June 27, 2011

Is The Cult Of Self-Esteem Ruining Our Kids?

atlantic self-esteem cover.jpgwhat does the author want to be true?

The article is called How To Land Your Kid in Therapy, it's in The Atlantic, and this is how it dares to start:

If there's one thing I learned in graduate school, it's that the poet Philip Larkin was right. ("They fuck you up, your mum and dad, / They may not mean to, but they do.")

Get the rum, we're going to need it.  No, all of it.


Lori Gottlieb is a writer for the various outlets that pose as intelligent-- Slate, NPR, Salon, whose demo is people who use the word "inappropriate" and know there are no wrong answers.  She also wrote a book called, Marry Him: The Case For Settling For Mr. Good Enough which roughly coincided with her never marrying anybody.

Other than submit articles to The Atlantic, she did something else that a lot of confused, directionless people do: she became a therapist.  Easy, everybody, hold that thought for a minute, we'll come back to it.

But soon I met a patient I'll call Lizzie. Imagine a bright, attractive 20-something woman with strong friendships, a close family, and a deep sense of emptiness. She had come in, she told me, because she was "just not happy." And what was so upsetting, she continued, was that she felt she had nothing to be unhappy about. She reported that she had "awesome" parents, two fabulous siblings, supportive friends, an excellent education, a cool job, good health, and a nice apartment... So why did she have trouble sleeping at night? Why was she so indecisive, afraid of making a mistake, unable to trust her instincts and stick to her choices? Why did she feel "less amazing" than her parents had always told her she was? Why did she feel "like there's this hole inside" her? Why did she describe herself as feeling "adrift"?
I was stumped.

I'm not surprised.  None of those variables have anything to do with happiness.  Any way Lizzie has of identifying herself based on something she's done rather than something she has or is?  Any of those characteristics a verb?  No? (1-- read the footnotes later.) 

So I'm not surprised Lizzie is unhappy, the question is whether Lori, as her therapist, should have been surprised.

Maybe she was, maybe she wasn't but she spends 4 pages explaining that kids today are coddled, given everything, protected from harm/hurt/failure and squeezed into bike helmets, and this has the terrible effect of creating wandering, unfulfilled, depressed adults.  Too-perfect parenting has made the kids soft.

That may be the thesis of article, and it may be factually accurate, but boy oh boy is it not at all the reason she wrote it, or why it's the cover story for The Atlantic.


In order to understand what is the real cause of the ruin of children, what makes them into "narcissists" (her word), you have to look carefully at why this story is in The Atlantic. I don't think even the lifetime subscribers in Westchester, NY turn to The Atlantic for the current scientific data in psychology, and no one turns to Gottlieb for parenting advice.  They're coming because they already know the answer they want to be true but want it stated more eloquently.  What does it say better than its readers could, that confirms their own beliefs?

Let's go through it.  When confronted with Lizzie's unhappiness, what is the first thing Gottlieb considers?

Where was the distracted father? The critical mother? Where were the abandoning, devaluing, or chaotic caregivers in her life?

Bad parenting, ok, fair guess.  But, as the title of the article reveals, it's actually good parenting, overparenting, coddling.  Do we all agree? Please observe that while this may be the opposite problem, it is in fact the exact same psychic solution: unhappiness is not your fault, it's caused by someone else.  Jot that down, we'll come back to it later.

Consider a toddler who's running in the park and trips on a rock... some parents swoop in immediately, pick up the toddler, and comfort her in that moment of shock, before she even starts crying....

"Well-intentioned parents have been metabolizing [the kids'] anxiety for them their entire childhoods," [psychologist] Mogel said of these kids, "so they don't know how to deal with it when they grow up."

The above consonants and vowels completely correspond with the preferred logic of Atlantic readers, but I'd like you to consider, for a moment, the kind of atrociously malignant parent that does not rush to comfort their toddler "even before she starts crying."  Are you raising a ninja?  "I just let her feel the burn, get used to the sight of blood.  Builds character."   Pass me that hammer, I want to build your character.

