Narcissism vs. Self-Esteem

Some psychologists, and other moralistic alarmists, continue to be concerned about the presence of ‘too much’ self-esteem among today’s youth. They cite, as evidence, the responses of 16,475 college students nationwide who, between 1982 and 2006, completed an evaluation called the Narcissistic Personality Inventory. The standardized inventory, known as the NPI, asks for responses to such statements as ‘If I ruled the world, it would be a better place,’ ‘I think I am a special person’ and ‘I can live my life any way I want to.’

The researchers describe their study as the largest ever of its type. They state that students’ NPI scores have risen steadily since the current test was introduced in 1982. By 2006, two-thirds of the students had above average scores, 30 percent more than in 1982. They label these results ‘narcissism,’ which describes a psychological syndrome in which the individual has ‘too much’ concern for him- or herself.

Before rushing to conclusions, however, these psychologists and moralists need to first examine their underlying assumptions. First of all, there’s no such thing as ‘too much’ self-esteem. Self-esteem means an overriding emotional confidence that one is both capable of coping with life, and deserving of happiness. Self-esteem is the psychological integration of both of these components. If an individual lacks confidence while still feeling that he deserves happiness, the result is anything but authentic self-esteem. Instead, it brings about a sense of psychological entitlement—without any grasp or understanding of what one needs to do to achieve (and sustain) that state of happiness.

If there’s anything to be concerned about in today’s young people, it’s this sense of entitlement. The problem is that only half the self-esteem ‘equation’ is understood by adults or young persons. Many young people, under the guidance of their misguided elders, have successfully internalized the perfectly reasonable beliefs that ‘I should be happy’ and ‘I am special.’ These attitudes imply a more basic, and profoundly true, premise that life is important. But what they have missed, for the most part, is the equally necessary understanding that one has to take full responsibility for using one’s mind rationally and objectively in order to attain and sustain a state of genuine happiness. In short: If life is really important, then you have to treat it that way.

What we have today, by and large, is a population of young people who feel entitled to be happy, but don’t know how to achieve it. They don’t know reason, rationality, objectivity, and self-responsibility. They only know gratification. The resulting psychological chaos takes the form of emotional problems such as anxiety, depression, eating disorder, and even suicide. All of these appear to be on the rise, in a cultural context, paradoxically, where children are exposed to more ‘self-esteem’ than ever before. The problem, of course, is that children are not achieving self-esteem at all. To make matters worse, these various ‘experts’ are blaming this psychological chaos on the concept of self-esteem itself, rather than the actual problems. In this atmosphere, self-esteem becomes equated with narcissism. Wrong! Narcissism can have benefits, said study co-author W. Keith Campbell of the University of Georgia, suggesting it could be useful in meeting new people ‘or auditioning on ‘American Idol.’ Unfortunately, narcissism can also have very negative consequences for society, including the breakdown of close relationships with others.’

Notice how Campbell mistakenly equates the term ‘narcissism’ with self-esteem. In essence, he’s claiming that, “Self-esteem has its benefits, such as auditioning on American Idol or achieving other goals in life. But it also has a downside.’ In short: ‘It’s bad to have too much self-esteem.’ What is a narcissist, exactly? A narcissist is not someone with ‘too much’ self-esteem. A narcissist is actually someone who lacks a self, because he has no grasp of how to cope in life. He has no conception of how to use his mind rationally and objectively to tackle problems and attain great goals.

As a result, and as a defense mechanism of sorts, he retreats into his own inner consciousness. This is akin to what children do in unhappy or abusive homes. They ‘zone out,’ or retreat, into a world of subjective fantasy, because they don’t know what else to do. It’s similar, although it’s more sophisticated, for adults. They retreat from reality, because they don’t know how to cope with it. They don’t know how to use their minds to think rationally and attain goals. They’re fed a bunch of lines like “have faith in God,’ or, if their background is more liberal, they’re fed platitudes like ‘be yourself,’ and ‘do what feels right.’ Yet, neither religion nor subjective feelings can remotely begin to address what all human beings require to survive and thrive: The consistent exercise of rational thought and action.

The resulting psychological crisis sometimes does, indeed, take the form of what many psychologists refer to as ‘narcissism.’ The NPI study asserts that narcissists ‘are more likely to have romantic relationships that are short-lived, at risk for infidelity, lack emotional warmth, and to exhibit game playing, dishonesty, and over-controlling and violent behaviors.’ This, of course, is true. But psychologists too often imply (as this study does) that the essential disorder of narcissism lies in the lack of ability to think of other people—even relevant significant others. This is merely a symptom, but it’s not the underlying cause. The underlying cause, as I have been saying, is the simple lack of genuine self-esteem.

Tragically, it’s the presence of ‘too much’ self-esteem that psychologists are now claiming causes neurotic behavior. Nothing could be further from the psychological truth. And, of course, all this sets the stage for the advocates of self-sacrifice and anti-individualism to come in and say, ‘See? I told you so! Self is a bad thing!’ Case in point: Jean Twenge, of San Diego State University, and the author of Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled—and More Miserable Than Ever Before, said narcissists tend to lack empathy, react aggressively to criticism and favor self-promotion over helping others. She goes on to exclaim, ‘We need to stop endlessly repeating ‘You’re special’ and having children repeat that back. Kids are self-centered enough already.’

No, Jean, I’m afraid you have it all wrong. It may be poor practice to keep telling kids they’re special. But it does still make sense to show kids they’re special. How? By encouraging them to treat their own lives as important, attaining a sense of this importance through rational thought, honesty, and productive work—always with a sense of enjoyment, and never surrendering self-responsibility. These can be complex values for any young person to absorb, but they’re an infinitely better roadmap to self-esteem, virtue and competence than the reactionary attitude of: ‘Stop thinking of yourself! Get a grip and think about others for a change.’ What in the world is this supposed to do for a young person? You can’t encourage anyone to leave his subjective, neurotic world for the sake of others. If anything, the prospect of a life filled with dreary self-sacrifice makes the subjective, narcissistic world—ineffective and neurotic as it is—seem wonderful by comparison. You can only persuade someone to leap into the real world for his own sake.

The message cannot be: ‘Think of others.’ The message has to be: ‘Think for yourself.’

Without rational thought, practiced as a way of life, there is no self-esteem. Unless that thinking is done in the interest of one’s own life, there’s no hope of positive association with others. Another expert from the ‘I told you so’ chorus proclaims, ”Permissiveness seems to be a component. A potential antidote would be more authoritative parenting. Less indulgence might be called for.’ Wow, there’s an original statement. The problem, as I have been writing for years, is that neither authoritarianism nor permissiveness is the answer. Authoritarianism might prepare the child for a psychological, spiritual or political dictatorship, but does nothing to give a child a sense of how to control his own destiny. It doesn’t encourage thinking; it demands obedience. How on earth is this a solution to the alleged ‘self-esteem’ crisis?

Permissiveness, in the sense of subjective’ do whatever you feel’ is no better, of course, because reason, logic and facts are left out of the equation. But both permissiveness and authoritarianism ignore the only factor that can give rise to, and sustain, self-esteem: Independent, logical thought. A parent’s job is to instill this. Rules and authority are only a means to this end.

On a much more encouraging note, it might be the young people themselves who see through, or at least sense, some of the error in the psychological and moralistic theorizing of their elders. Kari Dalane, a sophomore at the University of Vermont, claims that individuals feeling they’re special isn’t such a bad thing. ‘It would be more depressing if people answered, ‘No, I’m not special.” Indeed, Kari, it would!

Source: ‘College Students Think They’re So Special’ 2/27/07