2. Reclaim Your Self-Concept

Research points to self-dislike as the strongest predictor of depression among college students. Bessel van der Kolk in The Body Keeps the Score discusses a study in which “Manipulating a monkey into a lower position in the dominance hierarchy made his serotonin drop, while chemically enhancing serotonin elevated the rank of former subordinates.”

In talking to people who are that age today, feeling like a failure is a constant refrain. Malcolm Harris in Kids These Days writes about the “impossibility of the demand that people, on average, be better than average” and the “competitive system […] designed to turn everyone into potential losers; it generates low self-esteem like a refinery emits smoke.” That something is generating it is undeniable. Low self-esteem has never been so widespread.

Alfie Kohn echoes this years earlier in his book No Contest, here quoting Stuart Walker: “When ’emphasis is placed not upon the demonstration of competence but upon winning,” then the competitor eventually “comes to believe . . . that he is defective and deserves to fail.’ Walker is describing the process of internalizing failure, of coming to equate losing with being a loser.”

Seminal self-help author Maxwell Maltz talks about a 1952 Science Digest article in which “a psychologist […] wanted to find out how feelings of inferiority affected the ability to solve problems. He gave his students a set of routine tests. ‘But then he solemnly announced that the average person could complete the test on about one-fifth the time it would really take. When in the course of the test a bell would ring, indicating that the “average man’s” time was up, some of the brightest subjects became very jittery and incompetent indeed, thinking themselves to be morons.'”

One popular blogger believes today’s mental health crisis is happening because in religious belief systems, humans have intrinsic value, and the alternative that overtook that is the idea that humans generate value by work. Whatever your opinion of religion, it turns out science has a similar point to make. The biggest factor in happiness research is consistently the quality of relationships. Even big differences in living conditions score pretty low in studies of subjective quality of life.

If you could ask everyone what they want from others, I think “don’t be a jerk” would beat “don’t be a screw-up.” Too easy? How many people want “listen to me,” or “appreciate me,” or “spend time with me”? How many people want it desperately? It’s not just softie young people, although those people matter too. It’s seniors, and tough kids who never got much attention, and men suppressing their emotions, and people who are marginalized, and all the people Thoreau was talking about when he said “All men lead lives of quiet desperation.” How many people are aching for someone to care about what they have to say? Why does “don’t be a screw-up” matter more?

The idea of “emotional labor” is sometimes taken to mean for women to limit doing these things. Ideally it should mean valuing them like we value other labor, because they’re necessary. Degendering them is also a good thing, but I suspect if our culture valued them appropriately, men and boys would start doing them en masse. Here’s a prescription for social change: you could reward someone doing emotional labor in your life. That could be by doing something for them or with your own love and attention, as long as you tell them why and bring into the open the effort they put in. And when you do it yourself, the energy you’re putting in should be visible to you too.

See Five Real Alternatives to Seeing Yourself Negatively

Go to Part 3: Want and Try For What YOU Want