We’ve all heard the Greek myth of Narcissus, the proud young man who saw his reflection in a pool and fell in love with it. Narcissus was unable to break away from his own gaze, and eventually died by the side of the pool. Sad to say, if one survey is correct, we may be raising a generation of young people who are succumbing to the terrible danger of unhealthy, delusional, and misdirected self-love.
The recently released American Freshman Survey finds a gaping chasm between students’ perceptions of their giftedness and drive to succeed, and the reality. For example, according to lead researcher Jean Twenge, today’s freshmen are much more likely to rate their writing abilities as “gifted” than their predecessors. But their test scores — and often their reading and writing abilities — are far below their 1960s counterparts.
Statistically it seems in the past four decades, students’ opinions of themselves have soared — even though test scores have gone down. But this mental disconnect is only part of the problem. Twenge says narcissism in college students has risen 30 percent in 30 years. She defines narcissism as “a need to pump yourself up with praise and approval in order to feel okay.”
You could call the current preening crop of kids the Narcissistic Generation, but apparently it’s no fun to always be staring at your reflection in the pool. Research also indicates anxiety and depression are on the rise among young adults, as well as failure to reach personal goals.
One business executive notes, “I’ve had new hires become irate when they’re not rewarded with all the goodies right away, but they don’t seem to understand that they need to put in years of hard work in order to achieve what they want in life.”
I think there are two main reasons for this rising tide of narcissists.
First is the cultural premium put on building up self-esteem — the idea that everyone gets a trophy just for participating, and no one gets critiqued on actual performance. A few nights ago I trounced my eldest son, age 9, at a rather spirited match of chess. He became upset when, late in the game, I took a rather dramatic advantage before forcing him to resign. Despite him playing well, he still lost to me and he bemoaned this fact. I told him if he wanted to beat me, he was simply going to have to get better at chess because I wasn’t going to “let” him win.
“I love you too much to treat you as though you are any less capable than you are,” I said. “Get better at chess and beat me honestly, but don’t ask for something you’ve not earned.”
Another reason is the flood of social media and related technologies.
Psychiatrist Keith Ablow has been writing a great deal the past few years about the toxic psychological impact of media and technology on children, adolescents and young adults, particularly as it regards turning them into faux celebrities — the equivalent of lead actors in their own fictionalized life stories.
“Using computer games,” he said, “our sons and daughters can pretend they are Olympians, Formula 1 drivers, rock stars or sharpshooters. These are the psychological drugs of the 21st century, and they are getting our sons and daughters very sick, indeed.”
We need to encourage in our kids empathy, hard work, and more real-world, face-to-face interactions. In addition, we must help our children develop compassion and do things that are worthy.
The church is a great place — or, at least, it should be. The church has a duty to provide young people with consistent role models and solid, biblical teaching and encouragement on how they can develop the vision, faith, and humility that are required to live lives of true — rather than virtual — significance.
And of course, parents must be vigilant against nurturing a culture of narcissism in our communities of faith, shifting our gaze away from our own reflections and onto God.
We would all do well to remember our Lord’s own “punch line” to the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 18: “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”