Self-Esteem Insults My Intelligence

Self Esteem Shop in Royal Oak, MI http://www.s...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By now, I’m sure we’ve all heard the complaints about today’s educational practices.  Them kiddies are constantly told how wonderful they are and everyone gets a trophy and they feel all warm and fuzzy inside until the flu arrives.  That practice may improve results in the classroom but I’m lazy and I don’t want to belabor the point.

Instead, I’d like to tell a tale of how a subset of these kids all live happily ever after.  These are the honors students and I belonged to this group, as did many of my friends.  I consider myself lucky to have been horrible at sports because no coach in his right mind would have given me a self-esteem trophy unless it had been made of dog poo.  I really was that bad, but my ineptitude bred positive results.  Honors students don’t survive (and arguably thrive, at least psychologically) through extended unemployment unless they’ve had a few bumps along the way before that.  Failure keeps me sane.

Otherwise, we honors students were constantly told how we were the smartest, the most talented, the most wonderful person in the class, in the room, in the world.   This caused many of us (fortunately again, not me) to assume a superiority complex as our identities.  Woe to the college teacher who has to burst that bubble.

Been there, done that, never going back.

Unfortunately, some honors students are idiots and they only grow stupider with age.  And thus begins today’s tale…

Once upon a time in a college not far away there was an honors student with overly inflated self-esteem.  At meals, he regaled his peers with how he was the smartest in his class.  His term papers never turned out well in college, but that was never his fault.  He blamed his high school… even though he always waited until the last minute to start researching.  And then he’d confidently inform all of us how the professor told him he’d done well for a [insert one: freshman, sophomore, junior, senior, fifth-year senior, sixth-year senior, billy goat, etc.] when the horrors had ended.  And we’d hear story after story of these words that Mr. Self-Esteem couldn’t recognize as not-quite-praise.

And he didn’t graduate on time because, as I understand it, he wasn’t finishing his work as he was supposed to.  Nevertheless, he dutifully edified us on how he was outperforming all those freshmen and sophomores in his courses.  Impressive!  I’m sure his wife couldn’t contain her pride.

You read that correctly.  He married early in life and the couple had a pair of sons.  His wife had been the college sweetheart who always defended him when others would point out Mr. Honors Student’s poor time management skills.  I’m sure you don’t need to know the physical details on how those sons came into existence.

Or maybe you do, because the happy couple is fighting again and I’d be shocked if they don’t get a divorce this time.  I suspect he and his wife will immolate each other in the process, perhaps making the court decide that the sons would be better off in foster care.

I know enough about divorce to realize that soon-to-be exes often discount the amount of fault they hold for the relationship’s collapse.  But adults who were educated in the art of honors self-esteem face different problems.  My friend thinks he’s being insightful when he explains the situation but he reveals his incapacity for seeing that things were crumbling years ago.  He praises himself again but, as in college, he tears himself down in the process.

But…

This time he can’t escape or ignore the criticism coming from so many quarters because it so intimately affects his future life.  I visited him recently and he seemed to be litigating the case against his wife.  (Truth be told, the wife is another can of worms and she may have bigger problems than he has, again because of inflated self-esteem.  Maybe I’ll write about that another day.)  He also seemed to be litigating against me and occasionally against others he thought might testify against him in the event of a divorce.

Subtle…

This is rage.  This is realizing, perhaps all of a sudden, that people don’t hold him in as high esteem as he was trained to hold himself, realizing that so many people think he’s not quite there psychologically, remaining unable to let go of his self-esteem training and perceive things more clearly.

Then, add a dose of paranoia.  I had (and have) no intention of testifying against him in any future divorce proceeding because I’m not convinced the wife is any better.

Oh, and I think he may now believe I’m his sons’ biological father.

Newborn on scale

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I suppose I’ll never know what inspired him to question his paternity so late, but I have a hard time believing he’d bring up the issue if he hadn’t already been tested.

In case you were wondering, I am not the father.  But thank you for asking and for your vote of confidence.  (His wife is rather lovely, so it’s a show of confidence that you think I could be the culprit.)

And now it’s time for the moral to the story.  If you feed a child a steady dose of empty self-esteem, the world becomes a binary of praise and the rare catastrophe.  In the end, criticism becomes more than criticism; it is the stripping of an identity someone has had for their entire life.  And just as a kitten presumably screeches if you try to skin it with a pocket knife (presumably, I said…), these no-longer-so-young people take these negative words as an affront to their entire being.  And then they claw and bite and pee on you until you put away the knife.  And so you learn to remain silent and gracefully permit the status quo.

There may be more than one way to skin a cat but there aren’t many ways to skin an honors student who can’t let go of the past.  As for me, I’m just annoyed because potential employers see my educational credentials and often assume I’ll be like my friend.  They tell you in school that hard work allows you to become anything you want but they fail to mention that you’re tattooing your own scarlet letter as you build yourself up.  You are judged by the company you keep and hard work doesn’t win you great company.

And so…

The next time your children want to do their homework, tell them to play outside or try a video game.  And make sure they lose sometimes.  Badly.  Being unemployed is also a great way to catch up on some fun, but it’s not such a positive experience for the wallet.

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6 thoughts on “Self-Esteem Insults My Intelligence

  1. Yes, yes, yes! I teach those students and in my class (because of the rigid somewhat arbitrary but ultimately helpful grading requirements of my college in the university) many of them get their first C. They think a C is a failing grade. They think I “gave” it to them. 80% of my job is helping these kids understand you have to work for what you want (and even then, if you don’t work “right” you may not get it). Most of my students end up appreciating this; some of them just hate me. Some of them show up years later to thank me. Most of them have never experienced the reality that somethings work (objectively) and some things don’t (objectively) regardless of how they “feel” about it. Great post!

    • Thanks.

      What you write brings back so many memories. I’m so glad to be out of the college teaching business, especially because I was in a field where the students needed to get good grades to “encourage” them to take more courses in the department…

      • It’s a mess. I went from a discipline such as you describe above to a college that was impacted. In one it was “attract, attract, attract, retain, retain, retain” and the other “weed ’em out, weed ’em out.” Neither philosophy makes much sense if the goal is to teach important skills. I just teach (which I love) and let others make pronouncements.

  2. I guess I come from the generation where the parents gave their children NO self-esteem. There was never a pat on the back for doing good work or encouragement to play sports or do extra curricular activities (oh no, that would’ve required the parental units to have to DIVE into town to pick you up). We got jobs at 14 and were pretty much kicked out of the house at 18 to be adults.

    I guess this is partly the reason I didn’t have kids myself. Perhaps I would’ve over-compensated?

    • Over-compensation might be a great explanation of what’s going on.

      Praise is good when given at appropriate times and in appropriate volumes. Whatever the reason, we’ve moved from too little to too much.

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