Is the current age especially narcissistic? According to Twenge and Campbell, we’re in the middle of a narcissism epidemic. People today, they say, are particularly likely to think they’re smarter, better-looking, more important and more entitled than others.
Their book The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement marshals some persuasive evidence. Alongside the results of repeated surveys using the narcissism inventory, they cite examples from
- celebrity culture
- the rise in cosmetic surgery
- reality TV
- Indulged children
An approach which looks at society through a single filter – in this case “narcissism” – will never tell the whole story. I find myself wanting to point to numerous examples of unselfishness and community caring to set against that, such as 1.6 million UK blood donors. But I do recognise that “inflated self-perceptions, shallow relationships, shameless self-promotion, and excessive attention-seeking” are common and even encouraged in the culture I live in. And they don’t make for a healthy society.
What’s wrong with being awesome?
If narcissism means thinking a lot of yourself, so what? There’s nothing wrong with high self-esteem. But there is a difference between valuing and appreciating who we are as people, and the narcissist who over-inflates just how much smarter, better-looking and more important they are than other people. (If, like me, you want to know if you have any symptoms, see how you score on a typical narcissism inventory.)
Twenge and Campbell say it’s a myth that underneath their bragging, narcissists are insecure and have low self-esteem. A small sub-group of narcissists might have bouts of low self-esteem, but there’s no evidence that most narcissists are insecure underneath. In fact they like themselves even more than the average person, because they believe they’re so much better than others. “Deep inside, narcissists think they’re awesome! “
I am special, I am special, Look at me!
Being told you’re special and unique is a real boost to self-esteem, but when does that positive message stray into promoting narcissism? I’ve blogged before about Carol Dweck’s work on mindset, showing how constant praise for children can stop them genuinely achieving: “Thinking you’re great when you stink is a recipe for narcissism.”
Of course children are special to their parents, but that doesn’t make that child has to be equally special to everybody else. Everyone should be special to somebody, say Twenge and Campbell, but no one is inherently special. Rather than singing “I am special, look at me” songs, we need more emphasis on the value of empathy and compassion for others. More groupishness, rather than me, me, me.
Without self-belief, you can’t succeed
Don’t narcissistic qualities help people to succeed? We may think that’s so, because narcissists are highly visible, and very good at public performance and self-promotion. We don’t see the successful people who get on with the job ably, humbly and quietly.
Overconfidence backfires, as Dweck shows. Those who believe they have already made it as superior human beings, can’t take criticism or learn from their mistakes. They tend to blame everyone and everything but themselves for their shortcomings. For Twenge and Campgell, narcissism played a part in the corporate failures which gave rise to the current financial crisis.
Is there a cure?
In place of self-indulgence, self-absorption and self-admiration, this book advocates that we:
- connect with the world beyond ourselves,
- value humility, self-compassion, and mindfulness
- focus on what we share as vulnerable, flawed, human beings.
I want to add:
- seek out and draw attention to examples of unselfishness
There’s nothing wrong with embracing our unique, special qualities and abilities, so long as it goes alongside recognising that other people have unique, special qualities.
We’re special, but we’re not that special.