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The Burden of the Best?

From self-belief to self-care.

· 12 min read
The Burden of the Best?
Photo by Zohre Nemati on Unsplash

For the second half of the 20th century and the early 21st, these were the robust anthems of American life: “Winners never quit, and quitters never win”; “The one who wins is the one who wants it the most”; “It’s not about how many times you fall, it’s about how many times you get back up and keep on going.” Occasionally, we even heard the aphorism frequently attributed to the late NFL coach, Vince Lombardi: “Winning isn’t the most important thing; it’s the only thing” (although this one has been criticized for its implied endorsement of unethical behavior).

Well-intended tropes like these, which held that confidence augurs success—that it’s possible to will victory—were meant to encourage and galvanize, but they also inspired some unhelpful developments. Perhaps the most notable of these was the self-esteem movement in US schools, which reasoned that inflating kids’ egos would also inflate their test scores. It didn’t, and in my 2005 book, SHAM, I chronicled the metastasis of self-help’s simplistic, koan-like canon throughout American life. I wrote derivative pieces for Skeptic, the Wall Street Journal, Psychology Today, and many other outlets, and did a bunch of high-level media appearances. For a time, I was the undisputed expert on this particular emperor’s nakedness. Blind self-belief, I pointed out, could (a) inspire people to charge into life without a Plan B (since Plan A was sure to work!), and (b) set people up for a horrific crash.

Well, in the intervening years, society has done a 180. The pendulum had already begun to swing back when my book came out, but it has now splintered the wall on the far side of its housing. Suddenly, we are celebrating the inclination to quit, and lionizing the competitor who falls and elects not to get up again.

The cultural anthems, too, are very different. “Self-care” has supplanted “self-confidence.” The “killer mindset” has given way to “knowing your limits.” The media have consumers poking under every rock for signs of fragility. “There’s a good chance that someone you know is struggling with their mental health,” reported Good Morning America on May 19th. “A lot of us feel anxiety and panic. Don’t suffer in silence.” Pundits have embraced a new message: not only isn’t winning everything, it shouldn’t even be the most important thing. “Today,” Las Vegas radio host Sam Mirejovsky recently told his audience, “the idea of the alpha is out of vogue.”

London-based psychotherapist and trauma specialist Seerut K. Chawla offered me an informed, even-handed view when I spoke to her: “I think it’s quite important for high-achievers or high-performers to put a firm focus on self-care and stress management. If someone who performs at high levels has incapacitated themselves in some way by a complete lack of balancing action with recovery and stress management they’re likely to do themselves damage. However, what we are starting to see now is an overcorrection. The prioritization has shifted from balancing action with recovery to something akin to coddling. An emphasis on only recovery and little or none on action.”

This metamorphosis is most legible in the realm from which the original catch-phrases sprang: sports. First, tennis icon Naomi Osaka wilted in the face of interviews and began backing out of tournaments. Time magazine then rewarded her with a cover shot beneath the headline, “It’s O.K. to not be O.K.” Next, all-world gymnast Simone Biles withdrew from Olympic competition after a confidence hiccup (the dread “twisties”) early in the competition. Coverage promptly pronounced the withdrawal her “bravest act.” Since then, players in a variety of sports have echoed such sentiments.

“What is publicly promoted now doesn’t necessarily encourage self-care as I describe it,” Chawla tells me. “It encourages something closer to safetyism. Bombarding people with the subliminal messaging that they are weak and fragile is not encouraging self-care, it’s encouraging fragility masquerading as ‘self-care.’” Just as sport’s never-say-die totems went mainstream, moving into boardrooms and even bedrooms (gurus taught seminars in how to “win at love”), today’s cosseted alternative is spreading through society. Workers demand a kinder, gentler, and less punitive office environment. Social media are flooded with memes, coaching regimens, and self-help homilies keyed to notions like It’s Okay to Fail and Losing Doesn’t Make You a Loser. So, it’s now admirable to bend and buckle and concede defeat. Hell, it’s the “brave” thing to do. Strive if you must, but keep in mind that good enough is good enough.