No one who doesn't eat human flesh would let their kid cry and do nothing.  So what is the purpose of this logic if it actually defies reality? 

Take a second and consider the likely offenders of this style of "too-perfect," rush to protect  overparenting.  Do they have mullets?   No.  Live in Daytona?  No.  Do they read Sports Illustrated?  Guns & Ammo?  No, they read The Atlantic

So the purpose of this article can't be to suggest to its readers they are terrible parents, and anyway they already suspect they're overparenting and that it is bad.  They're turning to Gottlieb and The Atlantic for therapy, to be told that they are indeed overparenting but it's understandable... you have good intentions


And there's an awesome, unintentional subtext: parents are overinvolved with their kids because they want what's best for them, but this has the perverse effect of harming them, and so........... it's ok not to be.  Why don't you get a facial?

It is certainly ok/infinitely preferable not to spend so much time with your kids.  But saying you're doing it because it's good for the kids is like saying you're getting an Asian massage because it's good for Asians.


They didn't rush because the kid can't handle pain, but because they can't tolerate the kid's  pain.  They rushed to the kid's side because it protects the kid, yes,, but primarily because they can't handle the anxiety of it all.  What's my role as a parent?  What do I do?

I go through this because Gottlieb wants it to be true that the cult of self-esteem is ruining our kids, but the cult of self-esteem has already ruined the kids who are now adults. It produced her and her peers.  And now they are raising new kids, well or badly I have no idea, but their main preoccupation isn't with raising better kids but with self-justification.  This fact is completely lost on her.

As a parent, I'm all too familiar with this [entitled kids with too many options.]  I never said to my son, "Here's your grilled-cheese sandwich." I'd say, "Do you want the grilled cheese or the fish sticks?"... He'd come to expect unlimited choice.

Guess what six words she says next.

When I was my son's age, I didn't routinely get to choose my menu, or where to go on weekends--and the friends I asked say they didn't, either. There was some negotiation, but not a lot, and we were content with that. We didn't expect so much choice, so it didn't bother us not to have it until we were older, when we were ready to handle the responsibility it requires.

This is laughable coming from anybody, but is she unaware that she's written several books describing her own childhood psychiatric visits and teen anorexia?  And serial dating culminating in nothing?   If I were a therapist, I'd label this as "poor insight."

The kid's problem isn't that he is offered too many choices at all.  The kid's problem is that his mom believes these choices are the thing that will ruin him, that's where she sees danger, not TV or Xbox or learning violence is always wrong, but in choice.  

There's no insight about the dynamic effects of a mother who feels compelled to offer him  meaningless choices-- that she is discharging the anxiety of her own indecisiveness onto her kid.  Fish sticks and grilled cheese may not seem like heavy decisions but there are consequences nonetheless, and if she doesn't have to bear them, she'd just as soon pass them on to a four year old.

I wasn't there, but I will bet ten thousand dollars that every guy she has ever dated has had the following interaction with her:

Guy: What do you want to do tonight?

Her: I don't know, what do you want to do tonight?


Guy: I'm at Blockbuster, what movie do you want to rent?

Her: I don't know, what movie do you want to rent?

Jesus Christ, just say Officer And A Gentleman and let me get out of this death spiral.

Since she chose to go with doctor supervised immaculate conception, the kid now gets the job of sounding board for dinner choices.  You know what choice she'll never offer him?  The choice to fight back on the playground or disagree with her.  Being given the illusion of free choice when all of the choices are meaningless or terrible has a name, and they used to think it caused schizophrenia, so grant me that it probably drives some kids to therapy.

A similar phenomenon is the parent who "has" to quit smoking, or drinking, or cursing, or whoring, or whatever, "now that I have kids."   So noble.  Nothing better than making the kid a living replacement for your own hysterectomized superego.  There is absolutely no chance, none at all, that your resentment of him will ever come through in your interactions.  ESPECIALLY not when your kid one day tries these things himself.  Impossible.  Your parenting is rock solid.


