Collaborate. Create. Contribute, and stop chasing after self acceptance.
In my twenties I was a teacher and dorm-master in a boarding school. Max, one of my 14-year-old advisees, didn’t have friends and kept getting bad grades. It was obvious to everyone—at least the adults—that he had “low self-esteem.” That’s what we called it back in the seventies.
One day, I returned to the dormitory after lunch to find Max in his room. It was a rule at the school that all the students should be out of the dormitory in the afternoon, so the normal thing for a dorm-master to do would have been to send him outside and give him a demerit for breaking a rule.
My instincts told me to do something different. I said, “Would you help me with something?”
A little surprised, he said, “Sure.”
“I notice that you like photography. Would you be my photographer and take slides for my next slide show? I have to give an assembly in about a month.”
“Sure,” he said.
I had several hundred miniature model soldiers of the Napoleonic period, some of them hand-painted. My vision was a slide show to go with a sound track of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture.
For the next month Max and I identified settings and set up the soldiers, and he took pictures. We were a production team creating a work of art to present to the entire school.
As you can imagine, he changed. The symptoms of “low self-esteem” vanished.
What did I do right? What were the active ingredients in turning this kid around?
Instead of treating his low self-esteem, I treated his loneliness and boredom and uselessness. I had noticed his interest in photography and gave him an opportunity to apply himself to help me out. I gave him an occupation.
The fields of psychology and education still tend to treat low self-esteem not as a symptom, but as the disease itself—rather like diagnosing a high temperature as “fever.” “Greater self-acceptance improves emotional well-being” is the opening line of Dr. Srini Pillay’s article in the Harvard Health Publications of the Harvard Medical School. It’s a myth. He writes:
Many people have low self acceptance. There can be many reasons for this, but one widely accepted theory is that because we develop our self-esteem, in part, from others appreciating us, people with low self-acceptance may have had parents who lacked empathy during their childhood. Consequently, in their adult lives, they may need much stronger affirmation from others than most people do. In other words, ordinary levels of approval do not “move the needle” on their self-esteem.
Of course “approval” doesn’t “move the needle;” causes of low self acceptance don’t necessarily point to cures. Maybe self is a distraction when it comes to mental health. If the presenting problem is feeling bad about yourself, maybe focusing on self will only make things worse. Maybe mental health is a function of three other things: loneliness, boredom and worthlessness? What if we were to look at people as agents of their own wellbeing? What if we were to look not at what is wrong with self, but rather what self needs to do to be less lonely, bored and worthless? Maybe the steps toward feeling better about yourself are: forget about yourself, find a friend, pursue an interest and make a difference to someone else.
Working with children and great teachers for 50 years has taught me that, in fact, this is precisely the case. Younger children have shown me that collaborating, creating and contributing are fundamental needs we are born with, rather than “values” to be “instilled.” Addressing loneliness, boredom and worthlessness makes self acceptance a non-issue.
Beth Campbell, a great kindergarten teacher, once said to me: “I see every unused ability in my class as an incipient behavior problem.” Well, many schools are awash in unused abilities. We humans are designed to make friends, collaborate, investigate our environment and generate hypotheses that will help us create marvelous, wonderful, useful things. We are wired to love and even to sacrifice ourselves for others or higher purposes. These are core human abilities; failure to utilize them leads to all sorts of behavior problems and other undesirable outcomes up to and including depression, suicide, murder and tyranny…as well as disappointing test scores. Self is a fabrication, a fiction that is sometimes useful, often distracting, but always a fiction, nonetheless.
Do you or someone you love seem down, mad, sad, lost or out of sorts? Communicate, collaborate, and find an opportunity to create something that will be valuable to someone else. Whatever you create, you will also create a relationship, and relationships are what our selves are made of.