I’ve been wanting to post on this for a while; now, prompted by a new post by the excellent violin teacher and life coach, Violin Teacher’s Blog, I think the time is right.
A while back my oldest informed me to my bass surprise that she and her class were being referred to (by teachers, I’ll presume) as the “Me Generation”. The most selfish generation yet.
This has me baffled. Seriously. After generations that exploited child-labour, that enslaved people in grand scale and that plundered the Earth for minerals and waged (and still wage) war on others for oil and for money, to call our innocent, not-yet-adult youngsters “the most selfish generation yet” – after generations that smoked up their (and their descendants’) futures in pot, generations that stashed their kids in boarding schools or left them with nannies because it was inconvenient to do the raising oneself – of all generations the young one that hasn’t done any of that yet should be the most selfish of all? Pardon me!
So why this trend?
I suspect it has to do with two main phenomena. One is a bit localized: Entitlement attitude among the classes that have received and are still receiving social help by the government system (yes, the children of the newly rich tend to have an entitlement attitude, that the world owes them something), and the second: Facebook and Twitter.
Facebook encourages telling your friends about yourself, and posting photos. Twitter encourages letting your every thought be known. Both are media that live off other people (the users) putting their time and effort into making them interesting. Both, conspiracy theorists have it, are designed to pump information about absolutely everybody out into the open so that people can be monitored more easily (“Big Brother is watching you” – Orwell, your fault that there are conspiracy theories around!).
Violin Teacher’s post talks about how over-praise can turn young performers into narcissists, and how it is therefore the job of the teacher not to over-praise the student. (The way I see it, both praise and crit are tools – a chisel and a saw – to improve the technique and attitude of the student violinist. False praise is never called for!)
So, before we condemn a whole generation that hasn’t yet declared war on anyone, let’s first investigate what narcissism actually is.
- Having an exaggerated sense of self-importance
- Expecting to be recognized as superior even without achievements that warrant it [does this mean that if you can stave your expectation to be recognized with genuine achievements, it is not narcissistic?]
- Exaggerating your achievements and talents
- Being preoccupied with fantasies about success, power, brilliance, beauty or the perfect mate [very vague – every young person has dreams of the above]
- Believing that you are superior and can only be understood by or associate with equally special people
- Requiring constant admiration
- Having a sense of entitlement
- Expecting special favors and unquestioning compliance with your expectations
- Taking advantage of others to get what you want [aha – here we get to the manipulative part]
- Having an inability or unwillingness to recognize the needs and feelings of others
- Being envious of others and believing others envy you
- Behaving in an arrogant or haughty manner
(If you just read this list and are thinking, “oops, that might be me”, you’re probably quite safe. Acc. Mayo Clinic, narcissists rarely if ever self-diagnose because they usually don’t think there’s anything wrong with them.)
“Status is very important to people with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Associating with famous and special people provides them a sense of importance. These individuals can quickly shift from over-idealizing others to devaluing them.”
[Wow, a whole lot of lights just went on in my head why I’m so extremely uncomfortable around people who claim to think I’m “fabulous”. I’ve seen that coin flip before.]
And then there is Narcissistic Rage:
Narcissistic rage is a universal reaction to feeling unseen or misunderstood. When the mirroring selfobject fails to provide the desired admiration and empathy, the student not only feels hurt, but also angry and indignant. We will discuss three points in relation to this narcissistic reaction: what occasions its arising, its functions, and its specific characteristics. Narcissistic rage might be a chronic feature of the self. For severely disturbed individuals, it is a typical mode of experiencing and expressing themselves. This hard rage is one of the main ways such individuals relate to the world; they easily feel slighted and unjustly treated, and are thus chronically angry and indignant, as if something to which they feel entitled has been taken from them. They are angry most of the time, and are quick to explode at the slightest signs of incomplete empathy or mirroring. The normal individual will react in this manner only occasionally, in response to a gross lack of attunement. But when the student’s narcissistic structure is vulnerable due to lessening identification with the personality structure (what we call “thinning away of the shell”), or due to the mirror transference, then the narcissistic sensitivity is close to the surface, and this rage reaction happens more readily and more frequently.
The Point of Existence, p. 323 •
[I’m thinking, for instance, of road rage.]
What causes Narcissism?
They don’t know. What a disappointing answer! However, “Abnormal Psychology and Modern Life” (Carson & Butcher) notes that usually a deep insecurity underlies narcissism. Both over-praising and over-criticism in childhood are under investigation as prime suspects.