Along with the article, The Atlantic includes a video clip of Gottlieb interviewing another therapist. They did this because they are trying to kill me.  If you want your head to ignite, fast forward the video to 1:05 and watch the next nine seconds, then call Universal Studios and tell them you're the next Ghost Rider.

It's worth watching the video, but here's what happens: brown haired Gottlieb introduces a smiling white hair and glasses Dr. Mogel, who responds:

Mogel: Hi, Lori.

(cut to Gottlieb)

Gottlieb: I just wanted to start off and say, it seems like this idea of ordinary is so----

(cut to Mogel)

gottlieb atlantic video.jpg

The moment Gottlieb gets to the word "ordinary," Mogel nods her head vigorously in agreement and then starts writing something down.  WTF is she writing??  a) it's an interview, b) Gottlieb hasn't even said anything yet, and c) Mogel's the one being interviewed!

So obviously it's a nervous thing, a reflexive gesture, sure, I get it, but what you and she don't get is that every time a therapist writes something down it's a nervous thing.   They write to discharge their anxiety of too long looking into a person's eyes and it not leading to either "I love you" or "I'm going to kill you."  I know this is going to run me afoul of every comfy-chair therapist in America, but there is no reason to write anything down, ever.  You're not a detective, you're not looking for coded messages or lost time, the patient is there for answers and the structure of your relationship is itself the answers.  Why does she like me?  Why does she get bored/angry/expansive when I do this?  Why did she continue with a therapist who is so uncomfortable around other people that they need a yellow pad as an emotional shield?  Seriously, that's not an accident at all, answer that question and the therapy is done, the patient is cured.

We can discuss good and bad technique later; the point here is to establish that these two people are creating "environments" that are safe for themselves.  It may also be safe for the patient, it may be labeled as "for the patient" but I hope it is evident that the real impetus is the comfort of the therapist.  With me so far?  Ok: that's also how they parent.

"Many of us went through psychoanalysis, and we learned the minutiae of despising our parents and all the horrible mistakes they made."

What kind of psychoanalysis did this woman pretend she went through? Only a two year old, a 16 year old or a narcissist hates their parents because of the less than perfect things that they did, and that anger, not the effects of the parenting, is where the focus of the therapy should have been.  And yet:

Let your kids hate you sometimes, it's good for them.  You don't have to always have them agree with you or have them always like you.

Note the phrasing-- this is good for the kids, which is actual kids, not the adults-that-were-once-kids.  Adults' anger gets to remain justified.

And it's a lie anyway.  Sure, it is good for the kids, but is there anyone who can't see that the primary reassurance is for the parents who can't handle being hated by their kids?


That Lori Gottlieb has had a life marked by free agency, drifting around from interest to interest, job to job, relationship to relationship; and having the unique luxury, first by parents, then by writing talent, of being able to afford such wandering; and that it all leads to therapy, not just as a patient but ultimately as a therapist-- is not at all an accident.

The old adage that shrinks go into shrinkage to figure themselves out sounds awesomely correct except that it's incorrect and inawesome.  They go into it so they don't have to figure themselves out.  Best way to avoid judgment is to become the judge.  Overruled.  I said overruled.

The therapist has a sanction to create narratives, and there's nothing better than being able to create a narrative that also defends your ego from all manner of attack.  Actually, there is one thing better:  be a therapist and a writer for The Atlantic.  Now not only do you get to create the narrative, you get to make it the accepted wisdom.  "I don't fall for it, I don't read The Atlantic."  It doesn't matter if you read it, if anyone reads it, an article's publication in it makes it the default intellectual position of middlebrow America, and so if you want to disagree the burden of proof is on you, eat it.  She wrote 500000 words justifying her depression as her parents' fault but her overparenting the result of "wanting what's best for my child" and now no one else has to, because it passes into conventional wisdom.  "Oh, smart people are spending less time with their kids to watch Weeds."  

atlantic warning.jpg

It's the same way that an advertisement for a TV show you'll never watch can change the way you think about sex, because you think it is how everyone else thinks about sex, and now suddenly it is how everyone thinks about sex.  The commercial-- not the show-- made it true.

