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It’s all about me

A healthy sense of 
self-worth is one thing 
but when narcissism takes the spotlight, no one wins, MiNDFOOD reports.

It’s all about me

We are all strapped in and ready to go when the pilot’s voice comes over the loudspeaker. “Our flight is ready for departure. We are just waiting for one more guest to arrive.” So we wait. And wait. “What’s the bet it’s a Gen Y-er,” says my friend. Finally our latecomer strolls across the tarmac. And I do mean strolls. Nonchalantly chatting on his mobile as he makes his way up the aisle, he ignores the furious glares of fellow passengers. My friend had won her bet.

This incident is familiar territory to authors Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell who wrote The Narcissism Epidemic (Simon & Schuster, $36). Their research with college students supports their claim that narcissism is rising in younger generations. Between 2002 and 2007, narcissism test scores increased at twice the rate of the previous 24 years – and are now equal to that of movie stars.

Many of us are bemused at some of the contestants on the singing contest Idol who have limited talent yet turn up to auditions brimming with self-confidence. They are stunned when they receive the honest feedback from judges. “How could anyone be so deluded?”, we ask ourselves.

Twenge believes such behaviour is explained by self-esteem that has morphed into a belief that feeling good about yourself is more important than giving a good performance. When did self-esteem become so bloated? Are we really fostering a culture of narcissism?


Two world wars and a depression last century gave rise to a conservative generation who worked hard and had limited personal goals. There was no time to dwell on the emotional impact of the wars – people buried such issues and 
kept on going. Problems may have been hidden behind alcohol abuse or within 
a strained marriage. Keeping up appearances was more important than authentic self-expression.

This conservative and emotionally repressed generation parented the baby boomers and Gen X. Many were emotionally unavailable to their children and the cupboards were brimming with skeletons. War traumas and hidden family issues did not disappear – they were played out on the next generation.

It is understandable that the boomers and Gen X-ers rebelled against the emotional repression and hidden issues of the previous generation. Many were tired of repressing the personal self for the sake of appearances. They sat on therapists’ couches and out came stories of sexual abuse, alcoholism and homosexuality. Self-expression was now allowed and blossomed through things like music and fashion.

When it came time for these later generations to parent, they went about it very differently. They had never received affirmation from their parents, but they were not going to let their children suffer the same fate. Their children would be encouraged to be self-expressed, to have high self-esteem and not to care what others thought of them.

So now we arrive at the current generations, Gen Y and the iGeneration. They have been supported, affirmed and encouraged to believe in themselves. But did the pendulum swing too far?


Narcissists have an inflated sense of ego and entitlement but it’s not based on anything real, so they think they deserve things they haven’t earned. A narcissist’s focus is their own self. They will therefore manipulate to get the attention they think they deserve. They are overconfident and unrealistic and, having no empathy, ignore others’ needs. Narcissists don’t like failure and may behave aggressively when criticised so they can’t learn from others or from experience compared with a person who can grow from such challenges.

You could argue that our current culture fosters narcissism (or is it just reflecting it?). We have reality TV and YouTube, where anyone can be a celebrity regardless of their level of talent. MySpace is full of self-promotion. Blogs let anyone publish their opinions, worthy or not. And wealthy yet empty celebrities get excessive media attention.


Part of the trouble with the modern concept of a healthy identity is that self-worth has been confused with self-esteem. It is important to distinguish between the two. Yes, it is important to cultivate an intrinsic sense of inner value. Everyone is worthy of love and acceptance. This is self-worth. It is related to self-respect. It means your worth is unrelated to what you do or what you have. This is the antidote to racism, materialism and bigotry.

Self-esteem is different and is a bit like self-confidence, involving how you feel about yourself, your appearance or abilities. This can change according to the particular context such as your career-self compared to your social-self. It is your perception of how you are doing in the world according to external markers. To encourage both self-worth and self-esteem, the messages we give our children should go like this: “You are lovable for who you are AND you still have to work at being the best you can be.” “I still love you AND that behaviour was not acceptable so there will be consequences.” “Yes you are special AND so is everyone else.”

Signs of a non-narcissistic self-esteem include: the ability to take responsibility for your own self; self management both emotionally and materially; social relatedness; the ability to give and take in relationships; consideration for and respectful treatment of others; competence in your chosen field (an internal measure, not competitive or comparative); and contribution to the collective good.


1. Service and contribution

The key to having a healthy self-esteem, but not being a narcissist, is to value who you are but then to ask: Is who I am a contribution to the greater whole? Do my endeavours add to the collective good?

The war generations had a martyr mindset that said: “One must contribute to the good of others at the expense of one’s own self.” This is not healthy. But now we have swung to the opposite ideal where it is acceptable to foster the good of your own self at the expense of others. The chaos of financial markets and environmental degradation are symptoms of this. We need to come to a middle ground where what is good for the self is used as a contribution to the good of others. It is win-win. We need to nurture and foster our own authentic self and then put this self in service to others. Our esteem should be based on what we manifest in the world.

2. Self-caring not selfish

We can have high self-worth while still having a healthy humility. This means we value ourselves as equal to, but not better than, others. Excessive self-esteem exalts the self and others become pawns in your own grandiose drama. Maintaining a balanced level of self-esteem requires that we distinguish between self-care and being selfish. Self-care is healthy. Putting yourself first isn’t selfish – it’s about being responsible. If your vehicle of expression, your self, is diminished or its needs are ignored then your physical, mental or emotional being will suffer. You lose and so do others. If your self is thriving then you have a better capacity to contribute to your family and the broader community.

When you are selfish you focus on your own needs to the exclusion and at the expense of others. A self-centred person may be accomplished and self-expressed but none of this adds anything to the collective good.

3. Living in harmony

The world is groaning under the weight of millions of individual desires and ambitions. Everyone wants to be glamorous, wealthy and famous. I know people who are busy doing affirmations for being rich or for getting the job or relationship they want. People are big on ‘manifesting’ their own positive reality. But this can be very self-centred and even narcissistic if there is no concern for whether your desires work in harmony with everyone else. What is the point of having what you want if everyone around you is suffering? We are all in this world together so rather than focus on the individual, the planet’s symptoms require us to work as one.

To avoid the narcissism trap ask yourself these questions:

– Do I acknowledge others’ self-worth, 
as well as my own?

– Do I aspire for others to ‘manifest’ what they want too, not just what I want?

– Is what I want or is my identity created 
at the expense of another in the world?

We certainly don’t want a world of martyrs, but narcissism doesn’t work either. We want people who are brimming with self-worth who lift others up with them. These people don’t gaze at their own reflection; they are too busy making their contribution in the world.

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