Carol Craig is the Centre's Chief Executive. She is author of The Scots' Crisis of Confidence, Creating Confidence: A Handbook for Professionals Working with Young People, The Tears that Made the Clyde: Well-being in Glasgow and The Great Takeover: How materialism, the media and markets now dominate our lives. She is Commissioning editor for the Postcards from Scotland series. Carol blogs on confidence, well-being, inequality, every day life and some of the great challenges of our time. The views she expresses are her own unless she specifically states that they reflect the Centre's thinking.
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Last week’s headlines that private schools for girls are a ‘breeding ground’ for anorexia got me thinking again about an experience I had a few years ago – an experience which had quite a profound effect on my thinking.
I was asked to go to Harrogate to talk at the annual conference of head teachers for fee paying schools for girls. Following my talk on the dangers of artificial self-esteem building, resilience etc we had an unusually good discussion. The head teachers told me that many came into their schools expecting to find that many of the girls lacked confidence and could do better. Instead these visitors were overwhelmed by many of the girls’ achievements. I was told that it wasn’t unusual for girls to excel academically (at least 3 A levels at A) as well as doing well at sport, getting their Duke of Edinburgh gold award, and having considerable talents when it came to art, singing, dancing and drama.
However, the teachers were quick to add that while the achievements were considerable, it was 'not a pretty sight'. Many of these girls are perfectionists who go to pieces if they achieve less than what they have aspired to. I was told that they generally lacked resilience. Many had eating disorders and mental health problems. The fact that many of these girls would be mothers in the future worried some of those present.
Most of the papers covering last week's story about the high levels of anorexia linked the problems to perfectionism and pressures to achieve to the images of women coming from the mass media.
Of course, these are important issues but I think this focus may well miss the most significant point. Human beings are social animals: we are meant to live in social groups. Indeed one of the reasons we have large brains is so that we can process a large number of personal relationships (A theory referred to as 'Dunbar's number.) One of the most important things for human well-being is a sense of meaning and purpose and by definition this means serving a goal larger than yourself.
We are now living in a culture which valorizes personal achievement and fulfillment. At its most crass this is about money, power and how you are seen through the eyes of other people. But even the more benign versions are still about you – your development, your achievement, your goals. Indeed so much in our culture is simply about aggrandizing the self.
Following my discussion with the head teachers in Harrogate I started to wonder if there is only so much individual development that a person can bear before he/she starts to implode – literally crumble under the weight of all that thinking about themselves, their goals and their lives. The younger the person the more likely they are to collapse.
After all it is difficult to create a good, satisfying life if you see yourself as the centre of the universe. Such an excessive self-focus only encourages you to blow out of all proportion every small set back in life.
Mulling this over the other day I was so encouraged when I heard a story on BBC 4s Today programme on one of the good things to come out of the flooding crisis – volunteering. As their item showed there are folk who are enduring cold, wet weather and sailing through the stink of sewage to bring help to some of the communities caught off by the flooding. Some of these volunteers are even taking unpaid leave to be there. One interviewee was a train driver, another a hairdresser. One young car salesman in Taunton said that doing this voluntary work had brought out ‘the real me’ and that he ‘couldn’t explain the joy he got out of doing this’.
Much of this joy is undoubtedly about serving others and stepping out of a world where only you and your achievements matter.