Emotional Muscle, Self-Esteem, and Exploitative Adults

A few weeks ago we posted a blog about some childhood roots of exploitative behavior in adulthood (Wondering why some men “act like pigs” 5/29/11), taking off from the views expressed in various major news media here and abroad. There we talked about the need for parents to set realistic limits, so that children don’t get their major pleasure from dominating others, especially their parents.

Concern continues as scandals have emerged around respected members of the US Congress. Thoughtful media analyses converge on the idea of “narcissism.” As the NY Times Op-Ed columnist Ross Douthat noted on 6/13/11, “It’s not the sex. It’s the narcissism.” But calling something “narcissism” doesn’t explain it. It labels behavior as pathological and allows us to distance ourselves from the person concerned. We think this misses an important point, since, if we define narcissism literally as self-regard, we are all narcissists. And we should be, since caring for ourselves and valuing our bodies and minds keeps us healthy and able to work productively.

Instead, we should be talking about how we all regulate our feelings about ourselves, including our self-esteem. In our book EMOTIONAL MUSCLE: STRONG PARENTS, STRONG CHILDREN an ongoing theme is the universal and legitimate need to find a way to feel good and safe. We suggest that there are different ways to regulate feelings and we organize these ideas as “two systems of self-regulation.” The open system engages with reality, both inner and outer, and fosters love, connection and creativity. The closed system is static, uses power dynamics and depends on forcing responses from others to achieve good feelings.

Functioning in an open-system way a Congressman could feel good about himself because of the work he has done for his community, the ideas he has expressed, and the effort he made to get elected. Then he has ongoing work in Congress to realize his goals effectively, which brings enormous satisfaction. This should be sufficient fuel for most people’s self-esteem. Parents can sow the seeds for open-system satisfaction by praising effort, work and process, helping children feel good from mastering each step along the way. Parents’ pleasure when children try hard is taken inside to become an internal motivation to work at a task.

Research has shown that children praised as ‘smart’ lower their sights, stop trying and achieve less. They don’t know what they did to deserve the praise and they become uncertain and need constant feedback and reassurance. They become dependent on such praise from others, rather than their own feelings of mastery, competence and achievement. Children praised for their effort know the source of the good feeling and consequently feel the confidence to take on more challenging tasks, achieve more and get more satisfaction from the tasks and in themselves (Dweck 2007).

Children can be helped to get satisfaction from using their “trying muscles” in all kinds of activities, rather than constantly focusing on results and approval, which includes fearing criticism. Prominent grownups who have built strong emotional muscles as children don’t need to seek additional, magical, anonymous applause to feel good about themselves. It’s sad that accomplished, successful people cannot find enough pleasure in their competence and turn to hollow, external, ultimately empty, affirmation of their self-worth.

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