Recently, QI located some intriguing evidence, and he now believes that the creation of this maxim can be traced back to comments made by Eleanor Roosevelt about an awkward event in 1935. The Secretary of Labor in the Roosevelt administration was invited to give a speech at the University of California, Berkeley on the Charter Day of the school. The customary host of the event was unhappy because she felt that the chosen speaker should not have been a political figure. She refused to serve as the host and several newspaper commentators viewed her action as a rebuff and an insult.
Eleanor Roosevelt was asked at a White House press conference whether the Secretary had been snubbed, and her response was widely disseminated in newspapers. Here is an excerpt from an Associated Press article [ERNC]:
“A snub” defined the first lady, “is the effort of a person who feels superior to make someone else feel inferior. To do so, he has to find someone who can be made to feel inferior.”
She made clear she didn’t think the labor secretary fell within the category of the “snubable.”
After citing additional sources, QI makes this conclusion:
In conclusion, QI believes that Eleanor Roosevelt can be credited with expressing the core idea of this saying by 1935. Within five years the graceful modern version of the maxim was constructed. QI does not know if Roosevelt or someone else was responsible for this. But QI does believe Roosevelt’s words were the most likely inspiration.
Is This Statement Valid?
Consider carefully the idea that you are responsible for feeling inferior whenever someone says something demeaning about you.
This is what TheFerret says about "the myth that no one can make you feel bad without your permission." (Notice that this statement uses feel bad rather than feel inferior and permission rather than consent. This variation in words is consistent with quotations on this topic. The words aren't always identical, but the idea is the same.)
Consider the opening statement:
There’s a common sentiment that goes, “Nobody can make you feel bad without your permission” — generally trotted out when someone’s been hurt by a mean thing that someone said.
The idea, I believe, is that we are all rational, robot-like beings who can control our emotions — and thus if we get upset by someone’s assholic statements, we have chosen to be upset. We could have shrugged it off instead.
Problem is, people don’t work that way.
Now, first off, “shrugging off other people’s insults and accusations” is a learned skill. If you’ve ever raised a kid, you know most of them don’t come pre-baked with the “Eh, whatever” switch — if you yell at them, they cry. If other kids make fun of them, they get upset. Actually placing the “Okay, they’re mocking you, but do you respect their opinion?” switch in place is a process that takes years, requires a healthy ego on the kid’s part, and isn’t 100% successful.
Who Chooses Low Self-Esteem?
This comment by TheFerret is profoundly wise and worth taking seriously.
If we assume that the story about what Eleanor Roosevelt said is accurate, she was referring to an insult addressed to the Secretary of Labor. Her words were that a "snub is the effort of a person who feels superior to make someone else feel inferior. To do so, he has to find someone who can be made to feel inferior.” This statement is about the capacity of a member President Roosevelt's cabinet to handle insults without being hurt by them.
TheFerret is not referring to the capacity of government officials to respond to insults, but the capacity of vulnerable people — such as children — to respond to mean comments about their identity, especially when the mean comments come from parents and siblings.
The truth is that vulnerable people are often profoundly hurt by the words of mean, powerful people. Vulnerable people don't choose low self-esteem. Rather, mean people produce low-esteem in the young, the vulnerable, and others who lack power to stand up for themselves. In such circumstances, low self-esteem is produced by acts of physical and emotional harm, including verbal abuse and name-calling. Low self-esteem is not a choice to feel inferior.