Ok I know we had a lot of fun the last round that I posted on narcissism. But it’s actually a very wide and confusing topic, and gives genuine cause for concern.
From unfairly calling the Millennials the “me-generation” to Selfbook facie addiction – to the sensitive issue of how much to praise and how much to crit – if we are going to take responsibility for making our kids (or our students) into narcissists, we actually need the toolkit to counteract that, too!
Let me first clarify one thing again (have already in previous post but just to prevent wise-knowses like myself from raising the point in the comments:)
The term “narcissism” is used in various ways.
1) People working in psychology use it interchangeably with NPD (narcissistic personality disorder) unless they want to be very specific, when they say “NPD” or “not NPD”.
2) The same people in psychology also use the same word “narcissism” to refer to a set of symptoms, inside or outside NPD. Narcissism is e.g. a part-symptom of psychopathic personality disorder; sociopathic personality disorder; and “Peter Pan Syndrome”. It is part of the disorder but doesn’t describe it completely as there are additional symptoms.
3) To make it worse, in common English the term “narcissism” has found its way into normal, street usage, dropping its psychiatric implications, and simply means a vain, egocentric twit. Lack of empathy, the possibly most damaging feature of true narcissism, can be implied here or not, depending on the context. (Even after editing, my last post had it only partially right. I guess this is called progress, LOL.)
Having sorted that, I guess there are a few interesting questions to discuss. A narcissist, even psychology holds (meaning NPD), is made, not born. So in the first place it would be necessary to establish what causes the typical lack of empathy that narcissism shares with, among other disorders, psychopathy and sociopathy. Could it be that empathy needs to be taught in early childhood, or is it a basic human defect when a child does not develop it by themselves? Parents instinctively teach empathy, especially where there are siblings or even pets: “Be careful with the baby! Don’t pull the dog’s tail – it feels pain just like you do.”
Could it be that if for some reason a child was mollycoddled and not actively taught empathy, it never learns it?
We can imagine (but are we right?) where grandiosity comes from. Too much praise; praise for the wrong stuff. A girl who is repeatedly praised for her natural beauty can become conceited and vain. A child who is praised for (not informed of) talent or inherited intelligence can get delusions of grandeur, believing himself to be cleverer than most. (It’s a fine line between “cleverer than most” and “the cleverest of all”.) Some children have the misfortune of having a parent or grandparent or beloved uncle or aunt who thinks the sun shines out of their precious hinies, and they start believing that it actually does.
I once met an irreparably conceited person who as a child, when taken to a psychologist for not being able to concentrate in school, was told to his face by the psychologist that it wasn’t his fault; it was his parents’ fault; there was nothing wrong with him, he was much cleverer than his parents or teachers, and from that point forward he became completely unmanageable. (That psychologist ought to have been kicked out of the profession!) To this day one can’t carry a conversation with him because he makes it clear that he thinks you’re a fool. Any conversation turns into a monologue of how clever he is.
We must understand, for the sake of the much-maligned Millennials, that giving someone a vaunted ego is not doing them any favour. We have seen so many children broken by the school system, called “stupid” and “slow” and pushed into unnecessary boxes for silly things (like for instance left-handedness), that we tend to flip to the other side of the coin and rather err on boosting a child’s self-confidence. But there’s a fine line.
What’s self-image got to do with it?
There are sources that state (I’d like to see their actual research on this) that over-criticizing can also produce a narcissist. All I can say is that I haven’t come across someone like that. All the people who have been bashed by crit and never built by praise, that I’ve met personally (please share if your experience differs) are uncertain of themselves, humble to the point of pain, don’t progress in their career because they don’t feel competent to take on new challenges. They may go down a spiral of self-pity; but I haven’t seen anyone like that get vainglorious and pompous. They tend to avoid attention rather than seek it; try to disappear into the wall rather than stand out. (Sometimes an attempted “attention-suicide” is their subconcious mind’s last-ditch effort to get at least some recognition, even if it’s negative. The question they pose is, “don’t I matter at all? Anyone?”) So don’t mind if I challenge the “sources” to show their research?