I’m reminded of the 2014 film Whiplash, which explores the tension between a tyrannical jazz teacher, Fletcher, and his top protege, the young drummer Andrew Neiman. Neiman is obviously talented but Fletcher decides he has a ton of unrealized potential. Stingy with praise, Fletcher believes in driving students to their breaking point, and beyond. (We learn that a previous student committed suicide.) Fletcher’s excesses are authentically disturbing—he hurls profanities (and chairs) at students, denigrates and humiliates them in front of their peers, and even slaps Neiman rhythmically across the face to indicate proper tempo. “The two most destructive words in the English language,” he announces, “are ‘good job.’” Nevertheless, by the end of the film, Neiman has emerged as a triumphant jazzy butterfly. And though Osaka and Biles ended up cracking under the strain, they did it as Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles, two athletes who’d reached the summits of their respective crafts.

In a field known for its jargon, psychologists consolidate the traits common to top achievers under the laughably ordinary umbrella term, mental toughness (MT). Psychologists score the attribute via industry-standard questionnaires as well as more esoteric experiential measures. It’s hard to find a setting in which MT isn’t at least a predisposing factor in success. Study after study finds that it unambiguously helps athletes to overcome adversity. Accordingly, notes another major study, “The concept of MT has grown in popularity over the last decade and has broken out from its silo of sport psychology into other domains.”

A sampling of those domains, for flavor: In one study of 424 high-school students and college undergrads, MT was linked to lower perceived stress and fewer depressive symptoms. Students fought off the blues even amid sky-high levels of stress, even in cases where others might have devolved into “psychopathy” (I’m quoting the study). Unsurprisingly, MT was positively associated with life satisfaction. These results proved repeatable, showing up in a large study of international students.

Adults with MT have superior coping skills and perform better under pressure. A study of 364 adults also demonstrated that mentally tough people instinctively apply the counseling regimen known as cognitive behavioral therapy, wherein people under duress are able to reframe or reappraise negative events by “telling themselves better stories.” The mentally tough also seem to be better at recognizing environmental threats at an early juncture. Adds another study, “Individuals who score high on MT are confident about successfully completing the task” and are assertive “when confronted with roadblocks.” The authors consider it “vital for high performance in competitive environments and stressful situations.”

In the nine-to-five world, employees imbued with MT tend to be concentrated in senior management positions (though that may be a chicken/egg phenomenon, as it’s unclear whether the MT led to the management or the management experience helped people develop MT). But even for those in less exalted workplace stations, MT pays meaningful dividends. Far from being a factor in psychic overload, as some suggested in the wake of Biles’s Olympic meltdown, MT actually “mediates” crippling stress and suicidality, say researchers. It’s not the mental toughness that’s the problem in burnout; rather, MT mitigates burnout. The mentally tough even weathered the COVID pandemic better than the rest of us. Again and again, almost without exception, the research underscores the importance of charging through obstacles. MT does not guarantee optimal results, but it should at least bring a person closer to their desired outcome.

Mental toughnesshelps individuals cope under pressure. Photo by Marc Rafanell López on Unsplash

For all these reasons, researchers agree, MT is particularly worth promoting among the young, a stance that seems at least somewhat at odds with today’s self-care narrative. Says Chawla, “I would define mental toughness as grit. Tenacity. And a fairly big chunk of that is having some discipline over your own impulses—doing things even when your mind is objecting. This idea is now reviled in mainstream culture in favor of approaches such as, ‘be gentle with yourself.’ [But] if you’re always gentle with yourself you will stagnate and grow weak and fragile.” If our goal is to uphold and not erode mental toughness, it is surely unhelpful to applaud iconic role models for extolling fragility.

