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The Upside of Low Self-Esteem

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The other day over lunch, my friend, a professor at a world-class university, confided that a parent of one of her freshman requested the option to sleep in her daughter's dorm room for the first two weeks of the semester "to help her with the adjustment."

"We're doomed," I replied. I couldn't imagine such pampering and neither could my friend. My first day of college, my dad dropped me off at the airport with three suitcases and a plane ticket to Denver, Colorado. "Don't get into any trouble," he pronounced, as he sped off from the terminal sidewalk.

Granted, most of my upbringing lacked any emotional coddling of any kind. My mother died of cancer when I was 8 and I was raised by a father whose mantra was "I don't care if you love me, but you better respect me." My dad had such a fierce temper that my knees would shake when he flew into a rage, mostly over simple things: leaving my backpack in the hallway or using a non-serrated knife to slice bread. I had to schlep myself to the dentist on a bus when I was 10.

But the more my friend shares with me her teaching woes -- students informing her that she graded them incorrectly and demanding teacher's notes for classes missed, the more I'm thinking his harsh treatment wasn't the worst thing that could have happened to me. I can't imagine a student requiring an explanation for a B- and arguing that they are entitled to a higher grade even if it would be unfair to other students. It's inconceivable to me to saunter into a class and ask the professor to provide notes from classes missed. In my day, we scratched out our own notes (on paper, not a noisy laptop) and if you missed class, tough stones. Another professor I interviewed told me nearly 8% of his freshman students reported "nervous breakdowns" because of work overload. He also told me that he demands less of his students than what was required of him when he was in college.

I'm not a parent, but many of my friends are. I fear that they're raising a generation of kids with an odd problem: too much self-esteem. Parents who reward their progeny for everything they do and tell coaches that there should no longer be winners and losers at games because it hurts the kid's feelings.

Though studies like the one from Pew Research say millennials are "confident, connected, and open to change," not everyone agrees. Dr. Jean M. Twenge, author of books such as Generation Me and The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement, findings show an increasing narcissism (entitlement is a facet of narcissism), a rise in extrinsic values correlated with narcissism and a decline in work ethic among young people. A friend and senior level executive at a media company told me that last year, when hiring for an entry level position, the prospective employee, a recent college graduate, asked if his salary was really dependent on "this forty hour week thing, since he liked to ski the full weekend in winter." When I started my pr company over a decade ago, I hired a part-time assistant who as an aspiring writer. A few months in, he was offered a full-time editorial position at a reputable magazine (a dream job and one that is almost nonexistent today). He declined because he decided to go Africa to find the "writer within" -- a trip that was fully endorsed by his parents.

So what's triggered this entitlement? Is it helicopter parents like the mother who wants to sleep in the dorm or to protect her from children failure and disappointment? Are these parents, who (like me) were under-indulged, abused or to some extent abandoned as children and are now making up for it?

Los Angeles based Dr. Paul Hokemeyer, Family Therapist at Caron Ocean Drive, says some parents today over-coddle, in part in response to how they were raised. "The new generation of parents who were raised in single households and/or by absent parents who had to go out into the world and work leaving their children to fend for themselves have redoubled their efforts to always be there for their children." Over indulging and parenting without boundaries, he explains, creates children who become pathological narcissists. "Among other issues, these children never learn to build a solid sense of self that comes from relying on their own resources."

While they may lack basic coping skills, Dr. Hokemeyer believes one cannot have too much self-esteem. "But there's a difference between healthy self-esteem and pathological narcissism."

And while my father's severe parenting style resulted in low-self esteem, there's an upside: I never think anything will be done for me (unless I do it for myself) and I'm fiercely determined. I carved my way into the hip-hop music industry at a time when it was unreceptive to white girls (mid-'90s) and against my father's furiously expressed wishes. What my father's lack of nurturing taught me is that underestimating myself is far better than overestimating myself. I tend to assume that I won't land an exciting new client, which means that I'm thrilled when it actually happens. But mostly, when things don't go my way, I know how to pick myself up and try again, on my own.

Does the overindulgent parent do as much damage as the abusive one? "Absolutely not," insists Dr. Hokemeyer. Emotionally abusive parents cause much more damage, in part because of the stress that results from emotional trauma (rage, insults, overly harsh criticism) causes a child to internalize a negative self-concept. "They feel flawed and fundamentally damaged. To recover, and people do recover, they need to engage in both a reparative process where they must dismantle and recreate new patterns of thinking and feeling about themselves." In contrast, he adds children who are over indulged, while also given a false image of their self worth, operate in the world with more to hold onto. Granted the reeds they cling too are flimsy and tenuous, but they are reeds nonetheless."

A few weeks ago, the assistant who traveled to Africa emailed me and asked what I thought of the idea of applying to graduate school. Over 30 now and still unemployed, he lives at home with his parents. He believes he's got a good shot, he said, now that he's a "serious writer." Unsure what he meant, I simply recalled another one of my dad's hard lessons: "When you work for things, you value them more."