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Lions Roar : March 2009
SHAMBHALA SUN MArcH 2009 29 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 fear- ful 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. — AndreA MIller 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 start- ed 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 hap- py 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 fa- thers could find work. Family structures and the role of women changed all at once, and that left a generation of children mis- taking 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 emotion- ally 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 envi- ronment 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 impor- tant 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 un- folding 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? QA Talking About Me generation POLLY YOUNG-EISENDRATH taking being needed for being loved. we, the boomers, came to feel close to our mothers because they needed us emotion- PHOTOBygregedWArdS