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..