Fear of failure

Recently, Joel Stein published an article in Time Magazine that has garnered a lot of attention. The fact is, nobody can write about Generation Y without getting a proportional reaction from Generation Y on the Internet. Reading just a few quotes is all it takes to be drawn in by the article. Especially if it’s about this generation. This is how it starts: “I am about to do what old people have done throughout history: call those younger than me lazy, entitled, selfish and shallow. But I have studies! […] I have proof.”

And he does. For instance: According to the U.S. National Institutes of Health, the incidence of narcissistic personality disorders is nearly three times as high among twentysomethings today than it is among people over 65. This is where the interesting part of Stein’s thesis comes: with a slight digression, he delves into the possible reason for this narcissism epidemic, which makes the kids of this generation believe they are entitled to more than their elders. And this goes back to the popular theory of the 1970’s that people could improve kids’ chances of success by instilling self-esteem.

We are familiar with that theory. In fact, when we see someone with potential who doesn’t get off the ground, we think it’s due to a lack of self-esteem. This word has become a catch-all to explain many personal problems. It is so prevalent that perhaps we have not actually learned how to instill it: “The early findings showed that, indeed, kids with high self-esteem did better in school and were less likely to be in various kinds of trouble. It’s just that we’ve learned later that self-esteem is a result, not a cause.” That is the conclusion of Florida State University Professor Roy Baumeister, focusing on the key point.

If we think about cases of pathological narcissism, there is a good example in the movie American Psycho, starring Christian Bale. It is a composite sketch of that pathology: obsession with physical appearance, focus on success, unbridled ego, falseness, adaptability, and a high degree of emotional disconnect with those around them. Fortunately, cases like this are a minority… a minority that, according to figures from the National Institutes of Health, could triple in the next few years.

What hides behind the façade of a narcissist? Maybe a person who learned from a young age how valuable they were. Perhaps their parents, following the trend of that time, tried to pump them full of self-esteem. But as Stein said, what really goes through the roof is narcissism.

Why is that? No two cases are alike, of course. However, hidden behind a person so obsessed with success is someone whose self-worth lies in their accomplishments, achievements and success. When someone puts that much effort into building a façade of successes, degrees and achievements, there is sometimes a sad underlying conviction: that they can’t be loved just the way they are. And here we find a possible explanation for the paradox expressed by Stein: the child whose parents try to instill such enormous self-esteem will strive to measure up to this. It is like the second part, inevitable: you are so special… that’s why you must measure up.

Hiding behind an obsession with success is an equally powerful fear of failure, rejection, not measuring up. And this is pulsating behind what we label as the superficiality of the new generation. Maybe the issue is not that they only care about physical appearance… but rather that they want to have a body that measures up to their own self-worth.

The self-esteem trap, as it were, makes a person dependent on the recognition of others. They constantly need confirmation that they are measuring up. In the end, the person develops an unhealthy adaptability, a personality with a thousand faces. Because they beg for acceptance, and the most “effective” way to achieve that is by adapting to what the other person likes.

In the realm of current TV shows, we have an extraordinary example for this type of personality in Jaime Lannister, one of the main characters in Game of Thrones. Driven by his incredibly demanding father, and the need to live up to his family name, he finds a field in which he can excel: He is considered the best swordsman in the kingdom. However, his past actions have earned him a painful nickname. In one memorable dialogue, his father calls him out for always acting based on what others will think; to which Jaime replies that he doesn’t care what people say about him. “That’s what you want people to think of you,” his father retorts.

The evolution of this character would go much deeper, because at one point he must face the most agonizing thing he can imagine: to never again be the best swordsman. So, suddenly, the thing he was prized for is gone… and out comes the real Jaime, liberated from his fear of not measuring up.

The greatest danger for someone who strives hard to build a perfect façade is forgetting who is hiding behind it. The people driven by this fear are in danger of not knowing whom they really are. Because they have forgotten that people love people, not façades.

Going back to the issue of parents who want their kids to have high self-esteem: This is an effect, not a cause. They will have a high self-esteem because they know they are loved just the way they are. We learn everything; even, most importantly, how we see ourselves. Thus, we concluded with the common sense advice of Jean Twenge, professor at San Diego State University, on whether to tell children that they are special: “Just tell your kids that you love them. It’s a better message.”