Adam Blatner, M.D.

November 6, 2007

With no pretense to the following being a comprehensive analysis, I would suggest that the following dynamic has all-too-often been overlooked:

Young people, including young adults, are often given instruction and a good deal of advice, not infrequently mixed with subtle or overt reproach, blaming, or scolding. The advice and instruction is in fact vague, made up of platitudes and generalities.

For example, the plight of young mothers may be worsened by injunctions to “be sensitive,” and so forth. (See my paper on unhelpful overgeneralizations.)

The fact is that many of those presuming to give such advice are in a predicament: Being older, or supposedly more experience, they feel expected to “know.” In fact, they have just muddled through. Or they might have worked out some tactics that work for themselves and certain people they’ve helped, such as a given child with a given temperament, intelligence level, and so forth—but in truth these tactics well might not work well when applied to a different child with a different individual makeup, or by a parent with a different set of other temperaments and skills.

The process of education or training, giving advice, often requires a higher level of analytical skills and a capacity to work with the one being trained so as to ensure not only competence in the skills being taught, but also a sense of competence and confidence. For this, action approaches, experiential learning, rehearsal, feedback, opportunities to repeat, make mistakes, get support, and try again, all are indicated. Needless to say, this is far from the kinds of instruction and advice most frequently and pervasively offered.

Yet if ineffective guidance is given by seeming authorities who are unwilling to admit even to themselves that they may not really know how to teach or support effectively, then the student gets a double message: What I am teaching you should work. (This is in fact untrue.) Moreover, if it does not work, you (the student) are morally lacking in paying attention, caring enough to exert genuine effort, being wilfully stupid, being un-wilfully stupid, and so forth. None of this is stated explicitly, but through tone of voice, insistent repetition of over-generalities or platitudes, and the like, the student is assailed with injunctions laced with—let’s say it clearly!—shaming!

In other words, student taught by teachers who don’t know they can teach—and this includes the supposedly friendly “help” of neighbors, aunts, older siblings, parents and grandparents, ministers, social workers, and others in the “helping” role—will end up having “lowered self-esteem” because no one in the system can explain why the student is not “getting it.”

A slight digression. The behaviorist psychologist, B. F. Skinner, has been criticized for lacking in certain “humanistic” values in suggesting that we should use more principles of operant conditioning. Yet what this approach means is that those who take on the role of helper are thus obliged to analyze their teaching challenge, to break down the learning into truly attainable incremental steps, and to construct reinforcements—even encouragement will do—for each step. Well, this is truly a kind way to be taught. The student isn’t blamed! The teacher is infinitely patient, because if the student isn’t “getting it,” the teacher then takes responsibility to further refine these two principles: Break down the learning a little more finely, apply the reinforcements at the right time or exercise more discrimination as to which reinforcements are more likely to actually get results.

Few advice-givers, parents, teachers, and even, alas, therapists, follow these pretty obvious principles. I’m talking especially about the challenge of supporting skill-building in some specific way. Other therapeutic components such as listening, empathizing, and so forth are not being considered at this point, but acknowledged to have their own values when applied judiciously.

A corollary: There are certain goals that really involve skill-building, and other components in therapy or education cannot substitute for this. So part of the task is to analyze what is needed when, rather than to apply a limited set of helping tactics that officially are part of the repertoire of a certain school of thought. This is another argument for intelligent eclecticism, and it applies in parenting and education and marriage as well as in therapy.

To restate, then, the thesis: Some problems of self-esteem are generated in a crazy social matrix, one in which helpers are ineffective, the “helpees” are being given mixed messages (i.e., I know how to help you, plus more specific advice that is nevertheless far from actually helpful, plus increasing impatience and blaming when the supposed instruction or advice doesn’t take). The shame experienced by the helpees then is transformed into behaviors that may be pseudo-diagnosed as “low self esteem.” This makes it the neurotic problem of the patient, student, child, helpee. The possibility that the helper might be foolish or offering crazy and oppressive types of pseudo-help doesn’t occur to anyone in the system. If this is so, unless this more accurate diagnosis is considered, the folly escalates, with everyone becoming more frustrated.

Alternative types of teaching /helping might involve more enlightened forms, including more feedback and attention to feedback, analysis of the issues involved, patience, consideration and revision of the helper’s own assumptions and methods, rehearsal and experiential learning, and the like.

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