Compassion Matters

How to save a life

Is There a Cure for Narcissism?

Studies say we're becoming more narcissistic. How self-compassion can help.

Are today’s youth really a more narcissistic generation? It’s a question parents, educators, researchers and media seem to be strongly affirming. And let’s face it, the barrage of status updates and “selfie” streams probably aren’t helping.  Recent studies have shown that students today “score higher on assertiveness, self-liking, narcissistic traits and high expectations.” However, they also score higher on “some measures of stress, anxiety and poor mental health, and lower on self-reliance.  Could this mean more confidence and less competence? Higher stress but lower performance?

These outcomes are concerning to some, who fear for a less capable, yet more entitled workforce. Perhaps this generation has become a bit more self-centered, but that’s hardly a new accusation. The “kids-today-have-it-easy” mentality has always been prevalent among any older generation reflecting on the younger. It’s not the first time young people have been called lazy or self-absorbed. So, maybe a more important question is “are we all too obsessed with self-evaluation?” What conditions lead to narcissism or low self-esteem? And finally, isn’t there a better way to establish our sense of self-worth?

Psychologist Kristin Neff has done extensive research on self-esteem versus self-compassion. One of her studies concluded that “self-esteem (but not self-compassion) was positively associated with narcissism.” She also found that “self-compassion predicted more stable feelings of self-worth than self-esteem and was less contingent on particular outcomes.” In other words, self-esteem tends to center on evaluation and performance, whereas self-compassion is about “treating oneself with kindness, recognizing one's shared humanity, and being mindful when considering negative aspects of oneself.”  Thus, self-compassion is a broader, as well as more stable concept than self-esteem. It includes the idea of a shared humanity with all other human beings, which would lead to more compassion for others. In addition, it includes the notion of being mindful of your faults, which is the first step to changing negative traits in yourself.

These findings are of great significance when we consider how preoccupied parents are with boosting their children’s self-esteem. Of course, it is natural and appropriate to want your child to enter the world with a positive sense of self, but, once again, are we focusing too much on evaluation? Also, is the praise we offer kids even good for them? As I discussed in my blog, “The Problem with Overpraising Children,” kids only truly benefit from praise when it is sincere and when it is based on real attributes.

A Stanford study confirmed that toddlers show more motivation when they are praised for effort as opposed to talent. Further research from Ohio State University concluded that inflated praise is hurtful to kids with low self-esteem. This is particularly unfortunate, as parents tend to dish out more extreme praise to children when they struggle with low self-esteem.  These kids then tend to “shrink from new challenges.”

So what is the alternative to praise? How can we equip our kids with the confidence they need to succeed without leaving them feeling either inflated or empty in regard to their self-image? And, how can we foster this quality in ourselves? We can start by shifting our focus from self-esteem to self-compassion.

As Dr. Neff writes, “People feel compassion for themselves, because all human beings deserve compassion and understanding, not because they possess some particular set of traits (pretty, smart, talented, and so on). This means that with self-compassion, you don’t have to feel better than others to feel good about yourself.” Dr. Neff lists the three elements of self-compassion as self-kindness, common humanity and mindfulness. These characteristics serve as natural antidotes to narcissism.

Not only can people who practice self-compassion face their shortcomings, but they can exercise patience and understanding, while aiming to overcome obstacles. Their focus is on others as well as themselves, and they’re able to view themselves as equals, while showing compassion for other people. We can grow self-compassion both in our children and in ourselves by emphasizing these values throughout our development.

One way to do this is by teaching and practicing mindfulness, a point I elaborate on in “Benefits of Mindful Parenting.” Another is by identifying your “critical inner voice.” The critical inner voice is like an internal enemy we all possess that resides in our heads and comments on our actions. This inner critic forms out of negative experiences early in our lives that injured our sense of self. Unlike a conscience, the critical inner voice represents an “anti-self,” a coach that is against us, luring us with bad advice and berating us for mistakes. For example, when we don’t do well on a test or go off a diet, it will hit us with thoughts like, “See, there you go messing up again. I told you that you wouldn’t succeed.”

The critical inner voice can be tricky, because it doesn’t always sound critical. It can sound self-soothing, luring us with thoughts like, “Don’t trust anyone else. You’re fine on your own. Just take care of yourself.” Of course, the minute you take its advice, it is there to scold you. “You’re such a loner. No one will ever love you. What a loser.”

This inner critic also comments on the people around us, warning us against them or pushing us away. It encourages self-protection, and although it can be extremely harsh toward us, it can also encourage a self-centered mentality. Unsurprisingly, many narcissistic personalities are hiding deeper feelings of unworthiness or fears of failure. One recent study of Facebook users found a connection between narcissism and low self-esteem.

A huge step to becoming more compassionate is, therefore, to identify and challenge this inner critic. In September, I will lead an eCourse “Overcome Your Inner Critic.” The course is designed to help people learn how to identify the destructive thoughts or “critical inner voices” that interfere in all areas of their lives and often lead to self-sabotage. Once we get a hold of this inner critic, we can stop it from controlling our lives, our relationships and our behavior. We can cultivate a compassionate attitude toward ourselves, and we can then shift our focus outward, becoming more generous with ourselves and others.

Generosity is another key element to happiness and a positive sense of self.In fact, it is an important mental health principle and has even been proven to help us live longer. Four important elements of generosity involve:

  1. Giving something that is sensitive to another person. It’s not about material things. It’s about being giving of yourself.
  2. Being open to another person expressing appreciation to you.
  3. Accepting the generosity of others. It’s important to let others do things for you.
  4. Showing appreciation for the generosity directed toward you.

We can strengthen our real sense of self, which would include a realistic compassionate view of our abilities and a generally compassionate view of other people.  This would eliminate our need to bolster our self-esteem or narcissism through comparing ourselves to others and always having to feel better than. Instead, we could reflect on our commonalities as human beings, which would lead to more ethical behavior toward ourselves and others.

When we emphasize compassion over esteem and measure our successes in terms of what we give as opposed to what we get, we build a solid sense of self that can leave us feeling less stress and more satisfaction in our lives. We can overcome insecurities and accomplish much more. And when we fall short, we can take a positive and resilient attitude that ensures better outcomes in the future.  Finally, we establish a self-image that is grounded in truth and coated with substance. We can see and appreciate our “self” clearly, even without the “selfie.”

Join Dr. Lisa Firestone for the  online Course, “Overcome Your Inner Critic.”

Lisa Firestone, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist, author, and the Director of Research and Education for the Glendon Association.

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