Recently, in a discussion of the phenomenon of selfie culture, one of my students shared a video essay produced by The New Yorker that proposes that flawed educational and parenting practices, kicked off in the 1980s and 90s, were responsible for rising rates of narcissism in young Americans. The New Yorker thesis is that at that time there was a cultural movement to promote self esteem in children through changes in educational and parenting practices, the hope being that children with boosted self esteem would end up significantly empowered as adults. The video argues that that idea was wrong, and that instead of producing a generation of high-functioning adults, the result was a generation fixated on their own happiness, a generation of soft-skinned narcissists.

This isn’t correct. It’s based in a flawed understanding of what narcissism is and inappropriately points blame at teachers and parents who don’t deserve it. There has been a rise in measured narcissism in cohorts of young Americans (with corresponding decreases in measured empathy). That much isn’t in debate. The point that needs to be thrashed out is what narcissism is and how it occurs. The relationship of narcissism to how highly you regard yourself is spurious. Never mind self esteem, the key to understanding narcissism lies in the assessment of the strength of the self concept, whether it is sufficiently well formed to do what is required of it. The New Yorker piece misses this. Narcissism is not a condition of self love, it is, as philosopher Charles Taylor asserts, a condition of anxious uncertainty about who you are.

The mind of a narcissist operates in continual reaction to a state of inner insecurity. Some deeply foundational aspects of the narcissist’s self narrative have buckled in the harsh face of reality. In response to this inner crisis, the mind turns inward, tuning out the outside world. Anyone in this situation confronts what Taylor describes as “a terrifying sense of emptiness”. The panic generated by a failed sense of self is all-consuming.

By way of analogy, imagine you’re enjoying an afternoon in a sailboat in the turquoise waters of the Adriatic. It’s a brilliantly sunny day and you’re wafting along in perfect serenity, enjoying the vistas of the coastal mountains and seaside towns, the beaches, the terracotta houses clustered around fairy tale harbors. You’ve never seen scenery so beautiful. Then, slowly, it occurs to you that your feet are wet and they shouldn’t be, should they? And, looking around, you see that your boat appears to be low in the water. Is the bow slanting downward? You look in the cabin and see water on the floor. You’re too far from the coast to swim ashore. There’s no radio to call for help. No signal flares and no life raft. No other boats in sight. The waters you’re in are known to have sharks. In this state of threat it’s no longer possible to appreciate the beauty of your surroundings. In light of the crisis in the boat, all the facts of the external world are irrelevant and vanish from focus. Your mind is utterly fixed on the problem of your own survival. You’re gripped in panic. Nothing but the boat and your safety now register in your field of attention. The external world is gone.

Aside from the fact that narcissists don’t actually understand what’s wrong internally, and that boats sink quickly while failed self concepts can fester for a lifetime, this, exactly, is the psychological situation of a person with narcissism. Narcissists don’t act as they do because they admire themselves; they act as they do because the psychological structure that brings coherence to their sense of themself as a person is broken, threatening them with annihilation. In the face of this they behave defensively to try to quash their anxiety: they substitute opposites for intolerable interior conditions (I’m the strongest, the greatest, “a very stable genius”); they pretend the problem isn’t in them, but is common and obvious in others (migrants, other races, religions, or other nationalities); they deny facts apparent to anyone else; they float in a world of their own manufacture in which they make-believe that they are strong and secure, though surrounded by inferiors who they suspect are often conspiring to bring them down. They are addicted to conflict and controversy because in the light of opposition, for as long as it lasts, they see themselves more clearly defined. They experience the external world as a drama of self affirmation frequently populated by players and events that they subconsciously take to be those who may have been central in their original descent into panic. Other men become unsupportive fathers, other women become symbols of mothers who didn’t love them, or spouses who left them, or who humiliated them; teachers who told them they weren’t smart enough; strangers who abused them when they were young and defenseless.

It’s unrealistic to think that a narcissist could ever be converted by being brought to understand the immorality of self-focus. The narcissist does not understand his condition for what it is, and, therefore, repair of it, even if it were possible, could not be easy or quick. Narcissists act without any form of moral remorse because it is the self concept that provides a baseline for right action (I’m a musician so I should practice. I’m a professor, so I should read books. I’m a therapist, so I should listen carefully). Those who suffer from an inadequate structure of self act impulsively and extra-morally, without guilt, because, without a coherent sense of who they are to organize choice, any course of action is a good as any another. No self? No morality, and no guilt, and no shame.

The self concept is an adaptation to the historically particular demands of day-to-day life in modern societies. As T. E. Lawrence put it, modernity’s complexity and uncertainty constitutes “our modern crown of thorns”. In modernity there are so many alternative ways of thinking and acting that one can never be sure of choosing the right one. There are so many challenges to what to believe that it is difficult to have confidence in anything. Information flows so quickly and evolves so fast that the world begins to feel ethereal and insubstantial. Scholars agree that before the onset of modernity, self-identity, as it is commonly experienced today, didn’t exist. Beginning in the West, around 1600, the modern sense of self evolved as an adaptation to the slowly building crescendo of freedom of action and moral uncertainty. The sense of self provides a solution to this, functioning as a filter, providing a basis of choice, directing attention and activity. When you know who you are, you know what to do and how to act. When you don’t, you fall victim to the anxious churn of uncertainty and doubt.

