Confidence But No Competence

It’s considered an absolute that self-esteem is always a good thing. In the right context, it is. But what happens when self-esteem/self-confidence and wrong-headed thinking exist in the same person?

Many people’s thinking is undercut, or even corrupted, by unsound ideas. For example, some people falsely believe they should have happiness handed to them on a silver platter. Others falsely believe that they should sacrifice for others, and others should in return sacrifice for them — without even having a say in the bargain. Still others falsely believe that if something feels right (regardless of objective facts), simply do it and all will be well.

What happens when a person possesses unsound or faulty ideas, but otherwise believes he’s a pretty special, worthwhile and competent person?

It’s true that wrong ideas tend to lead to bad results, over time. As a result, it’s much harder for a person with faulty ideas and premises to develop authentic self-esteem. After all, if you go through life thinking your feelings supersede reason, or that others are going to reward you for your sacrifices, then sooner or later you’ll run up against hard reality — and become depressed, bitter, or angry because your wrong ideas don’t work out very well for you.

And then there’s the special case of young people. More is being discussed, I’m told, in the mainline media such as 60 Minutes about how “young people today feel entitled to everything.” Evidently this is an issue that’s suddenly catching the attention of psychologists, educators and other culturally accepted high priests. This column has been discussing these concerns for more than a decade, and it’s good to hear that others are finally starting to catch on.

This leads to the next question: What’s going on here, with all this entitlement among young people? In the 1980s, when I started practicing, I rarely if ever heard of young people in their 20s and 30s failing to grow up and leave home, unless there was a clear economic or health crisis, or the person had a serious drug problem. Today, it’s quite different. You still hear of young people with economic and health crises, forcing them to live with their parents, but this is always a temporary measure and not something the person doing it relishes. But there’s a growing class of young people who simply seem ill equipped for coping with reality, with self-responsibility, with the need to make a living and stand up and be responsible for their very own selves. And yet, they feel there’s nothing particularly wrong with themselves. It’s the situation, or their parents, or some other, external unnamed circumstance which is to blame; never themselves. You might call this the underachieving class. My own term is the “reality phobic” class.

This is unfortunately what happens when you raise children to have high self-esteem, but you fail to provide them the tools for earning it. This is a widespread American problem.  Let’s face it. Recession aside, Americans are materially richer today than at any time in their history. The richer a society becomes, the more the onus is on parents to actually require their children and teenagers to practice the virtues of independence, productivity and self-esteem. Once upon a time, this more or less happened automatically. When most parents were poor (by today’s standards), it was self-evident to their young adult children that, “If you want to survive, you’re going to have to work for it.” It was also self-evident that, “If you want to be better off than your parents, you’re going to have to work for it.” Most young people today — and all of the ones who refuse to leave home at 25, 30 or even 40 — have everything they want and need. Are parents to blame for being materially comfortable? Of course not. But many of them were negligent in their duty to teach children they have to make it on their own.

What to do? My unpopular reply: Push them out of the nest if necessary. This is not something that one parent — not one in my twenty years of counseling hundreds and hundreds of families! — has, in my experience, ever been willing to do. “I can’t push him out. He’ll starve! He’ll die!” Why is this? Is he medically ill? Is he otherwise incapacitated? The answer is almost always NO, according to the parents themselves. Then why is it unthinkable to do what parents routinely did — and still routinely do — in cultures where capitalism (yes, capitalism, not Obama) has lifted the standard of living to heights where you don’t have to work nearly as hard to survive?

Young people often complain of “stress.” They’ve learned the word from their parents. And of course young people are subject to stress no less than anyone else. But the real cause of most of their stress, if you ask me, is the lack of tools they possess for confronting the reality of adult life. Their parents have operated on two seemingly well-meaning but lethal premises: One, “My child will have everything I never had.” And two, “Pain and suffering? Not my child!”

Earth to parents: Children do not exist to live out your dreams, or to bypass the suffering you had. They exist to live their own lives, learn their own lessons and take responsibility for choosing and pursing their own dreams.

Parents should challenge the idea that their children should necessarily have everything they never had. What does this mean, exactly? That your children are entitled to everything you never got? If this is what you believe, and if your actions are consistent with this belief, your child will grow into a young person who actually believes this too, in most cases. And why shouldn’t she? You have no business complaining, “My child acts like she’s entitled to everything” when you (1) provided more than what she needed, all along, and (2) always acted like she had it coming, interest-free or debt-free.

There’s likewise nothing wrong with pain and suffering. Yes, that’s a shocking and unthinkable statement to most American parents, and I don’t expect to really convince anyone I’m right about this, although I’m certain I am. Pain and suffering are how we learn and grow. Each individual has to develop and take on this responsibility for him- or herself. You can have the benefit of a billion-dollar estate while raising children, or you can be living paycheck-to-paycheck. Although there are differences between the two lifestyles, the one thing each has in common is that young people have to develop, learn — and earn — self-esteem and self-respect on their own. You cannot buy it for them.

Competence without the self-esteem and self-confidence to back it up is a sad thing. But just as sad, and perhaps more dangerous, is a society filled with people who believe in themselves but cannot — or will not — do a thing.