Sunday, July 26, 2009

Narcissism and self-esteem

Twenge's co-author, the father of a young child, is particularly critical of the self-esteem movement. He even tells a story of how he persuaded his child's daycare not to force the children to sing a particularly horrible song about how special they were. He and Twenge emphasize that the cult of "specialness" leads to narcissism.

Part of the problem is that while we are all unique individuals, we are not necessarily "special". We all need to eat, have a place to live, a job to support us, and some social contact. Most people have some kind of special skill, whether it is cooking, doing home repair, or knitting, that brings them joy outside work and may even be incorporated into their work life. However, we still all share what Maslow refers to as the five basic needs.

The emphasis on "specialness" may be creating a burden on people. They feel forced to demonstrate why they are special. Social networking is one way of doing so. Twenge describes the phenomena of the "indigo children" - special children who are described as artistic, don't like to follow rules, and hate to wait on line. As I read the description of these children provided by Twenge (which was admittedly quite short - The Complete Idiot's Guide to Indigo Children is a fuller source of information or check out which is the site of the authors who originated the term), my reaction was that they sounded like people whom I regularly encounter when I go to the post office - explaining why they should jump the line and the post office should accept their calligraphied boxes sealed with duct tape and odd bits of yarn rather than insist on a legibly printed lable and offical clear postal sealing tape. Indigo children may explain why people are now using UPS rather than USPS - you can avoid the indigo children in the queue.

However, do we want to encourage this concept of "specialness" if it leads to rude behavior and an overabundance of sharing? Fifteen years ago, a friend of mine insisted that what Americans needed to learn were manners. He felt that someone with good manners treated people with respect (even if s/he did not feel any for them) thereby insuring that daily interactions would move forward smoothly and without fuss. Perhaps Americans should focus less on "specialness" and more on harmonious living.


Amelia Earhart said...

Providing this kind of constant unwarranted praise and adulation to children in an attempt to nurture their self esteem can have real damage. What results is a culture of underachievers, a group that feels a sense of accomplishment by essentially doing nothing. (included in these "nothings"-the reality shows,You Tube) The "special" label should be applied when a child actually has completed some type of achievement. Otherwise, the words become devalued and meaningless. Ambitious drives become stifled.

Capitalism plays a role, especially now, in that the access to material goods has never been easier. Having this access feeds narcissism-especially because of the fact that these "goods" give us a sense of power and control over our environment.

Anonymous said...

The disguises that innate human narcissism (a.k.a. Shadow, Darkness) can take are mean and many. The idea of Indigo children is not surprising as humans are created unequal. The process of evolution--which is not a theory anymore, it's a fact--causes all sorts of variations. How, however, are those variations channeled by a culture, is a continual challenge in every arena (Isn't Nepotism "applied narcissism"). In my opinion, Carl Jung's work has something important to say in this area: "In reality, the acceptance of the shadow-side of human nature verges on the impossible. Consider for a moment what it means to grant the right of existence to what is unreasonable, senseless, and evil! Yet it is just this that the modern man insists upon. He wants to live with every side of himself-to know what he is. That is why he casts history aside…Filling the conscious mind with ideal conceptions is a characteristic of Western theosophy, but not the confrontation with the shadow and the world of darkness. One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious. And also, Indeed, those who forget the past--evolutionary, cultural or individual-- are surely condemned to repeat it. What's new under the sun. Narcissism can never be out of fashion, as it is designed to take different forms and expressions in different cultural niches--pre-modern or post-modern, East or West.

Carolyn Flynn said...

I'm Carolyn Flynn, co-author of "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Indigo Children," and my take on indigo children is not that they are special or entitled, but rather that they are out-of-the-box, creative thinkers who are trying to lead a left-brain world into a new way of thinking. The 20th century was the century of the ascendance of science and technology, of left-brain, binary black-and-white, all-or-nothing thinking. Yet by the end of the 20th century, chaos theory had developed, and we were starting to see that non-linear, collaborative, web thinking was a viable way. Look at Daniel Pink's writings on right-brain thinking, or Richard Florida's writings on the rise of the creative class, or for that matter, on, which chronicles the bottom-line effectiveness of gender-balanced companies. That's what Indigo Children are -- children and adults who have highly developed right-brain and integrative, holistic cognitive skills, balanced with spiritual insight. They are not so much "special" as they are capturing the "zeitgeist," the spirit of the times, leading us to new ways of seeing and being in the world. It's the direction we're all headed. We just need to make a place in the world for a more balanced (less linear, less literal, more creative, more collaborative) way of interacting.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps as a society we have overcompensated, but as a new dad of now 7 mos I truly and profoundly see how extremely unique we all are. Each of us was once that very special child that no mix of magic or dna can ever make again

Perhaps our flaw is in not valuing the esteem of others

Tracey said...

My friend who made the manners comment felt that good manners consisted of treating everyone in a proper fashion - of acknowledging the fact that everyone is in some way special and should be treated with equal politeness. Everytime I give up my subway seat to an elderly or disabled person or a mother with small child (and notice my ipod wearing fellow travellers completely ignoring the needs of their fellow subway travellers) I reflect on the fact that a rebirth of manners would do more to create a harmonious world.

Tracey said...

This is a response to Carolyn Flynn- Thanks for commenting on the blog. However, after seeing everything from plans for public buildings to policy making in my personal and professional life, I have come to the realization that some linear thinking and allowing one person to make a decision is sometimes the most effective way to do something that will improve the quality of life for many people. I will reread your book, though.

Carolyn said...

Tracey, thanks for your comment. I totally understand your comment about how left-brain thinking is necessary to get the job done. I've worked in a very left-brain profession for many years -- daily newspaper journalism -- and so it's absolutely vital that we just decide what we're going ton publish and we get our act together and get the press rolling.
We need both kinds of thinking in this world.
As far as building functional and inspiring buildings is concerned, though, I think of architects like Santiago Calatrava, Richard Rogers and Frank Gehry. They seem to be out-of-the-box thinkers who can also just get it done. And yet their buildings, like Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, and Calatrava's planetarium in Spain, Rogers' Lloyds of London, are very out-of-the-box. Rogers in particular is literally out-of-the-box -- with a very expressionistic style that moves the most functional parts of the building to the outside and makes them part of the elevation or profile of the building.

This is a great site for discussion. I'm really enjoying the discussion about "Outliers," too.

Thanks for providing this forum.

Tracey said...

Your Gehry comment is ironic in light of the fact that his design for the Ratner project in Brooklyn will never get off the ground. Unfortunately, this seems to be an all-too-common problem in the NYC architectural world these days.

Thanks for the comments. I'm looking forward to the Outlier's discussion.

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