“Thanks to you, I made a mistake when adding up these figures. You insisted on turning up the radio so loud.”
“You made me drop the cup. You shoudn’t be talking to me when I’m making coffee.”
“Darn it! I put too much salt in the soup. Why do you have to sit in the kitchen while I’m working here?”
Wait! Stop the blame game! Unless, you enjoy being a victim, there’s no need to cast yourself in that role. (And even assuming you do enjoy it, you’re not exactly being fair to those around you.)
We, and no one else, are ultimately responsible for our own mistakes, even if the circumstances are not ideal. Hard to concentrate with music blaring? Ask the offender to lower the volume, or move further away from the source. If you are easily distracted when people speak to you, or just by their presence, you can just stop working until they’ve said what they want to say, and continue your activity afterwards. Or if necessary, ask them politely to leave.
Other than deliberately and forcefully pushing it out of your hand, no one can “make” you drop a cup! No one can “force” you to be careless!
If you’re a mature and responsible individual, you might be thinking that all this is no rocket science, and I am wasting everybody’s time by stating the obvious. But running way from responsibility, or shifting it to others, is endemic to many contemporary societies, and much of it has been fueled what can call the “self-esteem movement”.
This movement has been flourishing ever since Nathaniel Brandon published The Psychology of Self-Esteem” back in 1969. Brandon held that self-esteem was a person’s single most important asset. Since success and ultimate happiness depended on it, a societal movement was set in motion to eliminate anything that could potentially damage a child’s sense of self-worth. This is great as far as it goes. In How to Build Relationships That Stick, I stressed the role of a healthy self-image as a precursor to cultivating healthy personal relationships.
The problem is that the movement has been carried to extremes. Today we have schools where teachers have been instructed to award their pupils grades in excess of what they really deserve, just so that they can feel good about themselves. In others, teachers no longer use read pens to mark papers. Constructive criticism has given way to meaningless praise – little more than outright flattery.
Whether one’s young charges have earned it or not is irrelevant. Whether our children have exerted the necessary effort or whether they have not, our youngsters must feel that they have made it in this world. After all, is not lack of self-esteem responsible for career failures, juvenile delinquency, drugs, and a whole host of social ills?
And yet, already some six years ago, psychology professor Roy Baumeister, himself a former proponent of the self-esteem movement who was commissioned by his peers to investigate the topic more thoroughly, wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “After all these years, I’m sorry to say, my recommendation is this: forget about self-esteem and concentrate more on self-control and self-discipline. Recent work suggests that this would be good for the individual and good for society – and even fill some of those promises that the [the] self-esteem [movement] once made but could not keep.”
Professor Carol Dweck of Stanford University conducted a series of fascinating experiments on the effects of praise on children. In one, she gave a difficult test to a some fifth-graders who were divided into two groups. Everyone was given praise after the first test, but children in the first group were told they must be very smart, while those in the second were told they must have tried very hard.
A short while later, both groups were called in and told they must take another test, but were offered a choice. There were two possible tests. One was similar to the one they had taken earlier. The other was harder, but would help stretch their abilities. Of the group that had been praised for their effort, 90 percent chose the harder test. Of the group praised for their intelligence, the majority opted for the easier test.
Now, according to the thinking of the original self-esteem movement, praising their innate abilities should have spurred the first group on to greater challenges. In reality, pointed out Prof. Dweck, they were afraid to out their new “reputation” of being clever at risk, and so they chose the easy way. It was the students who were praised for their effort, praise they indeed had earned, who realized that the opportunity to take on a harder project was indeed an opportunity to grow.
Bottom line: accountability and achievement – not gimmicks, flattery or deception – are what stimulate an authentic feeling of self-esteem.
Azriel Winnett is the author of the highly acclaimed, eye-opening book How to Build Relationships That Stick. An enhanced edition is now available as a paperback.