About twenty years ago in the Chicago suburbs I saw a bumper-sticker that read “Prosperity is My Birthright” and I shuddered. Attitudes have gotten worse since then.
The authors see the same thing, and give it a name: narcissism. They trace its growth and show what has been driving it. They show how it manifests in things I haven’t had the time or the stomach to attend to: “Sweet Sixteen” or “My Beautiful Mommy.” They provide solutions that are of no use whatever unless and until we take a good hard look at ourselves.
Classic narcissism is a mental disorder, of course. The authors describe a kind of “acquired narcissism” (my term, not theirs), which in extreme cases is indistinguishable from the old kind. Unfortunately extreme cases are not hard to find, and they suggest that the machinery of entertainment and education is set to magnify and glamorize narcissism, resulting in even more cases. Even moderate narcissism hurts relationships.
Do narcissists (always about me me me) suffer from low self-esteem? No way: “down deep, narcissists think they are awesome.” So does training in self-esteem help or hurt? It makes things worse.
The authors do not inflict a lot of statistics on the reader, which is in one way unfortunate. The bell curve diagram helps show why shifting the mean can deeply magnify problems on the fringes. And if the problematic extremes are glorified and held up as role models, the feedback shifts the mean more and more.
The authors show connections between inordinate self-regard and the “I want it now” culture of debt, the more and more extreme exhibitionism on Facebook and sexting, and the increasing materialism and superficiality of our culture. I’m not sure the relationships are always directly causal, but they are clearly related.
They studiously avoid commenting on current politicians. I don’t know how they resisted.
Not that long ago, self-admiration was not a core cultural value in the United States. If the 2007 NBC public service announcement saying “everyone is born with their one true love . . . themselves” had been broadcast during an episode of Leave It to Beaver in the 1950’s, viewers would have been baffled and perhaps even disturbed.
Bad philosophy has consequences. Nathaniel Brandon was the prime mover—one might call him the founder—of the self-esteem movement. His mentor and “lover” was Ayn Rand of Objectivism fame.
- Narcissism is “really high” self esteem. They’re related, but narcissists “don’t brag about how they are the nicest, most thoughtful people in the world, but they do like to point out that they’re winners or they’re hot.”
- Narcissists are insecure and have low self-esteem. Not close.
- Narcissists really are great/better looking/smarter. They just think they are, and sometimes they snow others.
- Some narcissism is healthy. Nope.
- Narcissism is just physical vanity. No, it is also feeling entitled, getting excessively aggressive when insulted, uninterested in emotional closeness, and so on.
- Narcissism is beneficial in a competitive world. Sometimes in the short term it seems like it, but long term nobody wants to work with you.