When I was a graduate student at Indiana University, I had my own classes of undergrads I taught, as it was a teaching institution. My first year, I taught Intro to Public Speaking. My second year, I switched over to Introduction to Interpersonal Communication, which is essentially like a beginner’s guide to anthropology. A large part of the course is getting these youngsters to understand that many things that seemed natural were, in actuality, cultural constructions.
I would do this by telling my class of 24 students or so, “Raise your hand if your parents told you you were special.” In one class, all 24 did. In the other, all but the international student from China did. Humorously enough, I ended up considering her one of the more gifted kids I had by semester’s end.
I would then explain. “Do you think I am just the luckiest instructor on Earth to get a room full of special people who can all be whatever they want if they put their mind to it? Now don’t get me wrong, each of you are unique and have your own talents, but this whole notion that you are incredible and essentially lacking flaws is something that came about in the late 1970s when child psychologists started pushing what is generally referred to as the self-esteem movement.” This is what led schools to add participation into grading, general grade inflation nationwide, and those trophies everyone gets for participating because it would be unfair to single out a handful of children at being better at something than everyone else.
Meanwhile, my parents, if anything, would tell me things like, “You’re nothing special.” This wasn’t to beat down my self-esteem, it was to reiterate that you should never treat anyone like you are better than they are, even in situations where that may be the case. If I made good grades, I wouldn’t show my tests to my friends unless they asked because anything more would be bragging, and if you valued other people, if they were special to you, it would be poor form. Since I wasn’t bragging and neither would they, I ended up with a skewed sense of self too, since all those participation trophies never indicated to me if I was really as good or bad as I thought at certain activities. For example, I was well into my 20s before it dawned on me that I could probably make a living writing.
I am not saying the (possibly extreme) self-sacrifice and modesty my parents espoused is correct, but I am grateful I was raised that way instead of with excessive self-esteem, because it seems like a potentially huge societal problem. Essentially, I worry the self-esteem movement is going to produce a whole generation of Timothy Treadwells. If you’re not familiar, he is the subject of the Werner Herzog documentary Grizzly Man, which tells the story of Treadwell, who spent over a dozen summers living in the Alaskan wilderness amongst grizzly bears.
It sounds all well and good, but here is the issue: Treadwell is not a biologist, a nature preservationist, nor does he, from my research, have any formal training that would render him capable of living with bears. Much of his efforts, like the foundation he started called Grizzly People, do still aim to do good for the species, but in the movie, many actually trained experts expressed that Treadwell was harming not only himself, but the bears as well.
It is not a spoiler to say Treadwell died by getting eaten by a bear. The whole point of the movie is trying to ascertain whether Treadwell is a misunderstood soul or a mentally unstable person. What makes this documentary really remarkable is all the video footage Treadwell made during his trips. He talks to the camera about the bears, all of whom have been given the kinds of names a Care Bear would have like Snuggles or Jolly or Rowdy. As you watch, it becomes very apparent right away that Treadwell considers himself a Messianic character. He is the Lorax, he speaks for the bears.
I wonder how in 13 years no one was able to convince him that this idea is, pardon the judgment, stupid, expensive, and dangerous. But in his monologues for the camera, he seems pretty darn driven to make it happen. Drive is an important thing for a person to have, and I admire his, but his delusion about what he can really accomplish ultimately proves to be his downfall. That is the problem with the self-esteem movement. Generally telling people they are great leads to believe they can and should be great at everything, which just isn’t the case 99 percent of the time.
One of my favorite parts of the show Grey’s Anatomy was how, early on, the original group of five surgical interns are maniacally driven to pursue their career as surgeons, as this is what they have proven to excel at. It is a defining trait of any Shonda Rhimes show that most characters are unapologetically driven, especially when it comes to their careers, and especially when they are women.
On Grey’s, Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh) is the most driven of the female cast, and Rhimes and her writing staff do some really interesting stories when Yang, who has always been expected by others to succeed and be special, doesn’t get what she wants and doesn’t know how to react. Her unwillingness to let her boyfriend help her, her shock when her friends are hurt when she puts her work ahead of them, and her disregard of people she deems lesser than, like nurses and patients, is to me a cautionary tale of being raised believing you’re special like Treadwell, but with a much more relatable outcome.
While Cristina is used to getting what she wants, the other leading ladies, Meredith (Ellen Pompeo) and Izzie (Katherine Heigl), are much more willing to subject themselves to pain and personal suffering in an attempt to further their careers, gain the respect of their peers, or, most memorably, end up with someone they love.
When it first aired, I found Meredith’s desperate begging for Derek to pick her to be so selfish, to believe his happiness and his marriage was not as important as her getting to keep her boyfriend of a couple of months. Instead, I related to a victim of a train wreck in the very next episode who gets impaled on a pole with another patient. Even though she is young, about to get married, and has a life full of promise, life isn’t very fair and, because the other, older patient stuck on the pole with her has less serious injuries, she basically volunteers to die so the other guy can stand a chance to live.
While Meredith is the kind of self-involved person I am terrified of being and I constantly aspire to be that patient who didn’t even get to tell her fiancé goodbye before she selflessly dies, in reality, I am Izzie. Sure, I was raised to put others before myself, but like Izzie Stevens, sometimes my adoration for another person is so intense, it becomes selfish. I was too young to tell my dad that I wanted him to fight as hard as he could to stay alive, and I know you aren’t supposed to ask those who are ill to hold on, but even today I would probably beg him to keep trying. Because even though I wasn’t raised to be special, I was raised to believe if you do good, good things happen to you, like having your parents stay alive into their 80s. Let’s be honest, we all want to believe we are selfless people, but in moments of life and death, most of us are not strong enough to be silently thinking anything but this:
Once again, while TV and movies help me pinpoint my behavior, where it comes from, and how to handle it, music serves as my catharsis. When I want to take a three minute break from trying to uphold the ridiculously high standard of self-sacrifice my working class family instilled in me, I listen to a song like Jack’s Mannequin’s The Mixed Tape. Being a Xennial, I still remember the mixed tape and mixed CD days. I don’t know if younger people can really understand just how special a mixed CD could make you feel. Considering a playlist can be assembled in a matter of minutes, it lacks the personal touch of a CD, or the cassette that preceded it.
This song, from the frontman of the now-defunct Something Corporate, it is about a guy creating “a symphony of sound” for a girl, and it is so much more than dragging and dropping into Spotify. Making a mixed tape is about getting the order just perfect, making certain each song is hand-picked and hand-placed just for you. I don’t know about you, but there is no number of times my mom can tell me I am great that will ever compare to when a guy gave me a mixed tape. Because this isn’t someone forced to love you, like your parents, this is someone who picked you because they think you are special.
The songs of Something Corporate really do perfectly embody that elated, uninhibited, yet heartbreaking feeling of being love (how many times have you listened to the pop rock opus Konstantine?) Even if you aren’t Something Corporate, you probably have that band, those songs, that mixed tape that makes you feel special.
That is the difference between the self-esteem movement and truly feeling special. The former is just lip service and it sets us up for a Treadwell-like demise if we genuinely think we are supposed to get everything we want and change the world. The latter though, that feeling that someone literally can’t bear the thought of life without you or that, even though you two aren’t together anymore, someone wants to show you exactly what they think is great about you by handpicking a mixed tape for you. In the song, he knows “I’m sorry” or “take me back” isn’t enough to win someone over, to convince them what you two have is truly special you have to, “rearrange the songs again” to create something like the songs he does that, “could burn a hole in anyone,” but they did it just for one special person—you.