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February 10, 2005

February 10, 2005: Self Esteem and Homeostasis

A healthy person has a reasonably realistic grasp of his own capabilities, is able to use his abilities to gain satisfaction, is able to love another and accept being loved by another, and is able to appreciate what the world has to offer.  In Freud's words, to be healthy is to have the ability to "work, love and play."  Inherent in this is having a relatively  stable positive self esteem.  There are many factors that go into developing self esteem.  The very young child who is loved unconditionally, but also allowed to suffer some frustration, is able to experience himself as a worthwhile, lovable, individual.  He grows up with sensitivity for others and is sensitive to their opinions and feelings about him, but is not dependent on the world for confirmation. 

[This is where so much of our current pedagogy and the entire world of PC fails most dramatically.  Children can tolerate losing; they know when another child is better at sports or math or spelling than they.  A healthy child is not defeated by this but learns what he or she is able to do, and can do their best.  The PC victimology in speech codes on so many campuses is worse than nonsensical; any person whose self esteem is damaged by cross words, is an individual with exceptionally fragile self esteem.  The so-called Self Esteem movement has things exactly backwards.  People do not achieve self esteem by never being hurt; they maintain their self esteem in the face of disappointments and hurts.]

How does this fit into the current political discourse?  The liberal left, from an early stage, has been self identified as the people who are more sensitive to the plight of the less fortunate.  They are people who tend to be smarter (a Berkeley study recently "proved" that conservatives are not as smart as liberals), more caring, and more moral.  For many, these ideas became in incorporated into their "ego ideal."  In general, the closer one manages to be to one's ego ideal, the better one's self esteem.  On the other hand, when one fails short of one's ego ideal, it is usually experienced as a blow to one's narcissism; when one's narcissism is injured feelings of depression ensue.   Everyone has experienced painful feelings of depression when facing a failure (a break up with a lover, the loss of a job); the healthy person feels temporarily diminished but has enough internal sources of support (and often, others to support him emotionally) that he does not fall into a true depression.  The healthy psyche re-establishes homeostasis in short order.  The person whose self esteem is more dependent on the outside world, who needs to be reassured of his goodness, smartness, attractiveness, does much more poorly when there is a narcissistic injury; he becomes devastated and depressed.  He has little in the way of internal resources and when the world no longer "feeds" and nurtures his self, he has nothing to fall back on.

During the post war baby boom years, too many children were raised by "the Greatest Generation" in an overly indulgent manner.  The children who came of age in the 50's and 60's were often materially and emotionally indulged.  Too many parents were too successful at shielding their children form the vicissitudes of life.  An old Newsweek cover labeled us "The Narcissistic Generation" (although my memory may be slippery on this one, the idea is certainly not new.)  Overly indulged children have an exceptionally difficult time admitting fault.  Since they need approval so strongly (think of Bill Clinton, who often seemed more interested in approval than in policy choices) and need to think of themselves as superior in so many qualities, if they are wrong in their politics, they are less than the stupid, venal, cruel Republicans they have spent the last 20 years mocking.  To admit they are wrong about Iraq, or Social Security, or any of a host of other issues, is much  more than to admit another political approach may have merit; it is to admit that they are less than their ego ideal.

The proof of this shows up in the passion with which so many "progressives" grasp hold of reactionary ideas without any awareness of the irony.


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