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Original Search: SELF-ESTEEM    |   Save This Article    |   Email to a Friend
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There's a bad feeling about self-esteem trend
Date: 07-02-1996; Publication: The Dallas Morning News; Author: Cecelia Goodnow / Seattle Post-Intelligencer

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The Dallas Morning News The self-esteem movement may be running out of esteem.

With its feel-good slogans and extravagant claims, the movement is hopelessly naive and doomed to failure, according to William B. Swann Jr., one of the leading researchers of how self-concept is formed.

"My little girl came home from school with a T-shirt saying, `I am lovable and capable,' and she didn't even know what capable meant, " says Mr. Swann, adding that kids see through such hollow gestures.

Mr. Swann, 44, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, has studied the workings of self-concept for 15 years, with funding from the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Science Foundation.

His findings are outlined in a new book, Self-Traps: The Elusive Quest for Higher Self-Esteem (W.H. Freeman, $23.95).

Mr. Swann sees a backlash building against the mantra of self-esteem, which holds that poor self-image is the root cause of poverty, school failure, drug abuse and a host of other social problems. The most famous - or infamous - outgrowth of the movement is California's Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem and Personal and State Responsibility.

Not only is there no evidence to support such a cause-and-effect relationship, Mr. Swann says, but boosting self-esteem is far more difficult and complex than many people realize.

One teacher, for example, told Mr. Swann she had been advised by the school counselor not to ask a certain stu- dent any questions unless she was sure the boy knew the answer, lest she damage his self- image.

"So she stopped asking him questions," Mr. Swann says. "The kid gets ignored and less knowledgeable, and it actually makes the problem worse. The thing that frustrates me is those people all have the best intentions. They simply have these naive ideas about how to raise self-esteem."

Mr. Swann says one in four people suffer from chronically low self- image, which can trap people in abusive relationships and contribute to depression and suicide.

"Self-esteem can be changed," he says. "It's a doable goal and it's an extremely important concept, so I think it would be a terrible tragedy if the outcome of this cynicism that's emerging is that self- esteem is thrown on the trash heap of dumb ideas."

Anthony Greenwald, a University of Washington psychologist who also specializes in self-esteem research, says Mr. Swann is well known in the field and most of his views are widely accepted.

"Swann's position is probably a reasonable one," Mr. Greenwald says. "He's one of the more sensible researchers in self-esteem."

Mr. Greenwald adds, however, that the policy implications of self- esteem research are still controversial.

Mr. Swann is not the first to question the self-esteem movement. Last year, psychologist Martin E.P. Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania raised similar objections. In his book The Optimistic Child (Houghton Mifflin, $24.95), Mr. Seligman argued that children develop self-esteem by becoming competent, not by being told to feel good about themselves.

"America has seen 30 years of a concerted effort to bolster the self-esteem of its kids," Mr. Seligman wrote. "This movement would be justified if it worked and self-esteem were on the rise. But [the nation's children] have never been more depressed."

Mr. Swann's interest in self-image stems from his college days, when he worked as a counselor at a camp for underprivileged children.

"I noticed this one kid went around with another kid who beat him up all the time," Mr. Swann says. The victim of the abuse was all ears whenever anyone was critical toward him, but, surprisingly, he rebuffed any attempt to bolster his ego. "That always stuck with me, " Mr. Swann says.

Years later, Mr. Swann's research indicated that people often cling to a poor self-image because of their strong drive to maintain a stable identity, even if it's a negative identity. By not rocking the boat, they nurture the sense that the world is predictable and controllable.

"In fact," Mr. Swann writes, "the rudiments of a desire for predictability appear to be wired into our neural circuitry."

Mr. Swann sees this drive for constancy as a major "self-trap" that can contribute to destructive behavior. A good example is people who repeatedly seek out abusive relationships.

"What makes them so puzzling," Mr. Swann says, "is that on one level they really want to feel good about themselves. These people aren't masochists. What they are is people who are locked in a struggle."

Self-esteem depends on a balance between feeling competent and feeling lovable.

People who focus on either whirlwind romance or material success as an ego boost are likely to be disappointed, Mr. Swann says. That' s because relationships based on angst and fake images usually fail (leading to lower self-esteem), and owning fast cars and big houses isn't intrinsically satisfying.

People who feel bitter about being cut off from the American Dream also have self-esteem problems - with a surprising twist. Mr. Swann says a 1989 study showed that antisocial behavior boosted self-esteem among low-income, 10th-grade boys, but not among high-income boys. And the more deviant the behavior, the higher the self-esteem, researchers found.

Self-esteem does not develop in a vacuum, Mr. Swann says, but is maintained by a complex web of relationships. Parents play a big role in the early years.

"By age 18 months you already have set kids on a trajectory," Mr. Swann says. "You can predict what their self-esteem will be at 6 years of age. But that doesn't mean you can't turn it around. It's never too late to change self-esteem."

Ironically, he says, teachers and parents who heap false praise on children may damage their self-esteem by giving them a false or shallow sense of self. But an unending stream of negative feedback is equally damaging, he adds.

Instead, parents should strive to be positive yet "responsive" to their children's behavior, so that children learn limits and develop coping skills.

"What I fear," Mr. Swann says, "is we're going to go back to something like `Spare the rod and spoil the child,' really negative. I want the pendulum to swing back to the middle, not the other extreme."

Distributed by New York Times News Service CHART(S): RAISING SELF-ESTEEM

Cecelia Goodnow / Seattle Post-Intelligencer, There's a bad feeling about self-esteem trend. , The Dallas Morning News, 07-02-1996, pp 1C.

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