Inside the Criminal Mind

Understanding the dark side of human conduct

Does the Criminal Really Have "Low Self-Esteem?"

An inversion of cause and effect

Observers, including many mental health professionals, maintain that basic to the psychology of many criminals is their low self-esteem that gives rise to antisocial behavior. The reasoning goes something like this. The individual likely has experienced numerous failures in life - in school, at work, in his family, and in other relationships. Even in crime, he has failed each time that he is apprehended. The thinking of some professional evaluators and counselors is that criminal behavior represents a desperate attempt to compensate for this prevailing sense of inadequacy. That is, he builds himself up by tearing others down.  He aims to control and overcome others to feel better about himself.

Such thinking inverts cause and effect. In most instances, the criminal has rejected his family, teachers, and the world of work long before they ever rejected him. By refusing to cope with adversity constructively and by exerting little to no effort in responsible endeavors, he has accomplished little that is substantive. If a person throws away opportunities and resorts to deception, intimidation, or force to make his way in the world, is it not realistic for him to have low self-esteem, at least by the standards of the responsible world? A nineteen-year-old who dropped out in tenth grade, who has not even tried to develop job skills, and who has alienated his family would have little basis to think well of himself. In making the choices that he has, the criminal's attempts to "feel good" about himself ultimately result in hurting others whom he professes to care about and, ultimately, in his freedom being severely restricted.

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Stanton Samenow, Ph.D.,is a clinical psychologist practicing in Alexandria, Virginia and author of Inside the Criminal Mind.

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