How do You Value Yourself?


I visited Germany again in late September, 2022, and spent 24 nights, the longest visit I have undertaken. October started out fairly cold, then warmed to the mid-seventies before cooling off again. I spent long leisurely breakfasts reading newspapers for their take on current events in America, their analysis of evolving social trends, and for their informed opinions. It is an enlightened view away from America's waspish partisanship.

This article, "High self-esteem central to mental health," appeared in Die Welt am Sonntag, by the journalist Clara Ott. She interviewed the psychotherapist-author Stefanie Stahl for her insights about emotional health in young women. Stahl stated that the healthiest women will have "Selbstwertgefühl," high self-esteem. For the best results, they develop reliable human-networks to support them. "Bindung ist der größte Trost und Halt." Connectedness gives girls the greatest comfort and security.

Frau Stahl has written books on this subject, and they have received overwhelming acclaim in the comments column of Perhaps 6% of the reviewers, on the other hand, rated her books as superficial or of limited value for patients of mental illness. In fact, the shrillest criticisms of Stahl's books come from women undergoing psychotherapy, who claim that Stahl has little insight into the complexity of mental illness and depression.

As I read through the article, I underlined words and passages that defined the main points. In a biographical blurb, Stahl speaks of herself as "verheiratet und bewusst kinderfrei," married and childless by choice. That sort of limits her usefulness to women who do have children. Stahl can only address their needs from textbooks, not from her own experience.

I also took note of missing elements. For one thing, she rarely mentions how young women develop social networks and says even less about relations with boys. That boys and girls need networks and partners seems like a no-brainer. Stahl should say more about how to find a peer-group, or an intimate partner. She says things like "There are people whom I can trust, expressed in terms like 'I'm okay; you're okay'." Without that confirmation, Stahl continues, we grow up uncertain of our worth as people. "Maybe I'm not okay."

Parents pressure children to make themselves amenable to making friends. They should not overdo it, so that their children do not become "überangepasst"—concerned with contouring themselves to fit into a social group. The children should also not try to be an "Erwartungserfüller," a person who fullfils others' expectations.

If a group rejects you, you can create your own group of "Rebellen," a group that rebels against the norms, against people who reject you or do not understand you. Drawing from my own experience, I believe that most young people reach a point where they must leave their social circle because it does not support their personal quest for something.

But Stahl does not mention that we define ourselves by what we want from life. When a girl wants to make friends, she has to ask "Was glaube ich eigentlich?" What do I actually believe? Does she want "mein Leben möglichst autonom zu gestalten?" To live as an autonomous person? I picture her sitting alone, dithering as she decides. I would rather that she develop a curiosity about life and feed it with knowledge from schoolwork, from books, by drawing from other people's interests, and open herself to experiences.

Years ago, my father read a poem to me, "If" by Rudyard Kipling: "If you can dream and not make dreams your master; if you can think and not make thoughts your aim/ If you can meet with triumph and disaster, and treat those two imposters just the same. . . ." But before you can encounter any of these "ifs," Father said, you have to have a goal--or several goals--that grip you and keep you on course, no matter what!

I guess Stahl understands girls' needs better than I do. Perhaps her comments about a girl's need for "Selbstwertgefühl" delineates the challenges that girls face from the challenges that the boys face, when approaching adulthood. According to Stahl, girls need supportive networks to give them their self-esteem and positive outlook. She does not represent a political agenda when she says this; she only responds to the needs of her young clients.

Based on my own experience, boys need something different—a sense of purpose, a challenge, or a goal to pursue--to give them the first hints of adulthood. Many boys themselves don't know they need these things. Someone, a parent or a therapist, needs to kindle that interest in them, or they won't ever get off the ground.

Parents probably understand a lot more about their kids than someone like Stahl. Perhaps they don't trust their own judgment and defer to a professional to take responsibility for interpreting their kids' needs. Both boys and girls face challenges growing up, but they are different challenges and needs. They have the natural givens of each sex, dictated by nature. Each sex must accept the different needs of the other, for the sake of the common goals that they share.