[Didn’t we just cover this? A narcissist will switch in a heartbeat from idealizing you and making you feel super special to denigrating and blatantly disrespecting you. So then, over-praising and over-critting can be flipsides of the same parental behaviour? If the parent is a narcissist.]
Still, I find it a little hard to believe. Most hard-core personality disorders (which real narcissism is; with it’s lack of empathy it overlaps with psychopathic disorder) have more than merely opinions as a cause! In the case of multiple personality disorder, for instance, severe emotional, physical and/or sexual abuse at toddler age has been identified as a primary cause. As a contrast, a psychopath (mainly lack of empathy, self-aggrandization and the ability to fool people into thinking you are showing specific appropriate emotions) seems to be a birth anomaly.
Lack of empathy
A key characteristic of Narcissism seems to be that the narcissist cannot put himself in another’s shoes, and has no empathy for other people.
A key difference between the narcissist and the psychopath is that the psychopath, while not giving a rip about the other person, is capable of faking genuine concern and interest as long as he needs until his goal is achieved. (Unsurprisingly a lot of politicians fit the description of “psychopath”.) The significant difference to a genuine, empathetic person is that the empathetic person will care for you even if there is no “reward” in it for them and no “goal” they are working to achieve with you.
Is Facebook and its “selfie” culture turning people into narcissists?
Anyone who has a genuine answer to this, is welcome to leave it in the comments. There are behavioural scientists and psychologists who point out how Facebook isolates people from each other by promoting false “web posturing” over genuine, face-to-face friendships.
Facebook is certainly a weird and wonderful place. To me, it feels like reading the comics section of a newspaper, over, and over again in various iterations, interspersed with cuteness, “causes” (Rescue Jack The Puppydog), and people’s babies or cats. You don’t keep up with friends by posting a circular (I once had an acquaintance who actually did just that – sent “circular” emails to all friends and family “updating” them with her life – when I sent her an email back in the same superficial and self-absorbed tone and style, she took me off her mailing list. I haven’t heard from her since 😀 ). Anyway if you consider how many stalkers and pervs there are on Facebook, you don’t want to post your children’s photos on there. The only people who are genuinely interested are those predators. For the rest, it’s “yeah, whatever *grin*”.
Is over-praising turning kids into narcissists?
Another such hard-to-investigate question. Certainly over-praise seems to have created some unique brats in the past; but can we honestly say today that it’s parental over-praise – or was it Facebook? If you think of every Facebook “like” as a pat on the back, how much back-pattery does it take to turn a teenager into a narcissist who thinks she’s oh-so-perfect?
It’s a weird culture today, with parents being warned not to damage their children’s self-esteem by saying the wrong thing. The media pop-trend for parenting that is advertised everywhere, of over-lauding and under-challenging kids, looks designed to produce a generation of brats; but I haven’t met any parents personally who have actually fallen for that trend. We seem to have an instinct.
Why pick on the Millennials?
I know many, many people who are selfish, self-interested or self-centred. I even know a few (isolated) narcissists – but they are a different species entirely, you’ve got to experience them to spot the difference and you’ll never confuse a basically selfish person with a real narcissist again. (It is not the same.)
Every animal on Earth has a certain amount of selfishness (which is usually in the interest of survival, with humans too). Humans and a few other species have this weird phenomenon called “altruism”, which is usually the urge to protect those who are small and helpless, even if they are not related to you or not even of the same species. No, humans are not alone in this. (Sorry, did I pop a bubble here?) There are bird species that look after unrelated individuals or even birds of other species – I’m not referring to the cuckoo’s foster parents here as that is a con game. There are mammals too – often, either herd animals or the more intelligent species, though some of the most intelligent can also be the most selfish and cruel. (Once again, no, humankind is not unique in its cruelty, either! Sorry about popped bubbles. Why are we so desperate to be unique? Isn’t it enough that we’re living on the only planet that has chocolate? 😉 )
So if we differentiate between the universal drive of selfishness and its balance, altruism, versus the psychopathic phenomenon of narcissism, a different picture emerges.
I would say, absolutely no, the Millennials are not ever the “most selfish generation yet”. Many previous generations are marked by extreme selfishness. Do the Millennials have more narcissists than other generations? I would have to see actual medical statistics backing such a statement. I remain sceptical.