Who Else?


With the coyness of someone revealing a bizarre sexual taste, my patients would often say to me, "Doctor, I think I'm suffering from low self-esteem."
Who else, but Theodore Dalrymple?
One has only to go into a prison, or at least a prison of the kind in which I used to work, to see the most revoltingly high self-esteem among a group of people (the young thugs) who had brought nothing but misery to those around them, largely because they conceived of themselves as so important that they could do no wrong. For them, their whim was law, which was precisely as it should be considering who they were in their own estimate....

The small matter of cleaning one's shoes, for example, is not one of vanity alone, though of course it can be carried on to the point of vanity and even obsession and fetish. It is, rather, a discipline and a small sign that one is prepared to go to some trouble for the good opinion and satisfaction of others. It is a recognition that one lives in a social world. That is why total informality of dress is a sign of advancing egotism.
As always, a veritable mine of useful ways of thinking about the problems of the world. Yet he leaves something out, one of the core problems of 'self-esteemism,' which we can learn by reading the evolutionary psychologist I mentioned a couple of posts ago. Consider 'the imposter syndrome.'
One little known topic that has resonated strongly with female readers is the concept of being a “fraud.” Pinker interviews several women who have succeeded in their fields; in many cases, traditionally male fields. Two themes emerge. First, these women have been encouraged strongly and consistently to rise through the ranks and obtain positions of power. Second, each of these women believes that at any point someone will realize that she is a fraud, an imposter, a sham: that she doesn’t really know what she is doing. To be clear, these women obtained these positions precisely because they do know what they are doing. They fully deserve the promotions they have received, and yet, the lack of confidence not only exists, it is pervasive. Scores of female CEOs, actresses, academics and others admit to feeling that at any point they will be “found out,” “exposed,” or “unmasked.” In the epilogue Pinker describes the massive influx of letters and emails from successful women who feel the same way.
Just as the patient 'coyly relates' their desire to be propped up in their self esteem, the fact is that at some level we recognize when others are doing so. The very fact of having been "encouraged strongly and consistently" means recognizing that you are receiving an advantage that can't be afforded to everyone; teachers, guidance counselors and college admissions officers can't encourage "everyone," let alone "strongly."

That very fact is probably at the root of this phenomenon. Those who have succeeded in the face of constant failure, who have been discouraged and beaten down and have still clawed their way to the top (or at least some comfortable level!) will not doubt that they got there on merit. No one, male or female, gets through Marine Corps Boot Camp feeling like a fraud. The fact of treating people with an eye toward 'building their self-esteem' actually undermines the real thing, which is self-confidence.

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