You are Special, no REALLY

Reading the latest installment of Psyblog (which sometimes has semi-interesting missives) has reawakened, and given another point of evidence, towards my deep (and deepening) distrust of the human side of psychology. For those who cannot click on links, its talking about a test that highlights the participants "character" strengths. Most (if not all) psychological tests are about outlining flaws, deviations, and weakness, or assessing risks. The authors of this new test have decided that this focuses too much on the negatives, and we should strive to stroke off people as much as possible. Behind the test is the idea of an anti-DSM, the accepted guide to all that can go wrong with a persons mind, leading their lives into despair and disorder.

My first reaction to this, outside of a sardonic chuckle, was the pure uselessness of the endeavor. If you need to take a 240 question test to tell you what is RIGHT with you, you obviously have something wrong with you. Perhaps the willingness to take this test should be added to one of the various depression inventories out there (such as the Beck Depression Inventory). It's like going to the garage, and having your mechanic do a diagnostic to see what is actually working on your car. The desire to do this can be traced to desperation, to the motive of "what ISN'T wrong", implying that it seems that everything IS wrong.

The second reaction was one of sheer futility. The DSM and psychological testing exist to highlight problems in one's cognition that can hurt the ability to function in daily life. Actual mental disorders don't exist outside of this scope, without a functional impairment (can't hold a job, can't make feinds, can't live self-sufficiently) there is no mental illness. There is no point to testing for "functionality" in psychology, since it is the norm, and thus taken as a given. A test telling you; "Man, your bloody creative, aren't you?" is useless, it doesn't serve to seperate the metaphorical wheat from the chaff.

The only purpose of this project is to stroke egos.

Which brings me to the tangent I've been setting up here; why must we stroke egos? Our full society seems to be based on making people feel some deep sense of baseless pride. We start by trying to raise our children with some mythical sense of "self-esteem", we teach them to be proud of their VERY being, as if it was some profound accomplishment. Then we try to teach all of our society the same pride of difference, that we should be happy that we are individuals, as if there was anyone who existed who wasn't (should identical twins be less proud, being genetically identical?). Then we should all be proud of our cultural diversity, and thus our cultural backgrounds (but not too proud of that). Then we spend our adult life with our higher ups (under some HR sponsored program) trying to reward us for doing our obviously thankless and largly skill-less tasks, and even for mere attendance to our duties.

All this has done has raised a generation of closet solipsists with egos only matched in size by their sense of self-entitlement. This generation long line of thinking has made the terms "pride" and "respect" wholly meaningless, and utterly masturbatory.

Respect used to be an earned commodity, both for external and internal referents. Now all we do is expect others to respect us as much as we respect ourselves (for no reason). Currently we view respect as something that others must give you, and not something that you must give to others. YOU, and only you, are to be respected, there is no feeling of reciprocity.

This is true for courtesy as well, since one can only find a thing worthy of consideration is one can respect that thing. I'm led to believe that we are confusing respect, pride, and mere empathy here.

NO one is special, you are just another sweating body within our giant society, pulsating with thousands of anonymous faces just like yours. You are no different than the 5.9 billion other people in the world. You are functionally NO ONE. Respect comes from the act of differentiating yourself from the crowd. Achievement is separating yourself from the crowd, differentiating yourself. Achievement is the function of action and not mere being. You must DO something to be respected, it isn't a passive value.

I respect Da Vinci because of his paintings, and not merely because he is Leonardo Da Vinci. If I remove the lasting fruits of his talents, he ceases to exist in the historical sense. Obviously much respect cannot be accorded to one who is forgotten.

This is true for yourself and others. You have no reason to respect yourself, until there is an action worthy of pride. I am proud of myself for hammering out this pile of crap your reading. I, on the other hand, am not proud of existing. I had no choice in the latter, there was no skill involved, no choice, where the former was an active choice, and required some modicum of skill. Even then, I'm not proud of MYSELF for writing this, I am proud of what I wrote. The external result of action is a valid target of pride, not the creator. I can respect my ability to write, perhaps, but this is not a reflection of the whole.

Even more inane is respecting the culture/race you were born into, or share heritage with. My being is, at least, somewhat shaped by myself, whereas me being of x decent is wholly incidental. What basis can there be of being proud of being x, when we have no influence over it, no choice in picking it, no individual responsibility whatsoever.

At most I can identify with the culture/racial group. This is a far cry from being proud though. I might even "like" my self-identification with that group (since these things are largely a choice). But this still is not a reason to be proud.

Even more odd is the strange modern move towards being covertly proud of mental illnesses. How many misguided idiots are proud of their mythical aspergers or adult ADD (or any other nebulous and almost universally applicable illness, like mild depression)? I say mythical for reasons outlined above, a mental illness isn't an illness if it doesn't impair your ability to function in the society in which you are embedded. Without matching this criteria, it is a mere quirk, something we all have, and thus doesn't fulfill the need to differentiate ourselves from the faceless crowd.

This is the crux, WE ALL WANT TO BE SPECIAL. This striving (and destruction) of respect and pride are not external goals, but internal ones. We want to differentiate ourselves from others. With this in mind, handing out self-respect and pride like candy is harmful to the worth of society as a whole. When we are all well dosed with baseless self respect, we have no reason to actually do anything useful to earn it. It allows us to be passive. Why paint that painting, or lead that social revolution, when your perfect as who you are.

The conspiracy theorist in me would like to paint this as an issue of social control. Perhaps Foucault would have something to say about this, passivity is always useful to the status quo, whereas dynamism might be harmful, thus supporting the latter over the former is always beneficial by definition.

Misplaced pride and respect are harmful. And instilling it as a perverse virtue should stop. If you can't find a reason to feel good about yourself, you should DO something to earn it. If your wholly dissatisfied with yourself, DO something to change it. Action is panacea when it comes to mental issues.

Here is the direct link to the test (registration required): http://www.viasurvey.org/

And for the record, my strengths are: a love of learning, curiosity, and creativity. See, now you know so much about me that I can be truly unique in your eyes. Which brings me to a more technical problem with this test (and many of the ones that are popular now online), the questions are vague, so vague as to be almost universally applicable. This is an especially evident onus in "positive" tests of self-identity as we generally have a far more positive outlook of ourselves than allowed by reality. We like to be good people, we like to identify with positive attributes, even if they are wholly lacking in us in reality.

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