In the beginning, I will quote a text of an author I won’t name (because I’m about to criticize them a bit):
“People who love themselves, don’t try to hurt others” says Oprah Winfrey, the talk-show queen. She must have never heard of Hitler, Stalin, Mao Tse Tung… mass murderers with very high self-esteem and self-confidence. She probably hasn’t heard of children who bully their peers. Those wild kids surely lack many things, but not self-esteem.
“Violent people are violent because their self-esteem and self-confidence are unrealistically high. Many violent criminals describe themselves as powerful, special and elite people who deserve special treatment” says Ulla Lovenkrands, Danish psychologist who spent 20 years studying criminal psychology.”
“Street gang members have high opinions of themselves and demand respect from others. Bullies from school playgrounds consider themselves more special than others. Low self-esteem and self-confidence are found amongst victims of violence, not amongst violent people.”
This kind of attitude is typical for people who lack psychological education and the insight in their own emotional processes. It’s surprisingly superficial and hasty from an educated psychologist.
First, in the above quotes only the external behavior is recognized, only those feelings which the violent people are able to admit to themselves and others. External confidence is equaled to self-esteem and defense mechanisms to true, deep feelings. Self-esteem is also indirectly equaled with lessened sensitivity to others’ needs.
If you are ready to truly look within yourself, further than the surface, you will notice that often some feelings mask and hide others. The feelings that make us feel safer and stronger seem to be protection from deeper and more unpleasant feelings. A simple and common example is that some people weren’t allowed to express anger as children, but they were allowed to cry. They started to feel uncomfortable with anger, maybe even scared of it, but sadness was safe enough, so it could be used instead of anger to express discomfort. Do you sometimes cry out of anger? It might be a sign of such a pattern.
Violence and arrogance are the result of an opposite process, in which guilt, shame, scorn for oneself and one’s feelings are suppressed and masked with anger and need for power. Perhaps sadness, embarrassment, shame were too frightening, or the environment responded in humiliating ways to them. Such children learn to mask those feelings with false power and confidence, if they notice that it’s a way to avoid being hurt by others. Usually they have models of adult people who act in such ways.
Why do such people scorn gentle feelings and can’t express them? Because they feel them as frightening vulnerability and weakness. Is this self-love? How can such a scornful attitude to the most gentle parts of oneself be called self-esteem? True self-esteem means appreciating those kind feelings the most.
A superficial observer might say that violent and arrogant people have no compassion and kind feelings. That would imply that they were somehow born without them, or neglected them out of their own will. I claim that such people suppress their gentle feelings in a very early age and were never able to develop them. Why did they suppress such feelings? Obviously not because they would have felt comfortable and safe with expressing such feelings, accepted and respected by people around them.
Emotional confusion within families
The author of the quote I started with also mentions that some parents teach their children to feel special, better than others, and so give them unrealistic self-esteem. The desire to be “better than others”, “special and elite” implies that we don’t feel good enough if we are equal to others, “one amongst many”. It means we can’t appreciate ourselves just for being here and being who we are. If we examine such families more closely, we’ll most commonly find an atmosphere in which encouragement is given verbally, but instead of true compassion, warmth and acceptance, children experience hypocrisy, pretense and conditional love. Parents who act like that are usually not aware of it, they just repeat what they experienced in they own childhood.
What we experience as children, becomes normal to us. Later, if such children see others expressing gentle and kind feelings, they might not be able to feel correspondent feelings and motivation to develop them. They might be afraid of such emotions, or guilty for not expressing them, but then the fear and guilt are suppressed and masked by defensive “strength”.
In a family which verbally expresses encouragement and big expectations, but in reality lacks warmth, compassion and healthy boundaries, children are confused. What they hear from important people contradicts their instict and feelings. Without enough awareness of their emotions and out of need to trust their parents, such children will usually forget their own feelings and accept what parents present as the truth. Subconsciously, they will still feel the lack of healthy love, but will not be able to feel it consciously and explain it to themselves. In search for a substitute for love, they will use behaviors others approve, or anything that gives them temporary good feelings. Such substitutes might be power, respect or material gifts.
What is true strength?
The claim that violent children have too much self-esteem, is not logical if we consider the fact that such children normally attack the weakest and most frightened amongst other kids, and they usually attack as a group against an isolated child. They won’t attack children who appear strong and ready to fight back, because they play it safe, they won’t risk defeat, hurt and vulnerability. Some of them will later say that they felt what they did was wrong, but they complied because they felt dependent of the approval and support of the rest of the group. Is that self-esteem?
Hitler commited suicide because he wasn’t able to face defeat. It is typical for ruthless dictators that they are not capable to tolerate vulnerability, self-doubt or criticism from others. Why not? Because they deeply love and accept themselves?… No, but because such feelings are too painful, they endanger their defense mechanisms and threaten to uncover intolerably painful fear and shame from their childhood.
If you want your children to like themselves, warn them about their faults and unacceptable behavior, but lovingly – so that they can feel that it’s allowed to make mistakes sometimes, and that they will still be loved. Don’t tell them they are better than others, expect huge achievements from them, while in the same time subtly or less subtly putting them (or other people) down for their weaknesses and vulnerability. Show that you respect them, but also yourself, that everybody has personal boundaries and the right to express them.
Some people give everything to children, while neglecting themselves. This is also confusing to a child. This only shows inconsistency, not real love – parents who don’t appreciate themselves and can’t set boundaries, can’t give true love and respect to their child. Then children turn to what they are able to get as substitute – usually material things and favors. The child might feel that this is not right, but doesn’t know how else to feel good. They develop psychological defense mechanisms, protecting themselves from confusion by convincing themselves that they are “special” and “better than others”, so that they could continue to use parents and other people around them.
True respect for others and compassion can only come from the ability to feel good about ourselves in the same time. Also, we won’t be able to understand and be compassionate to others if we don’t understand and accept our own emotions and mistakes. Some people show respect to others, but not to themselves. This is, however, not motivated by pleasant emotions, but by fear or guilt, which inevitably produces negative consequences: indirect or unconscious manipulation, passive aggression or self-destructive attitude, which shows in self-hatred or even physical disease.