I’ve posted about student self-esteem several times. In two posts, Self Esteem from October 2011 and Self-Esteem Starts With Esteem from November 2013, I described students who continually put themselves down, and how I would insist that they say to me, “Mr. Bigler, I’m smarter than I give myself credit for.” Some students appreciated this and it made a difference for them, but others steadfastly refused. At first, I thought these students didn’t want to believe the statement and needed additional convincing, but their tone and body language suggested that there was something deeper going on.
On a hunch, I asked a student whether someone in her past had complimented her about something she really wanted to believe, and then hurt her by yanking the compliment out from under her. The student didn’t say anything, but her eyes said that I was probably on the right track. So I suggested that refusing to accept a compliment might have been a clever way of taking away the other person’s power to be able to hurt her later by taking away the compliment that set it up. This got a definitive nod.
“It’s great that you won’t give someone else the power to hurt you. Don’t change that. But it’s important that you not let your own words tear you down in the process. So every time you refuse a compliment outwardly, I want you to think to yourself, ‘I’m saying this to take away your power to hurt me, but I know it’s not really true.'” That got a smile that looked like Atlas must have felt when the weight of the world was lifted from his shoulders.
I made that student several promises. One was that I would never give her a compliment unless I sincerely believed it. A second was that if I gave a compliment, I would never take it back. A third was that I would deliver compliments in a way that wouldn’t require her to respond to them in a public setting. But this meant she had to be OK with the fact that, going forward, this meant I might sometimes have something complimentary to say, but be unable to find an opportunity to say it.
That “Aha!” moment happened more than a year ago. I’ve had similar conversations with students on several occasions since then, with similar results. For every one of those students, the problem is too big and too embedded to solve with a single intervention or even a single type of intervention. But I am content to make the student aware of the issue, and to help him or her start down the path of addressing it, making what little progress we can.