You're NOT Special!

Each year I teach a 2-weekend course at Pepperdine University’s School of Law at their Strauss Institute for Dispute Resolution. It’s a chance for really great discussions with only 26 students about the Psychology of Conflict, with an emphasis on learning how to manage potentially high-conflict clients, opposing parties and opposing counsel. However, there are also students working on Masters in Dispute Resolution, not just law students (although some are working on both!). So we get to talk about personality disorders, high conflict people (HCPs) in legal disputes, in workplace conflict, and in all areas of modern life. One of my favorite discussions arose when we were talking about how high conflict personalities develop and why they are increasing in today’s society. I pointed out how research shows that since about 1970 young people have been raised to believe that they are “special.” Unfortunately, some people who get too much of this message appear to develop narcissistic personality disorder. They are self-absorbed, see themselves as very superior, are arrogant, disdainful and disrespectful toward others.

I mentioned that in the book The Narcissism Epidemic, the authors (Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell) point out that since 1970, the self-esteem movement convinced parents and teachers to tell their children “You’re special! You can do anything, be anything and have anything!” This was a great idea, because low-self-esteem can be harmful and a contributor to suicide, crime, drug use, bullying, lower productivity and unnecessary disappointment. However, they forgot to finish their encouraging statement: “You will need to work really really hard and learn the right skills, THEN you MIGHT be able to have a lot, do a lot and be a lot.” In the absence of that message, we have raised a lot of people over the past few decades who are quite frustrated, depressed, anxious and irritable because they don’t know how to get what they want in life.

The students in the class really agreed with this idea, as they have had to work very hard to get into law school and now they have to work hard to pass their exams (including mine!). They described knowing people who have some of these traits. Then they said we really should be teaching the opposite lesson, and one mentioned a commencement speech earlier this year that went viral.

Essentially, the message growing up today should be: “You’re NOT special! You’re going to be competing with thousands of other students, job applicants, dating partners, entrepreneurs and so on. You’re going to need to work hard, learn lots of  skills, and learn how to get along. You’re going to have to accept defeat and recover from it.”

The students pointed out how young children are over-protected from failure – they all get stars, awards, a pass, or other win-win feedback. The problem with this is that students don’t learn important lessons from failure: Such as what areas they don’t have skills in, so they can focus on those in which they do. Such as how to recover from failure and keep trying until you succeed. Such as, how to delay gratification for a long time while you learn the skills to get what you want. And so forth.

While we had many other discussions of how to manage high conflict clients, parties, employees, managers and partners, this one sticks in my mind for this holiday season. In fact, by the end of class I told them they were a great class – but they’re not special! Perhaps that the most functional compliment you can give people these days! It’s humbling and motivating at the same time.

I believe one of the best messages we can give children – and students – is that you are special to me, but you are not special in the world. You’re going to have to work hard, study hard and learn to deal with failure and get back up again. I’ll do my part to help you along the way, but I can’t do it for you.

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Bill Eddy is a lawyer, mediator and clinical social worker, and the President of the High Conflict Institute. He is the author of several books including The Future of Family Court: Structure, Skills and Less Stress and Splitting: Protecting Yourself While Divorcing Someone with Borderline or Narcissistic Personality Disorder. He is also the developer of the New Ways for Families method of teaching skills to family systems (both parents and the children) and New Ways for Mediation for managing potentially high-conflict families. Visit is atwww.HighConflictInstitute.com.