at such an emotional time, following this terrible national tragedy. All the talk about the Secret and what a silly waste of money it is, is one thing, but showing people more of the dangers of self-help is what really brings the whole picture into focus. Even if most of us aren't running out shooting our classmates, I see many signs of the "narcissism" you describe. I don't even see how anybody could dispute it anymore.

Anonymous said...

I think these are pretty extreme arguments of yours, if you're really implying that self-esteem education is at the heart of the shcool violence we see now. Maybe teaching kids "you're special" didn't produce the results we hoped for, but to take a handful of terrible tragic shootsing and use those as evidence for your thesis about its negative effects on kids is unwarranted.

Steve Salerno said...

Thing is, Anon, I'm not the only one saying it (at least not anymore). Of course, I wasn't the one who said it initially, either--that distinction belongs to the likes of Roy Baumeister, mentioned in a previous post.

Nor am I saying, or even implying, that we're raising a generation of spree killers here. I am, however, saying that we may well have raised (in large part) a generation of narcissists with very poor coping skills, who are more likely to overreact to small disappointments and/or erupt in aberrant behavior, especially when they're a little "off" to begin with, as was our subject in this case.

Dr Swill said...

I don't see it quite this way. I don't think it's either "too much self-esteem" / "not enough self-esteem".

It can be both. A lot of people who set out to be famous at all costs appear to be both at once: they step on other people to get to the top, they can be absolute nightmares to all and sundry, but at the same time they are plagued with self-loathing and emptiness.
They have a sort of see-saw between "I'm better than the rest of you, I deserve all this" and "I suck, I'm a fraud". I don't think it's quite as simple as you suggest, though I agree that self-esteem programs in schools haven't worked out.

Regardless of where you stand on this issue, though, I think the problem with Chicken Soup for the Soul, The Secret, etc., is that they reduce all human psychology to the level of a cartoon. It represents an enormous regression from complex, profound examinations of the human psyche to be found in great writers, thinkers, artists, scientists, from Shakespeare to Darwin to Freud to Jane Austen to whoever. Whether you're talking about a spree killer or your next-door neighbor, nobody's brain works as simply and step-by-step as the Chicken Soup guys would have you believe. Because we're human beings, not pieces of machinery. Programming human beings for success isn't as simple as programming a VCR (which a lot of people have trouble programming anyway).

(One other thing: reading my own post, referencing Shakespeare, it's interesting that his most memorable murderers include Iago, who thought he was better than everyone and seems to have "snapped" after he was past over for promotion to Othello's lieutenant in favor of someone he considered stupid and inferior, Cassio, and the resentment started to fester in his soul... he clearly regards himself as smarter and better than everyone.... on the other hand, the Cassius and Brutus characters in JULIUS CAESAR seem to be motivated to murder by feelings of inferiority and low self-esteem. Shakespeare seems to be implying murderous rage can be triggered by a superiority complex or an inferiority complex.... either one will do. It's a complicated issue.)

Steve Salerno said...

Well, what have we got here, Dr. Swill? Nuance?? I don't remember issuing a call for nuance.... And nuance PLUS a Bard reference, no less! This blog may never recover.

Seriously, yes, this is very complex terrain. From what I gather after perusing many journals that cover the general topic area, high self-esteem often masquerades as low self-esteem, and vice versa. People may seem to be martyring themselves, but many new-era shrinks will tell you that pursuit of martyrdom is inherently, albeit counterintuitively, an act of bravado. I don't expect us to solve the riddles here. That's why I fall back on the experts, or at least the folks who've given their lives and careers to studying such things.

It's also why I so steadfastly resist the easy-answer approach: Tell a kid he's special and wonderful, and he'll ace life forevermore. Ain't that easy. And the Law of Unintended Consequences may decide to pay a visit...

moi said...

