Lower Risk of Violence By Raising Self-Esteem
Published December 2, 2015 Lower Risk of Violence By Raising Self-Esteem, Guest Viewpoint
We listen to the all-too-frequent news of gun violence and wonder what is happening in our country. Why is this type of violence being committed by people who have never done such things before, often young men and boys? Is it contagious? We seek answers: “It’s the availability of guns,” or “it’s the lack of background checks on gun buyers.”
I wholeheartedly share the concern about those who should never have access to lethal weapons. I also share the concern about how difficult it is to identify these people before they act. How can we tell who might decide to kill another person, known or unknown to the shooter? Has someone so wronged these individuals that they consider this appropriate payback? What would cause them to think that taking a life is justified?
These killings seem fraught with fury and a need to punish others — and as a psychologist with many years of helping patients whose primary issue is low self-esteem, I believe this is a main contributor to the mental state of these sadly violent people.
Although once disparaged as a diagnosis, low self-esteem is now seen by many mental health professionals as a growing issue for a wide range of people. In fact, it may well be the most severe and prevalent mental health problem worldwide with many consequences, including violent behaviors.
Low self-esteem is the belief that there is something wrong with us, that we don’t fit in, that others see this wrongness about us. People with low self-esteem believe on some level that they fit into one or more of the following categories: inadequate, unacceptable, unlovable, incompetent or unworthy. Again, they also believe that others see this in them. Because these thoughts dictate their feelings and their feelings lead to behavior, those with low self-esteem are wary, fearful and believe that others neither love nor respect them.
Low self-esteem is usually fully formed by age 10, and develops mainly in the home. As the saying goes, children learn what they live and live what they learn. When parents model behavior that shows respect for themselves and their children, their neighbors and coworkers, children learn to be truthful, loyal and considerate. They learn the importance of rules and structures for well-being. They learn to respect differences.
However, without consistent love, support, and time spent with the children, parents will likely have troubled kids who feel insignificant. And if parents don’t set boundaries or teach their children rules, those kids will likely not fit in at school; instead, they may be shunned by others and deeply hurt by that rejection.
The writer Dorothy Law Nolte said it well: “If children live with criticism, they learn to condemn. If children live with hostility, they learn to fight. If children live with fear, they learn to be apprehensive. If children live with ridicule, they learn to feel shy.”
I would add that if children live without rules, they don’t believe rules apply to them. If they live without developing appropriate social skills, they won’t fit in, except with other outcasts. If they are not shown friendliness, they likely won’t develop the skills to have friends.
In the rash of violence by boys and young men, I believe that low self-esteem may well be the underlying problem. At the end of their rope, unable to fit in, have friends, or make something of their lives, they act out. Their behavior is neither surprising nor coming out of the blue.
If their families don’t help them develop social skills and learn to fit in at school or work, they will be rejected both by adults and by their peers. They are then often hurt, frustrated, left out and alone. Over time, they resent everyone — until their hurt and fury explode and spill out onto others who have what they long for but cannot make happen.
Of course, we can’t overlook that the majority of parents likely have low self-esteem themselves — this issue gets passed from generation to generation, and until new awareness alters the patterns this problem will only become more prevalent.
Consequently I believe all parents, teachers and counselors should be required to take a class on self-esteem when first enrolling a child in school, rather than trying to figure out later why low self-esteem has led the child to do something that destroys his life and the lives of many others.
This would be an innovative move in the right direction — and it could be a significant addition to the lives of young people and the health of families.
Marilyn Sorensen of Eugene, a self-esteem recovery specialist, is the author of Breaking the Chain of Low Self-Esteem and other books on the subject.