Skepticism about self-care is also justified by the ample evidence that coddling and other indulgent initiatives do not work as advertised. What sounds good in theory can fail miserably in practice. The self-esteem movement in American schools offers an illustrative example. Added self-esteem was supposed to empower underperforming kids to apply themselves. In reality, according to psychologists Jean Twenge, Roy Baumeister and others, self-love just made schoolkids proud of subpar performance and created generations of insufferable (and unhappy) narcissists. Self-esteem-based learning was repudiated by some of its most vocal boosters, but many of its tenets have now resurfaced in “social/emotional learning.”

It’s unsafe to imply single-factor causation in discussions of broad social trends, but one can’t help noticing that the language of “self-care” has coincided with a significant increase in “self-harm” (or just garden-variety harm). “Don’t be ashamed you are using [heroin or fentanyl],” consoles a subway poster campaign from the New York City Department of Health. “Be empowered that you are using safely.” As was the case with Biles and bravery, we are taking commonly understood pejoratives and reframing them as their opposites. The stigma of using becomes the empowerment of using safely.

It’s been a decade or two since American society embraced this more understanding view of addiction, and yet rates of substance abuse—and the mortality from same—have never been higher. In 1900, when cocaine and heroin were in fact legal, about one in 300 Americans lapsed into addiction. The estimate today is one in 133. Similarly, there were fewer than 3,000 overdose deaths in 1970, when heroin (by then, illegal) was the scourge of America’s inner cities. Even the height of the crack epidemic saw under 5,000 ODs. In 2020, meanwhile, an astonishing 92,000 Americans succumbed to drug overdoses, according to the NIH. “In all my years I’ve worked in the substance abuse field, I’ve never had so many patients die,” Joan Hartman, vice president of behavioral health services for Illinois-based Chestnut Health Systems, told the journal STAT.

Though myriad underlying factors figure in that dismal outcome, outreaches emphasizing forbearance clearly have not eradicated the problem. While forgiveness encourages more current users to seek treatment, studies suggest that stigmatizing drug use cuts down on new experimentation—the ultimate goal. As comedian Bill Maher observed of New York’s poster campaign on the June 3rd episode of Real Time, “You should be ashamed you are using. That might get you to stop.” Or to quote the STAT piece again: “[H]istorians say that demand slows when drug users became so outcast that even those looking for a risky thrill or a way to escape began to stay away.” Bottom line, there is no reason to suppose that behavior in the addiction realm would exist apart from the operative truism in other areas of life: You get the behavior you reward.

Or, in scholastic settings, you get the behavior you ignore.

At urban schools nationwide, forcing students to find their best selves has taken a backseat to making allowances for their worst selves; one might say the mantra is “It’s OK to be a problem.” The disinclination to put troublesome kids on the “school-to-prison pipeline” has wrought any number of putative scholastic reforms, headlined by the concept of restorative justice. The assumption here is that disadvantaged children, especially children of color, arrive at school already damaged by systemic racism. If we recognize their special burdens, accommodate their cultural norms, and give them second chances, they’ll be less inclined to act out. They will come to justify society’s newfound faith in them. (Sound familiar?)

But the process of restorative justice confounds its own evaluation. Obviously fewer expulsions and arrests will occur in a system that avoids punishing, expelling, or involving police in “school matters.” That hasn’t stopped academic elites and left-wing political camps from touting the “success” of these “antiracist” measures.

Still, today’s schools aren’t quite the land of Kumbaya. A study of NYC schools, a prototypical venue for such concepts, “found no evidence of the impact of restorative justice on student problem behaviors, suspensions, or school climate.” Nationwide, a third of teachers report being subject to violence or threats of same, though many refrain from telling anyone (so strong is the external pressure to not rock the boat and the internal pressure to avoid being labeled a racist). In my home state of Nevada, things are so bad that teachers are picketing district headquarters. A few months back, police allege, a teacher was strangled and sexually assaulted by a student unhappy with his grades; a second teacher was severely beaten soon after. All told, citywide, the 8,300 calls to 911 are an increase of nearly 19 percent over the last full pre-COVID school year.