Steve, I agree with Dr. Swill that inferiority and superiority complexes are 2 halves of the same coin. Narcissism is not a result of being told that you're a great person and deserve a lot. At least not according to the few experts I have consulted. I think a good definition of narcissism would be helpful in a conversation like this to clarify what you mean.
About the self esteem movement, I read a good book by a psychologist/researcher (Swann- a professor at UT) called "The Traps of Self Esteem". He has done clinical research (published in peer reviewed journals) on the causes of low self esteem and does not agree with the claims of the self esteem movement. His argument is that there is little correlation between achievement and high self esteem and that there are better ways to treat it than the pollyannish methods the likes of which people like Canfield propose.
In any case, I don't think the Korean student's killing spree had anything at all to do with self help and its pitfalls. After reading 10 or so articles about him and his history in NYT, especially the one in today's edition, it seems to me that he was schizofrenic. He told people he had an imaginary girlfriend who lived on mars, and travelled with Putin because they grew up together. My mother's sister is schizofrenic so I'm very familiar with the symptoms and hallucinations they suffer from. I don't think narcissism comes into play here at all. This guy just did not get the right kind of intervention, IMO.

Steve Salerno said...

Moi, your comment makes me sigh, as it is the exact reason why I always feel compelled to throw in those disclaimers about how I "don't want to be accused of blaming everything on self-help," and also why I hesitate to even post on these sorts of difficult, multifaceted topics. I try to be clear in these posts that I'm simply indicting self-help (particulary, the self-esteem movement and the "it's all about you!" mantra of the past generation or so) as ONE FACTOR among several that conspire to produce some of the behaviors we see today. Indeed, in each of my posts on this very topic, I have tried to be clear in establishing that these narcissistic tendencies become dangerous only in the presence of "other baseline maladjustments," as I put it in this very post, I believe. Finally, let's remember that it isn't just me saying this. That's why I linked the phrase "narcissim bandwagon."

RevRon's Rants said...

I really think that placing blame on any segment or ideology is a waste of time. Throughout human history, kids have been reckless and hot-tempered. During less technologically advanced times, people killed people with their bare hands, knives, or clubs. People rode their horses recklessly, sometimes falling & getting themselves killed. In those days, tragedies were just tragedies, rather than a symptom of some societal shortcoming. "Blame," such as it was, was placed on poor judgment or meanness.

We bemoan the fact that parents don't discipline their kids, yet are quick to put them in jail if we think they've stepped over some line. We demand that teachers educate our children, yet will petition for their firing the minute they start to teach something we don't agree with. By creating a damned if you do, damned if you don't culture, we ensure that nobody steps up to the plate and does anything.

Blaming one "side" or the other feeds into both "sides' " agendas. Perhaps a better solution would be for each parent to be honest with themselves where their kids are concerned, and to stand up to them and do what is in their best interest, regardless of the child's desires.

Of course, such an attitude can only come to fruition when we demand that the "blame" smokescreen be abandoned. Once we quit trying to point fingers, we just might get around to the business of tending to our own problems. Because every single "tragedy" is, at its core, somebody's problem that was left to its own devices.

One thing to keep in mind: As our technology has evolved, we have acquired the means to kill more and more people, as well as benefit more & more. So long as we are a free society, there will always be a few who are willing to do bad things, and there will always be the means to carry out their desires. It's not about the guns, or the cars, or the bombs. It might not even be about the society. Perhaps the same stuff as always is being done, but with more "efficient" tools and more immediate press coverage.

Just a thought...

moi said...

" try to be clear in these posts that I'm simply indicting self-help (particulary, the self-esteem movement and the "it's all about you!" mantra of the past generation or so) as ONE FACTOR among several that conspire to produce some of the behaviors we see today".

Thanks for clarifying that, Steve. I'm not very familiar with your work and haven't read your book, so I'm sure I am misreading some of what you say.
I did read a letter to the editor in NYT that, IMO, elucidates the problem of this particular case of violence: The failure of the mental health system in Virginia. The writer of the letter talks about a shortage of "acute care mental hospital beds" and long waiting lists for people with major disorders like schizofrenia, and all sorts of bureaucratic loopholes that keep people from getting treated adequately. Also, the gun laws are absurd. They did no background check on him, which I thought was supposed to be a law now, i.e. barring people with histories of mental illness from buying guns.. However, I agree with you about the "all about you mantra." That issue is certainly a factor and needs to be addressed.