The Narcissism Myth

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Jesse Kuhn /

According to a new study, college students would rather get a boost in self-esteem, from a good grade or a compliment, than eat their favorite food or have sex. And apparently the conclusion one should extract from this data is clear: Young people today are super into themselves.

Narcissism has long been the diagnosis for Generation Y, a complex seemingly born of inflated grades, helicopter moms, and overscheduled childhoods. For evidence, one need only consider all those fresh faces basking for hours a day in the sickly glow of smartphones and MacBooks, uploading an endless stream of “candid” and “coy” pics.

Last year’s New York Times Magazine cover story “What Is It About 20-Somethings?” topped its website’s rankings for weeks, passive-aggressively forwarded, no doubt, by many parents–and consumed ravenously by the twentysomethings who are, of course, tickled by anything in which we headline.

New York Times columnist David Brooks followed up in late January. “Children are raised amid a chorus of applause,” he wrote. Entitled punks are the new American majority, Brooks and many of his fellow commentators harrumph. We are righteous in our beliefs and throw tantrums when we’re denied. Our political culture is uncivil, because it was raised that way.

Given that our brattishness even made its way into conversations about the shootings in Tucson earlier this year, it seems worth questioning the basic premise behind all of the finger wagging.

The definition of narcissism is to excessively love or admire oneself, at the expense of others. Narcissists are, for example, bad boyfriends. But young people today aren’t so much narcissistic as needy. If anything, we are obsessed with relationships. We don’t hurl our bursting egos into the Internet, but build our self-esteem through likes, re-tweets, views, and comments.

Young people don’t blog out of self-love, but in pursuit of affirmation. We didn’t grow up “amid a chorus of applause,” but with intense parental pressure, as competition for college spots soared. We got the message not that we surpassed all expectations, but that expectations surpassed our human limits.

Our society is becoming more superficial, as Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell argue in their book The Narcissism Epidemic. But that’s what happens when the average person is exposed to 3,000 ads a day telling him or her to need things. We start wanting things we don’t need.

As for Generation Y in particular: Yes, we’re schlepping toward adulthood, living with mom and dad at the age they got married, and dabbling post-college as assistants and interns for a “stipend.” But that’s what happens when stable, lifetime employment becomes a wistful mirage. It’s just much easier to blame Facebook than the post-Fordist economy.

College students today get their headiest high from a self-esteem fix. This doesn’t mean they’re ego addicts. A lot of us are just driven and self-aware, preferring a good grade to a quickie and a bucket of fried chicken.

Claire Gordon is a Yale graduate student. Excerpted from The Huffington Post (Feb. 3, 2011).

This article first appeared in the May-June 2011 issue of Utne Reader.

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