Recently I read an article highlighting the struggle psychologists were having in trying to find the line between healthy self-esteem and an unhealthy sense of entitlement. Others have been pondering the “Lake Woebegone” effect for a while now. (You know, where “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”) I once even saw a newspaper column declaring that it was all Mr. Rogers’ fault for telling children they were special.
I’m a little loathe to cast any blame on the sweater and tennis shoe man. More than that, I believe that every child IS special just by the fact that they are here on the earth. As a counselor, I spend a good bit of my time working with people whose sense of self was wounded early on. They use words like “stupid” and “worthless” to describe themselves. They keep themselves from doing what they can do by an exaggerated sense of what they cannot do.
And yet it doesn’t take a social scientist to see that we have a growing sense of entitlement. A few years ago I asked a retiring Dean of Students what the differences were in his work now. “The sense of entitlement,” he said without hesitation. One student’s parents actually threatened to sue the school because he got a high number in the housing lottery and was going to miss out on living in the cushy student apartments for the coming year.
So where’s the line? Perhaps it is this simple:
A sense of entitlement leads us back to ourselves. It’s all about what we can get, where we can go, what’s in it for us. We feel good because we are better than others. It’s about what we deserve, what the world should be giving us.
A healthy sense of self-esteem leads us outside of ourselves. Because we feel safe and secure we can risk using our gifts for the sake of others. Because we believe in ourselves we do not have to compete endlessly with others, making ourselves feel better by making them seem worse. It’s about what we can give the world.
Healthy self-esteem doesn’t mean having the expectation that the world will bend to our wishes. It is the knowing that even if we face opposition, we will have the courage to stay true to our beliefs and dreams. It isn’t the expectation that others will deliver our dreams to us but knowing that we have whatever we need inside ourselves (including the ability to ask for help) to make those dreams come true.
In the next issue of my e-newsletter, “Feeling Good,” I’ll take a more in-depth look at the “self esteem tool kit” developed by Virginia Satir.
In the meantime, what do you think?