Academics, employers and educators have all complained about the relentless rise in narcissism to epidemic levels among young people: Generation Me is aptly named. Selfish, self-absorbed, and self-righteous.
An American psychologist and author Jean Twenge wrote a book three years ago called The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement. It was based on good psychological studies of those with a seriously inflated sense of self. The argument was that the high self-esteem, “you are special”, “you deserve it” message has backfired. The reason? Narcissists have trouble with relationships. They don’t make good students or employers because they don’t put in sufficient effort in relationships and often won’t accept honest and accurate feedback.
See the reactions of, let us say, people of average looks and often of less-than-average talent on “The X Factor”. The surprise is not so much how they got onto the programme but how they react to very reasonable critical feedback. Of course, this makes good television and may be a set up. But the rage is not staged: it is very real, and sometimes quite shocking.
Modesty is out. Humility is discouraged, hubris is in. Blame it on the baby boomers spoiling their children. Or even all those self-esteem gurus who argue that if you make young people feel good about themselves they will “release their potential”… or some such data-lite concept.
Arrogant, haughty, entitled; many young people seem to the older generation completely lacking in charm, insight or even humour. They certainly seem to have little understanding of that classic British trick of self-deprecation, even understatement. Have they been taught that self-deprecation leads to depression and failure? Have the cognitive behaviour therapists tried to help them re-programme the way they think and talk about themselves?
So in old school speak you said “I was fortunate with my teachers” when you achieved a starred, congratulatory, first at Oxbridge or Ivy League. Then it became: “I worked really hard to get that grade.” And now: “Yeah, I guess I am kinda gifted”
Or is this the rantings of old people who are angry that young people are so smart, particularly with technology? Are they the first generation ever to experience the phenomenon of the wisdomless of aging. Age used to bring a life-time of skills, judgement and knowledge – in short, wisdom. But no longer: too many skills, too much knowledge is now redundant. The middle-aged seem bewildered and baffled as yet another new technology deskills and humiliates them.
Yet there there is evidence of a real rise in narcissism. Clinicians report it. So do teachers. And manifestation of narcissism hits parents, teacher,s and employers in the form of narcissistic rage. The issue is sudden explosive anger. The theory goes like this: contrary to appearances, narcissists actually have a brittle and fragile ego. This false ego requires abnormal amounts of admiration and praise from others to survive. They are so caught up in their fantasies of power, prestige, and popularity that they are impervious to the needs of those around that. Your job is to worship them; to see them as perfect people. To feed and support their grand self-image.
Being challenged or criticised can lead to sudden and surprising results. Freud talked of "narcissistic injury" and others of narcissistic blows, scars and wounds. And it’s now called rage. The issue is how narcissists deal with criticisms, be they minor sleights or direct, verbal attacks. Reactions can vary from arrogance, irritation and disdain to violent, physical and verbal outbursts.
The surprise for many is the suddenness and power of the reaction, given the nature of the cause. The slightest remark, even body signal, may be interpreted as personal criticism, mocking, rejection. Rage can even occur if you turn off the tap of constant, profuse (but of course false) adulation, attention and compliments. The ego balloon is pricked, the boil lanced and the reaction formidable.
The reaction can take one of two forms: anger in or anger out. The former, if habitual, has been said to lead to cancer, the latter to heart attacks. Fortunately that simple minded theory still requires some proof. Anger out is easy to see: venomous, vicious, venal attacks starting verbal, ending physical. Others go inward, smouldering with resentment. This can be manifest as passive-aggressive behaviour.
Some clinicians see narcissism as a form of perverse perfectionism. The grandiosity associated with narcissism is the insistence on the ‘perfect me’. It’s all about being the Lord of the Highchair; the megalomania of the infant who is inevitably dethroned but who is scared by the experience.
All very well describing the problem. The question is, what to do? The clinicians have offered various bits of advice.
Narcissists want credit, glory, approbation. So help them achieve their goals, but don’t expect thanks or praise. Remember that they expect help and support but never give it. Next, help them to be a little more reflective about why things don’t always work out. Don’t confront them and try, if possible, to empathise with them. Oh yes, flattery gets you everywhere.
But don’t believe the typical narcissist is always a generation X or Y or a younger person. Positions of power can easily turn people with high self-esteem into clinical narcissists. How many Prime Ministers, Presidents and CEOs started out with just heightened self esteem, but soon turned into monstrous egotists?