True love? … increase in narcissistic behaviour alarms experts.Do you fantasise about being a celebrity? Perhaps you rely on Facebook to promote your successes and achievements? Or do you constantly tell your children how special they are to boost their self-esteem but really think you should be the one getting all the attention?
You could just be displaying the traits of a confident person with healthy self-regard but some might argue you have the more sinister characteristics of a narcissist.
Lisa Firestone, a psychology expert on relationships and parenting, writing in Psychology Today, explains the distinction. “Self-esteem differs from narcissism in that it represents an attitude built on accomplishments we’ve mastered, values we’ve adhered to, and care we’ve shown toward others. Narcissism, conversely, is often based on a fear of failure or weakness, a focus on one’s self, an unhealthy drive to be seen as the best, and a deep-seated insecurity and underlying feeling of inadequacy.”
Narcissists come in two forms, says Dr Doris McIlwain, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Psychology at Macquarie University. “The grandiose narcissist is out for themselves, pretty hopeless at empathy, likely to make any shame coming their way your problem rather than theirs. They are status-obsessed, unlikely to thank you or apologise. The thin-skinned narcissist is secretly resentful of being imposed on, feels like an unsung hero and, since they are unable to soothe their own ruffled emotions – they will outsource that need by getting others to bolster their ego.”
If all this is starting to sound familiar, it’s not surprising. Experts are warning of the dangers of narcissism – from celebrity culture promoting fame and wealth above ethics and altruism, to internet-enabled self-obsession and discipline-averse parenting styles.
Larry Rosen, Professor of Psychology at California State University in Los Angeles believes technology is affecting our emotional stability and exposing us to a range of psychological disorders including narcissism. The author of iDisorder: Understanding Our Obsession With Technology And Overcoming Its Hold On Us, told ABC Radio National’sAll In The Mind program, “iDisorder is where technology is literally making us exhibit signs and symptoms of a whole bunch of psychological disorders including narcissistic personality disorder, depression, attention deficit disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder even a little bit of schizoid personality.”
“While people may not be exhibiting a full-blown narcissism, what they are exhibiting are more signs and symptoms of narcissism” said Rosen. “This narcissism might be manifested on Facebook by collecting friends. I have lots, and lots, and lots of friends; I have a thousand friends, look how wonderful I am. Or look at these photos of me that I’m posting on Flickr. Wow! Look at how much fun I’m having in my life.”
“Researchers that have found looking at, say, even popular lyrics in songs that over the last several decades, the songs have become more narcissistic, songs instead of being about other people and love, are more about me, me, me – look at me,” he added.
Last month singer Rihanna became the latest celebrity thought to be suffering from a narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) after the UK’s Daily Star said “a string of bizarre messages and pictures she put on Twitter revealed she could have a mental disorder”. Relationship psychologist Jo Hemmings told the newspaper: “Rihanna’s erratic behaviour could indicate that she suffers from NPD. Symptoms are an exaggerated sense of self-importance and a need for constant admiration, which Rihanna shows by posting semi-nude pics.”
Jean Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University and co-author of The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement believes young people are becoming increasingly narcissistic.
“Overall, we’ve seen a massive increase in narcissism among college students” she told the American Psychological Association’s Monitor on Psychology. The financial crisis may have dampened down materialism but “a lot of other cultural forces — the internet and parenting in particular — are still pushing in the direction of narcissism,” she said.
Lisa Firestone highlights the role of parenting in the book she has written with her psychologist father, Robert Firestone, The Self Under Siege. “Vanity is a fantasised image of the self that is formed when parents substitute empty praise and a false build-up for the real love and acknowledgment they have failed to provide to their child,” she says.
“Studies have shown that children offered compliments for skills they haven’t mastered or talents they do not possess are left feeling as if they’d received no praise at all, often even emptier and less secure,” she wrote in Psychology Today. “Only children praised for real accomplishments were able to build self-esteem. The others were left to develop something far less desirable — narcissism.”
These arguments have found resonance in Australia where the question of whether young people today are more narcissistic than previous generations is a topic of debate.
Professor Johanna Wyn, director of the Australian Youth Research Centre at Melbourne University, has been conducting research through the Life Patterns project following two generations of Australians, Gen X born in 1973 and Gen Y born around 1989, in areas such as education, employment, health and family as well as learning about their aspirations and attitudes.
Wyn says she rejects the narcissistic label given to young people in Australia today.
“Jean Twenge can’t speak for Australians” she says. “I don’t see anything like that in the data we’ve got and we’ve been researching Generation X for over 22 years,” she says. Young people today “have to be really good decision makers, they have to be self-aware and they have to be good navigators of complex times and I think you could be reading some of those traits as somehow being narcissistic because they have to be fairly aware of where they stand, who they are, how they connect, but I see it as a functional and probably inevitable way of operating.”
Young Australians “really value family highly and friends and there’s a really high rate of volunteering and I think it really doesn’t paint a picture of that kind of narcissism or self-interested individual. As they get older volunteering increases so, instead of becoming more narcissistic, they are becoming more community minded in general and I think that’s really important. I think there’s a lot of evidence to paint a different picture.”
Dr Helen McGrath a senior lecturer in the School of Education at Deakin University disagrees. “Parents and teachers always have the best interests of children at the heart of what they do and their involvement in the ‘self-esteem movement’ has reflected that. However, although well-intentioned, this movement is now seen by many researchers to have contributed to a stronger sense of entitlement and, in some cases, higher levels of narcissism.”
So what does McGrath think can be done to protect children from these narcissistic tendencies? One approach, she says, is to place more emphasis on self-respect rather than self-esteem.
“We can work with parents to change their focus slightly and identify self-respect as a more useful goal rather than self-esteem,” she says. “People who have self-respect have sound values that they use as a ‘moral map’ they treat others respectfully. They consider themselves equal to other people (neither inferior or superior) and work hard to try and achieve their goals. They are resilient, accept themselves as imperfect and continue to be self-accepting in spite of mistakes or failures. Although they enjoy receiving positive feedback and they are not dependent on it to feel okay.”
In the meantime perhaps we can stop seeing celebrities as role models, take a break from Facebook and give our egos a well-deserved rest.
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.