Therese J. Borchard writes the daily Beliefnet.com blog Beyond Blue. Her memoir “Beyond Blue: Surviving Depression & Anxiety and Making the Most of Bad Genes” is just out, followed by a handsome book of therapy notes called "The Pocket Therapist" in April 2010. Subscribe to Beyond Blue here or visit her at www.ThereseBorchard.com.

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Generation Narcissism

Apparently it’s not a good idea to read preschool self-help books to your kids—the kind that encourage a little person to look proudly into the mirror (“I Like Myself” by Karen Beaumont and David Catrow, and “Incredible You! 10 Ways to Be Happy Inside and Out” by Wayne Dyer, Kristina Tracy, and Melanie Siegel).

Because the next wave of young people are narcissists.

Jean Twenge, Associate Professor of Psychology at San Diego State University, has just published a book called “Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled—and More Miserable Than Ever Before,” based on her research on the responses of 1.3 million young people.

In an evaluation called the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, college students responded to such statements as “If I ruled the world, it would be a better place” (in today’s climate, who wouldn’t agree?), “I think I am a special person” (what’s wrong with that?), and “I can live my life any way I want to (okay, now that may be hard to sell to the Catechism of the Catholic Church).
Narcissism isn’t all bad. According to the study’s co-author, W. Keith Campbell of the University of Georgia, this kind of confidence is good for meeting new people or auditioning on “American Idol.” But if you’re like me, sticking with the same faces and watching “American Idol” from your family room (if at all), then narcissism is usually a trouble maker, contributing to short-lived romantic relationships, higher rates of infidelity, dishonesty, over-controlling behavior, and more. True narcissists lack empathy, can’t handle criticism, and concentrate on self-promotion over helping others.

Twenge links the unrealistic expectations of what she calls Generation Me, anyone born in the 1970s, 1980s, or 1990s, with the increase in depression, anxiety, cynicism, and loneliness among American youth. She and her colleagues of the study claim that the narcissistic and self-centered attitudes of today’s college students are a threat not only to their personal relationships but also to American society.
“We need to stop endlessly repeating, ‘You’re special,’ and having children repeat that back,” said Twenge in an interview with the Associated Press. “Kids are self-centered enough already.”
The researchers traced this selfish phenomenon to the self-esteem movements of the 1980s, which went too far in promoting self-confidence. As a small example, Twenge cites the preschool lyrics sung to the tune of “Frere Jacques”–“I am special, I am special. Look at me, Look at me”–and the social networking technology today (like MySpace and YouTube) encouraging young people to create a space all about them

I get what Twenge is saying: I see the obnoxious teenagers in line before me at Starbucks and want to dial up their moms to chat about manners. So do almost 70 percent of American adults, who believe people are ruder now than 20 or 30 years ago, with 93 percent blaming parents for not teaching kids manners, according to a survey last year by Ipsos/Associated Press.
But, as someone who can’t develop enough self-esteem—a woman who brought her copy of “10 Days to Self Esteem” by David Burns to the pool with her every day of last summer in order to feel confidence despite her stretch marks—I still think building up our little ones is a parental obligation, because there are enough people and influences in the world today that will want to tear them down.

Copyright © 2007 Catholic News Service, www.CatholicNews.com. Used with permission of CNS

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