Finally, nowhere is the topic of self-care more directly relevant than in suicide prevention. Here too we face a chilling irony. The more we obsess over self-harm, the more of it we seem to get. Rates of suicide declined noticeably between 1970 and the early 2000s, but then began an uptick and by 2020 were a good 30 percent higher than in base-year 2002 (when I began researching SHAM). During that two-decade span, media messaging executed a significant shift from Lombardi-style muscularity to the mushier language of self-care. Messaging about suicide prevention in particular became ubiquitous.

In SHAM, I demonstrated how people who perpetually take the pulse of their happiness turn out to be some of the unhappiest people alive. They’re forever reevaluating, and forever finding new things about which to be disappointed. As Twenge, Haidt/Lukianoff, and Talib have since demonstrated, children raised amid a surfeit of physical and emotional air bags come of age bereft of one of the most vital traits in a competitive society: antifragility. Says Chawla, “I think this is part of the overcorrection and the coddling trend we’ve seen wreak havoc on society in recent years. We insist on putting people in safe spaces and wrapping them in cotton wool.”

Human beings need to be tested. They need to be hurt occasionally. They need to see their coping resources stretched thin. They then build additional resources and learn the golden lesson: Tomorrow is indeed another day. So, as with addiction, while we must do all we can to prevent self-harm among those who grew up lacking antifragility, it behooves us to ensure that the next generation is better equipped.

One might argue that all of these travails merely testify to a troubled society that has lost its moorings—but even so, the softer-sided “answers” haven’t cured the malady. If anything, they’ve only exacerbated its symptoms. Which brings us back to Biles and Osaka.

Giving people permission to crack under the strain once they’ve reached the pinnacle may be the right message for people at the pinnacle. But when you tell such elites that it’s OK to surrender to the demons, to the fear—and then you put that message on the cover of Time or blare relevant content on GMA—millions of people further down the food chain are also listening. They’re just embarking on life’s journey and looking for guidance. Chawla is not a fan of pushing people into oblivion, but she also notes, “All of human history has involved people being pushed to the breaking point and adapting. That’s how our species evolved.”

Perhaps it is the singular cross the elites must carry—the burden of the best—to push and push and push until... For we as a society count on them to do that, no matter the personal cost. And if and when they do break, we hope that we can save them. Chances are we can. Studies suggest that relatively few people kill themselves in the absence of some grave underlying pathology, but today’s voguish slant on self-care seems likely to cause a much larger cohort to give up or give in prematurely, thereby short-circuiting their potential. And ours.

We demand that police and firefighters run toward gunfire or through a raging inferno. We demand that they put their physical health, let alone their psychological health, second. Admittedly, the world of sport, though inspirational, is a frothy realm in which we have no right to expect our icons to risk life and limb for our amusement. Simone Biles faced a crisis of confidence in a frankly dangerous realm and, as Chawla observes, “it was quite important that she didn’t compete that day.” Similarly, in Whiplash, one of Fletcher’s students does indeed die for his art, committing suicide when the pressure of invention gets to be unbearable. That’s a lot to ask in the name of good jazz.

But widening the lens, maybe the advancement of society depends to some degree on obsessives, people willing to metaphorically take that bullet or run through fire, people with no concept of terms like “balance” and “self-care.” Maybe we need people like electrical-engineering genius Nikola Tesla, whose legendary single-mindedness about pushing the scientific envelope made him spectacularly unsuccessful at the rest of life; his one love affair, by his own admission, was with a white pigeon who’d visit him.

Or maybe we need the likes of photography and motion-picture pioneer George Eastman, another lifelong bachelor who struggled outside the lab. Once Eastman saw his scientific visions fully realized, he took a literal bullet: He shot himself through the heart, leaving behind a laconic note in which he explained, “My work is done. Why wait?”

We are not likely to encourage our children to emulate such bizarre behavior, some of which may have less to do with single-mindedness than with some other mental illness. But the point may be moot, because we almost surely benefit as a culture from the existence of people who go to unhealthy extremes. It’s one of those third rail questions nowadays, but it bears asking: Just as we need cops and firefighters, do we not need the Teslas and the Eastmans, even if being the way they are ends in catastrophe?

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