True NPD is however said to have uncertainty and a low self-esteem at its very foundation. This is an interesting observation. If I had to guess, it may be because they know deep-down that their “fame” is false; their “achievements” are really quite mediocre and their “superiority” is imaginary. They lie to themselves about these issues; they have a need to receive constant attention, to be constantly praised as “better than”, “so marvellous”, “so clever”, “so pretty”; etc. The more people feed their lies with compliments, the more their basic premise of being “better than you” is nourished and can survive. If the praise goes away, the NPD comes up against a harsh reality: What have I actually achieved, what did I contribute, what is the meaning of my life? And then ultimately (for them): What am I worth?
A mentally healthy person with a realistic self-image (neither a down-trodden victim nor an inflated ego) does not find this question that interesting. The question “who am I” may be more relevant (especially early in life). “What is the meaning of my life” is a question we all visit at times; but not so much with the focus on how others see us but more concerning the content of our life. What’s in my life? Did I bring someone joy today? Did I fulfil my duties? Have I remembered to pay all the creditors this month? (LOL)
Focus on what has been deserved
I’ll take the instance of the violin teacher, as Eloise describes in her blog post. A teacher can have a powerful influence on a child. (In the example above, even a psychologist who was visited only once or twice, for a few minutes, did a lifetime’s worth of damage!) Teachers cannot fix in a child’s character narcissism planted there by others; but we can try!
As teacher or parent, we have a natural tendency to praise a child when we’re proud of her or him. I don’t feel that this is wrong. We don’t want the next generation to turn into wall-flowers and people who don’t try because they don’t believe they can.
But, what exactly are we praising? Do we praise his intelligence “aww he’s so clever!”? Or do we praise the achievement? “Johnny, you can read! Yay!” (Of course, if Johnny is a normal 14-year-old… 😀 I’m reminded of the friendly insulting going on ceaselessly between teenagers.)
The “clever” isn’t something he can do something about. And: He can lose his “clever” – by falling out of a tree and hitting his head. If his entire self-image hinges on being “clever”, which then gets lost – he’s lost everything! Or a girl who has always been praised for her prettiness (and nothing else) developing acne in puberty? Devastating!
I don’t much agree with “Tiger Mother” (“Battle Hymn of a Tiger Mother”) and her fairly harsh parenting strategies; but she does have one thing right. If you teach your child some genuine skills and push them to real achievements, you give them a much more solid self-worth than if you laud them for something that really isn’t special. By praising for something unremarkable, we’re making kids into soft ninnies that think every tying of a shoelace is deserving of praise. That’s plain pathetic.
(which hopefully precedes a summary and conclusion 😀 )
So in closing, what have we gained from this confusing topic?
- Praise and criticism are both necessary parenting and teaching tools.
- Praise must be earned, and hard-earned. The harder earned the praise, the more it is worth. It comes with the knowledge that if you want more of that praise, you’ll have to work even harder for it.
- Criticism should never be random. “You’re stupid” is not criticism, it’s abuse. Criticism should aim to build, not break. It should also be forward-focused. “You didn’t practise this piece enough, that’s why the performance went so badly. You know what to do for next time, don’t you?”
- Most of all, both praise and criticism need to be honest and focused on something the person can do something about.
- Self-worth must be built on realistic skills and genuine achievements. A man who can build a good-looking wooden cabinet has so much more chance of a good solid (realistic) self-image than the intellectual who dabbles in a lot of subjects without ever doing anything useful with them.
- Usefulness can be a good indicator of self-worth. The most useful people in our lives (for instance, doctors) are often also the most respected. Genuine respect can feed genuine self-worth. It’s built on genuine usefulness.
- A relative runs a rehab farm, where addicts get given daily farmyard tasks while being rehabilitated. The physical work feeds their self-worth and fills the emptiness in their lives that gave rise to drug abuse in the first place. His success rate is very high.
- Lack of empathy removes from the narcissist the reason to be useful to others. That’s like pulling the rug out right under the personality. Parents, don’t miss that point. Teach your toddler empathy as early as you can!
Currently I have a deep lack of empathy for those students of mine who are not practising for their exams. Why do you practise for your ballet exam? Why do you attend 3 practices of soccer a week? But not for violin? Fail then, if you must! You take the whole blame for it yourselves. Don’t look at me!
~ gipsika ~