Narcissism is a phenomenon of the modern world. The more deeply a society has moved into modernity, the more likely narcissism is to occur. The slowly increasing levels of narcissism among America’s children is a proxy measure for the extent to which modernity’s influence is increasing. In its severest form, expect to find it more often among modern people whose sense of self identity is linked to archaic hierarchical structures such as race and gender that in earlier periods were once more important in self definition, or trapped in relationship to modes of economic activity that have been uprooted by technology and globalization..


Portland Maine is a funky little city on the Atlantic coast with great restaurants, lovely parks and wharves, and immensely photogenic lighthouses. And it’s home to the Portland Museum of Art, where one can spend a pleasant afternoon browsing the galleries. Given my interest in the history of interpersonal life, I often look at paintings for clues about how people thought and behaved in various historical eras, and the Portland Museum has several good examples of 17th and 18th century American family portraiture that demonstrate the fascinating tendency then to depict children as miniature adults, almost indistinguishable in appearance from actual adults except for their height. This is quite striking and fairly common — not limited to a particular artist. This has often been interpreted as evidence that the understanding of childhood has greatly changed over the years.

Children were depicted in formal adult garb with adult-like faces, even on toddlers (you can see an example of this on page 81 of my book). Then, childhood was brief and adolescence wasn’t as it has come to be, a protected period understood to be developmentally important, in which youth work on self identity. Often in the past, as soon as they were physically able, children became apprentices or worked in service, or worked as laborers on the family farm, perhaps as young as ten years old. Self identity didn’t need to be worked on. It was not a personal quest. it was a given. The family was not an emotional haven in the way we expect of it today, but an economic unit, with children valued for the help they brought to the household labor force. In today’s family pictures, to the extent that the generations look the same, it is generally that adults now dress like youths. There has been a profound inversion of cultural values about age. And, increasingly, the quest for self identity, if it ends at all, doesn’t end in adolescence, bubbling along through the entire course of life.

The Portland Museum also has some examples of impressionist art, including a small Renoir that depicts a man and a female friend, seated together, her hands on his shoulder as the two look intently into a newspaper the man is holding. There is no one else around. They seem to be in a private space engaged in the mutual interpretation of a news story. The painting is titled ‘Confidences’, and it’s one of several Renoir painted with that same name. If you google “Renoir confidences” and click the images tab you can see some of them. They each depict two people in intimate dialogue, close together, in one case one whispering in the other’s ear. So, by the last quarter of the 19th Century, with modernity well along in its many transformations of Western society, one of history’s great artists chose for his subject people in private talk — exchanging confidences. This seemed appropriate for the cover of my book. Intimate talk is modern.

In earlier periods marriages may have been affectionate, but they weren’t likely to have been intimate. Husbands and wives were more likely to think of themselves as yolk mates (linked together like oxen pulling a plow), than soul mates (linked together in shared dreams). Relationships weren’t constituted by a private skein of negotiated understanding; they were held together by law, religion, and economic necessity. As for marital conversation, according to historian Carmen Martin Gaite, in 18th century Spain, conversations between husbands and wives were so highly conventionalized, so guided by cultural formulas and scripts, that no personal meaning may have ever been exchanged between them. In these circumstances marital talk functions not as a negotiation of private meaning, but like a form of public ritual, akin to the call-and-response of some church services.

Richard Sennett’s masterwork, The Fall of Public Man, describes how modernity moved discourse from scripted presentation in public spaces to increasingly private spaces, from coffee houses and town squares, to progressively more intimate locations. This is certainly true in the family. In the past, the family was a public unit of society. Not much happened between members that was hidden from view. The family wasn’t an intimate group. People walked in and out of each other’s spaces, lived and slept in the same room with their children and their apprentices (and sometimes their livestock). Walls of houses often didn’t extend to the ceiling, meaning that conversation could be overheard (as in modern office cubicles). As there was so much less diversity in the culture, people could assume common values and perspective with those around them. But, as modernity gained momentum, diversity grew in leaps and bounds and the public gave way to the private. As people moved from small towns and farms to the diversity of cities, as tradition and religion faded in influence eroding common values, people could no longer assume that those around them shared their points of view. So houses changed. Their designs were altered to provide front rooms where callers could be received formally, without being admitted to the intimate spaces of the household. Material changes like this reflect psychological and sociological change. Living in cities means encountering strangers and so, there, trust in others is no longer a given. Uncertainty pervades. And those few relationships where we do trust and share ourselves become extremely vivid and important in our lives

City dwellers have to be careful about those they meet as a stranger may not be whom they seem to be. As urbanization ramped up, people became conscious of the need to prepare defensive public facades to manage relations with those outside their small circle of trusted intimates. T.S. Eliot, writing in 1915, spoke of the need then “to prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet”. And, indeed, surviving records of household inventories demonstrate that, prior to the 19th century, most houses had just one mirror. However, as time advanced, mirrors became increasingly common and were placed in virtually every room of the house, suggesting a growing concern with the manipulation of public appearance, and, consequentially, a growing awareness that there is a public world, a world in which many may manipulate presentation, a world of potential threat. And that world stands against a private one shared with a limited number of trusted intimates — those few with whom confidences can be shared, or created. And, in another twist on ‘confidences’, the move to cities that occurred with such dramatic speed in the late 19th century gave rise to the ‘confidence man’, or as we say today ‘con men’, the stranger who exploits the increasingly uncertain reality of self presentation to trick people out of money. Thus, as modernity gained force, the public world became infused with uncertainty and even threat, and, without a period of acquaintance, people could no longer afford to immediately trust each other, which gave rise to the private world of intimate relationships bound together in privately shared points of view created in talk — confidences.