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Virginia Tech & Self Esteem - Manifestos of the Moon

About Virginia Tech & Self Esteem

Previous Entry Virginia Tech & Self Esteem Apr. 21st, 2007 @ 06:53 pm Next Entry
As might be expected, in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech horror a lot of experts have come out of the woodwork to offer explanations for Cho's behavior (or pontificate, at least, on how humans hanker for explanations in the face of tragedy). One such expert is Brad Bushman, a psychologist at the University of Michigan. He was quoted in "Why? After a heartbreaking tragedy at Virginia Tech, some experts offer answers", an article by Stephanie Ramage published in the print edition of The Sunday Paper, April 22-26, 2007, pages 21-24.

Bushman blames the Virginia Tech shooting (as well as previous school shootings) on a culture of narcissism and the fostering of self-esteem among children. The problem with someone like Cho, he maintains, is not low self-esteem as popular opinion has it, but high self-esteem.

But this is talk without much thought behind it. Narcissus gazed into a pond, saw his own face, and fell in love with himself. Love as they say is blind, and consequently immune to the opinion of others. Self-love is equally blind, and the Narcissist loves himself despite what others think. If you have high self-esteem then the viewpoints of others are irrelevant: it is your assessment of your worth, not theirs, which matters. Bushman thinks this was Cho's fatal flaw, and that it led to him killing others and himself.

Which is nonsense even if it comes from a professor of psychology. The Narcissist doesn't need the esteem of others because he has all the self-esteem he needs: what we should expect instead is that he is, if not blind, at least indifferent to the esteem or lack of esteem bestowed on him by others. The Narcissist says to himself, I'm okay because I love myself and my opinion is the only one that matters to me. 

Suicide and narcissism don't fit together.* People who love themselves don't kill themselves. But Narcissism also does not fit with caring about other people's opinions. The narcissistic sense of worth comes from the self, not from others. When we look at Cho, and at other school killers (like those at Columbine), we see just the opposite. We see kids who are obsessed by the lack of esteem they receive from their peers, and who are determined to get even.

What is obvious -- and would be obvious to Bushman if he stopped and thought a moment -- is that most school shooters have way too little self-esteem. They are inordinately reliant on the esteem of others and when it doesn't materialize, they go into a murderous rage. Bushman is quoted point-blank in the article as saying "The problem is not low self-esteem." He is dead wrong.

And yet he might be right about his larger point, which is that efforts to build up children's self-esteem set them up for enormous disappointment and failure. Bushman explains, "Because of the self-esteem movement, you have sports teams where everybody gets a trophy regardless of skill." He maintains that the result is that children

believe that they are entitled to admiration and respect and, when they don't get it, become aggressive. Bushman blames the self-esteem movement of the past 20 years for producing a generation of people who think the world has turned upside down when they are not singled out for their "special-ness". [op cit]

Of course, if someone actually thought they were special, they wouldn't be perturbed if others didn't. Their own self-love is all that is needed. Narcissism, in this respect, is actually one of the keys to good mental health. Rather, it is people who are reliant on the esteem of others who are mentally at risk if that esteem is not forthcoming.

I haven't studied the techniques of the self-esteem movement. But it is obvious that giving a trophy to someone doesn't build self-esteem. What is a trophy? It is recognition by others. It is quite possible that Bushman is right, that giving out trophies, calling everyone "winners", ends up producing children reliant on the esteem of others. Hard to see how that develops self-esteem. Instead it may create a dependence on the love of others in order to feel worthwhile.

Low self-esteem must mean exactly that: that you are not convinced of your own worth, in which case you become dependent on others to convince you of that self-worth. And what if they don't? The result, it seems to me, is likely to be depression and anger and, I can imagine, an exaggerated insistence on your importance: an arching desire to prove that importance to everyone. An extreme version of this seems to be what motivates school killers like Cho. With a gun they have ultimate importance: the power to end life.

The narcissist doesn't need the love of others, because he has his own self-love. He inherently knows he is supremely important. Others aren't important enough to diminish that, no matter what opinion they might have of the narcissist. Self-love, like love, is blind. And also self-sufficient.

Self-sufficient is just what Cho wasn't. He needed the esteem of others in order to feel his life was sufficient. He didn't get it, and it drove him to kill as many people as he could along with himself. Bushman is obviously wrong on this.

But it is public failure, not public success, which encourages you to develop self-esteem. Failure forces you to place your self-worth somewhere other than in recognition and esteem from others. It pushes you toward self-reliance, that is, toward the recognition that your life is okay no matter what others think, no matter how loved or unloved you may be. Because you have gazed into the pond of life and found yourself, and you are in love. In love with life, whatever it is, whatever anyone else thinks it is.

Narcissism is obviously only one aspect of good mental health. By itself, narcissism leads to indifference toward others and supreme selfishness. It has to be tempered with the discovery that everyone has their own pond of life, ponds just like your pond. So that in loving yourself, you love them. In loving them, you love yourself. Therefore do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The golden rule is a natural outgrowth of this discovery.

It helps also to realize that you will die and cease to exist. For that means that the only eternity you can get is in the continued existence of those who are like you, and the ponds of life they gaze into. And this makes others all the more important.

Of course, we realize that others aren't like us in our thoughts or our personal likes and dislikes. There are infinite options for thoughts, and so it should come as no surprise that no two people have -- or could ever have -- the same thoughts. It is not our minds that are alike: none of us are ever of exactly the same mind. What we do have in common are our bodily feelings. Our bodies are individualized, but our human feelings are universal.

At least when we are healthy, they are universal. We know it is possible for pathology to lead to abnormal feelings like Cho's, with terrible consequences. This doesn't undermine my point: healthy human feelings are common to us all, and make us equivalent to one another, substitutes for each other.

All we have.

* It's true that in one version of the Narcissus myth, he kills himself. The suicide results not from Narcissus being in love with himself but from his being in love with his reflection in the water which he mistakes for someone else. When the reflection doesn't return his love, Narcissus kills himself out of despair. This version paints a Narcissus with low self-esteem reliant on the love of another who, as it turns out, is only a reflection and not a real person.  However one wants to interpret the myth, the fact remains that self-love is essential to mental health, and self-esteem a necessity if one is to avoid an unhealthy reliance on the esteem of others.
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Date:April 21st, 2007 10:50 pm (UTC)
"But it is public failure, not public success, which encourages you to develop self-esteem. Failure forces you to place your self-worth somewhere other than in recognition and esteem from others."

Have you seen this article?
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Date:April 22nd, 2007 05:33 am (UTC)
I was just thinking of that article as I was reading that!
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Date:April 22nd, 2007 11:13 am (UTC)
Great minds thinks alike, hehehe.
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Date:April 22nd, 2007 05:00 pm (UTC)
Yes, indeed..how is the plan to commandeer a vehicle for a cross continental trip going? I expect things to be proceeding according to schedule!
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Date:April 24th, 2007 10:31 pm (UTC)
No I hadn't seen that article. Thanks, its fascinating.
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