Stuck

Why we can't (or won't) move on from bad jobs, bad relationships, and bad habits, and how we can all move ahead.

Low Self-Esteem Is the New "The Dog Ate My Homework"

Mike Tyson says his crimes were the result of his low self-esteem.

Mike Tyson is just as famous for his rape conviction and for biting Evander Holyfield's ear as he is for having been the undisputed heavyweight world champion boxer. 

In his new memoir, Tyson chalks up his crimes—and his alcoholism, drug addiction, irresponsible parenting and financial miseries—on low self-esteem. 

As reviewed in The Telegraph, Undisputed Truth: My Autobiography is one massive mea culpa, in which amidst descriptions of cocaine-and-Dom Perignon-addled spending sprees Tyson writes: "It’s amazing how a low self-esteem and a huge ego can give you delusions of grandeur.”

I have problems with that logic. How can someone have low self-esteem and a huge ego? Aren't these two things diametric opposites? I think Tyson's huge ego—or his ghostwriter's perception of it—has clasped this self-diagnosis, still roaringly popular, in which low self-esteem is the cause of all misdeeds. 

Having struggled with self-loathing all my life and having spent much of the last few years writing a book on this topic in hopes of helping others escape this mental hell, I scry skeptically the "low self-esteem makes people commit crimes" meme. Sure, it sounds logical. It's the sort of thing lots of people want to believe. It is largely what spurred California Assemblymember John Vasconcellos to launch what became a nationwide self-esteem movement in 1985, leading to the ubiquity of classroom "I love me" affirmations and the awarding of trophies merely for playing —not actually winning—games. 

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But is it true? Studies—and real-life statistics—show that high self-esteem is not the crime-quelling cure-all that its promoters, who have turned it into a multi-billion dollar industry, believed and still believe it to be. 

"I did it because of my low self-esteem" is the trendy current-day version of "the dog ate my homework."

 "Hey, it wasn't me who pistol-whipped that stranger on the street while stealing his wallet. It was my low self-esteem!" 

Um, a lot of us with low self-esteem would never consider committing crimes or deliberately harming others. Having low self-esteem, even terrible self-esteem, doesn't automatically strip us of decent ethics. We don't see it as an excuse or a get-out-of-jail-for-free card.

And as anyone who has ever been bullied can tell you, bullies aren't the ones with low self-esteem. Those mean kids marching around the playground arm-in-arm with their mean pals, mauling and berating smaller, weaker, less-popular and less-confident kids: Do you really mean to tell me that those mean kids cry into their pillows at night, feeling powerless and dumb? Saying that low self-esteem sparks violence—cause-and-effect, A+B=C, QED—ties everything up too neatly into a bow, because it seems to promise a shimmering, apparently logical solution: Make the mean ones feel better about themselves and they won't be mean anymore. Kindness is the cure. Right?

This idea is popular because it's so difficult to accept the idea that some people are mean because they're mean, because they were born mean and/or because they want and choose to be mean, because being mean is in fact what feeds their self-esteem, and they like it that way.

As the Telegraph's reviewer puts it: "The book’s epilogue begins with a litany of abject self-loathing—'I’m filthy and I’m wretched … If I had balls I’d kill myself.'"

Suicide is no joke. Especially in connection with any discussion of self-loathing, it's no joke at all, and shouldn't be fodder for memoiristic quips.

Anneli Rufus is the author of many books, including Party of One: The Loners' Manifesto and Stuck: Why We Can't (or Won't) Move On.

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