Gottlieb wants it to be true that overparenting and artificial self-esteem is causing kids to become narcissists, but that's all defense. Overparenting doesn't cause narcissism, narcissism causes narcissism.(2)

Here's what a therapist should say:  "too perfect" parents who coddle and overprotect their kids aren't doing it for their kids, they are doing it for themselves, in defense of their own ego; and that, not the bike helmets, is why their kids end up adrift and confused.   The problem isn't that kids are too wussy to go out and play, but that their parents do not trust themselves, their generation ("if I graduated Wellesley and I'm this stressed out, that other mom must be a pedophile"), their impulses and instincts, so kids must be dandelions made of cotton candy in a rainstorm made of lava, which makes no sense yet it makes perfect sense: paranoia.  Ego vs. reality, and you can't appraise either.   And then one day your kid is punched by some bully raised by Nascar fans or baby mommas and you shut down the school because you think the problem is the bully. The problem is you.  The bully may have punched your Edward in the belly but you mobilized a school district to DEFCON 2, who has more power?  Who is the biggest bully?(3) 

The problem is you are in therapy not to become better parents or to do better work but to... to what?  Do you have any idea?

More than likely kids overcome all this, everybody finds their own way, but to those who feel stuck the only solution is to forsake all attempts at figuring out who you are, conveying who you are-- because you aren't anybody yet-- and just accomplish stuff, yet be ready to discover in 50 years that the sum total of your life's real accomplishments may be very different than what you expected, and it must be enough.  In the irreplaceable words of Marshall McLuhan: "there's nothing God hates more than some mofo with a cable subscription running out the clock." 

That'll be $250.  You can pay at the window.

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Marry Him! Or Don't


---  Footnotes:

  1. I've made this point before, but worth repeating: chronic, non-medical insomnia is a similar symptom of a lack of completion, accomplishment.  All the usual suggestions (read a book, light exercise) are temporary accomplishments, which is why they work; and the other maneuvers (surfing the web, watching TV, drinking) are searches for something accomplishable.  And nothing says accomplished like a Pornotron orgasm. Night night.
  2. A technical correction: the typical premise, articulated by Twenge (top of page) is that artificially elevating kids' self-esteem makes them narcissistic, grandiose.  But narcissism is not synonymous with grandiosity, not even close, and anyway high self-esteem should make them happier, not more anxious.  More accurately, the unhappiness comes not from thinking they are better than they are, and not even from the inevitable future failures, but from not being sure how good they are, if they are good at all.  They are not sure what is supposed to define them.   "How can you know what kind of a man you are if you've never been in a fight?" The important thing wasn't to win.  The reflex defense of existential anxiety is to define yourself against something, not "I am this," but "I am not that."  And where this is most harmful is the avoidance of guilt.  "Yes I did this, but I am not the kind of person who does that, you don't know the whole story..."
  3. Before you remember/reinvent how it was back in "the old days", here's the "sad" truth we just need to accept: we're never going back to the old way.  There was a time you could slap your bitch or paddle your kids, and right or wrong you can't do that now and you will never be able to again.  It doesn't matter if a little ass pinch at the office does improve productivity and morale, or treat zoster or prevent communism, it is never coming back.

    And the moment the nerds responded to a couple of wedgies with overwhelming firepower, the moment they made the bullying "this shit just got real" real for everyone else-- right or wrong, sissy or not, bullying was done forever.  If you're 11 and you punch a fat kid, let alone a gay fat kid, it's game over for you, they cancel your subscription to Weekly Reader and set you up for home schooling.  Unless you're in an inner-city school, of course, and then you get wrap-around services, 6 years of Adderall and extra time on tests.  We can spend the next 60 terabytes arguing whether this is progress or regress or whether America is soft or turgid, or we can stop wasting time comparing today to the day and just get on with the regular business of ordinary life.