Talking About Me Generation
Why is the Me Generation so self-conscious? Polly Young-Eisendrath, author and psychologist, talks about self-esteem problems and what can be done about them.
I’m part of what’s been dubbed Generation Me, which includes anyone Gen X or younger. For years, I’ve wondered if it was just my acquaintances or if everyone under thirty-five had an exaggerated sense of superiority or inferiority. Were we all this restless, this fearful of humiliation, this impatient for immediate success? Yes, says author, psychologist, and Buddhist Polly Young-Eisendrath. Gen Me as a whole is caught in what she calls the self-esteem trap—the title of her new book—and it’s the way we’ve been raised that made us so. Here is the conversation I had with Young-Eisendrath about how we can cultivate true confidence in ourselves and how we can best raise the next generation.
What is it that Gen Me’ers have learned from their parents that’s making them so self-conscious and unhappy?
Excessive self-concern. The overemphasis on the individual self as a means to happiness and fulfillment is a big mistake—one we’ve been making especially in the last ten to fifteen years. We started making it, though, in the ’70s and ’80s, when the self-esteem movement got underway and we began to think that focusing on resources for the self brings happiness, and that if you aren’t happy it’s probably because your self-esteem isn’t good enough.
Where does real happiness come from?
Being in relationships with others and knowing that you can give something that’s worthwhile in addition to getting things that are worthwhile. This responsible interdependence leads to a feeling that you belong to your family, your society, and to the human race itself.
I understand from your new book, The Self-Esteem Trap, that it was baby boomers such as yourself who first started parenting in a way that led children to become overly focused on the self. Why did the boomer parents do that?
Probably the underlying reason is that after WWII, the extended family split apart when people moved all over the country so fathers could find work. Family structures and the role of women changed all at once, and that left a generation of children mistaking being needed for being loved. Our parents didn’t know who we were as individuals. Probably that was true of earlier generations, but what was different was that we, the boomers, came to feel close to our mothers because they needed us emotionally and this left us drained of our emotional resources. We were characterized as a narcissistic generation, yet I think we were hungry for mirroring because we were raised in an environment where we were taking care of elders and trying to be something for them. This led us, as adults, to start therapeutic and group consciousness movements.
You mean the boomers thought that what was missing for them—a focus on themselves as individuals—was what their children needed?
Yes, we tried to tell our children, “You can do anything you want. You should set your expectations high and follow your bliss.” It was the opposite of what we got as children. But children don’t need what their parents didn’t get. They need whatever is important in the context of their lives. That said, I want to emphasize that no one is to blame for the self-esteem trap. It was the unfolding of a historical and cultural context that produced over-focus on the self. We’ve all gotten caught in this, but we can get out of it if we change our view a bit.
You say there are three kinds of parenting that lead to the self-esteem trap.
I characterize them all as “I’m OK, you’re OK” parenting, which is basically a parent who wants to be friendly with the child and doesn’t want to be an authority figure.
What’s the first style?
“Laissez-faire parenting.” Parents who use this style aren’t absolutely chummy with the child, but rather approving from a distance. They don’t want to set rules, though when push comes to shove they will parent. Adrian, a woman in my book, grew up with that style of parenting and so when I asked her how her parents expressed authority, she was confused. She didn’t think of her parents as authority figures. That’s the boomer style of parenting.
What kind of parents are people in their late twenties, thirties, and forties?
They tend to be “helicopter parents,” constantly praising and interacting. They want to be their kids’ best friend, and they track their kids’ daily activities really closely because they want to run interference. The helicopter parent is the one that colleges complain about, the kind that calls a professor to find out why the kid got a bad grade.
What’s the third type of “I’m OK, you’re OK” parenting?
“Role-reversal,” parenting that makes the children the leaders. These parents see their children as having the ultimate wisdom. An extreme expression of this is the Indigo Evolution, a movement in which parents idealize their children as being above them—as literally being geniuses or gods.
What are the results of “I’m OK, you’re OK” parenting?
Children may not be prepared for adult life. They may not leave home in a timely manner or they may be unhappy with very desirable circumstances. I feel a lot of empathy for this generation of young people, this Generation Me, because they’re out of sync with things like hierarchy, adversity, and even self-determination. They so often get depressed if they aren’t the best really quickly.
How can Buddhism help us to get out of the self-esteem trap?
The Buddha taught that an over-focus on the self is the fundamental cause of suffering. That doesn’t mean you can’t be mindful of the experience of the individual self—you can. But when you’re self-conscious, you’re comparing. You’re experiencing jealousy, pride, embarrassment, envy—emotions that aren’t skillful and lead to separation between self and other. Basically, the Buddha did the exact opposite of the self-esteem movement. He said to focus on your actions and the consequences of your actions, and if you don’t reach the consequences that you’re aiming for, then check out what happened. But don’t focus back on yourself because when you do, it increases your suffering.
Is Buddhism all we need to get us out of the self-esteem trap?
The Buddha taught that our karma is the result of our intentional actions and that we have to learn how to govern ourselves to do good things. But Buddhism lacks an understanding of human development, so it is well-supplemented by developmental psychology and psychoanalytic psychology, which look at how autonomy develops. On the other hand, Buddhism contributes a lot in understanding how to develop interdependence. You’re always imbedded in relationships and environments that you’re not separate from. If you don’t see how you’re imbedded, then it’s hard to feel confident because you end up in situations where you’re in conflict with that imbedded-ness.
What can Gen-Me individuals do to shift their way of thinking?
Be flexible. Develop resilience by recognizing how and when you need to take responsibility. Recognize that to be the most confident and happy person you can be, you need to cooperate and share, because helping yourself also means helping others. Understand that you can’t get the answers by just looking into your own head and replaying “what if this and what if that?” Try to see yourself as an ordinary human being like everyone else. All of us are struggling to find happiness and avoid suffering. Nobody gets away with having an easy life. If you’re here, it’s difficult.
It’s also true. It’s the first noble truth.