Thursday, March 01, 2007

American Narcissism

Part of the maturation process for humans is learning to defer the need for immediate gratification. Our first instinctive behavior is the act of drawing attention to ourselves through the act of crying. It's usually the first thing we do when we're born. As much as we adore our newborns, we also recognize that they are, at least temporarily, little tyrants who are running the show. For the first few months, we cater to their every need on an immediate basis. The first milestone in parenting comes when Baby "sleeps through the night", which, to some parents, is better than winning the lottery.

Eventually though, Baby must learn that there are times when a need cannot or will not be immediately met. Child psychologists will encourage parents to allow the baby to cry it out, not only for purposes of their own sanity, but to allow the infant to begin learning to soothe itself. It becomes a fact of life that those needs aren't always paramount: Sometimes there aren't any cookies at hand, or sometimes the desired toy belongs to another child. Such is life.

Houston, we have a problem.

Somewhere along the line, a great many parents are apparently forgetting the chapter on "immediate gratification". Who among us the last few years hasn't been in Church, or Temple, or a restaurant or movie theatre and encountered a child who hasn't quite grasped the concept of "wait a minute"? And no, I'm not saying this is something entirely new; we've all got a memory of a "spoiled brat" or a bully who wreaked havoc on the social scene.

Those kids stand out in our memories because it didn't seem as though there were a whole lot of them. There was usually one "class clown", "school bully", while the rest pretty much toed the line.

And hereis lies the difficulty. Those bullies and tyrants didn't quite get it. They never got past the infant stage of "immediate gratification" which translated to getting used to getting their own way when they said so, which pretty much translated to trouble. The class clowns were attention hounds, who sought out means to get attention that they were used to, and that they liked. Sometimes there was a cross-breed of class clown and bully who got attention at the expense of others.

The problem is, these days it seems like there are a whole lot more of them. 30 years ago, you might be in a theater, or in Church, Temple or a restaurant, and encounter a kid who was carrying on, and a parent would bundle the offender up and take him outside or to the back of the room. Who is going to deny that nowadays, those places prove that the Circus isn't limited to the Big Top anymore?

Scientists are tracing this problem back to the "self-esteem" movement that surfaced in the 1980's, and that the effort to build self-confidence has gone too far. A study from San Diego State University offers that today's college students are more narcissistic and self-centered than their predecessors, and that this trend is harmful to personal relationships and society in general. And you can be sure that if they're finding this among college students, there's a pretty good chance that the findings could bleed out to cover a whole host of other members of society.

We're out of control.

Now don't misunderstand me. There is absolutely nothing wrong with encouragement. There is no problem with praise, and building self-esteem. There never has been. We love movies like "Rocky", "Rudy", and "Cinderella Man, or for that matter, "Cinderella".We like to see instances where the "little guy" wins one. And it's never wrong to try your best. But we have to remember that the best "storybook" lives aren't 100% perfect. The characters in the aforementioned stories all had lives chock-full of disappointments and adversity. It was what they did with those disappointments, how they dealt with the obstacles that made them great and brought us the happy endings.

Truth be told, I believe that what makes those stories so lovable is the fact that they don't always happen that way. Sometimes the bad guy wins; sometimes we don't turn out to be the best. Like it or not, there can only be one "greatest" at a time. There's plenty of room for runners up, and sometimes that's not a bad thing. Where I think we've crossed the line is in taking a little encouragement and praise and morphed it into a form of brainwashing. We love our families, our kids, and our friends. We want them to all feel good. But the real world has the propensity to see us just a little differently than our own does.But in the world, one is likely to meet with many, many instances of criticism, both constructive and destructive. There isn't a parent among us who doesn't want believe that his child is the best athlete, the most talented musician, but when we come to grips with reality, sometimes someone else's kid is top dog. Where I think there's a big disservice to the children occurring is in how we teach these kids to deal with those facts.

What kind of confusion must be reigning out there these days? We've always liked to believe that it's what goes on with our minds and intelligence that really matters, and we'd always encouraged education as the way to do. Yet, that's not what's really going on. Time was, our exposure to the media consisted of an hour or two in front of the living room TV before bedtime. In today's society, the media is a pervasive force in a huge percentage of our lives. If there's no time for TV, we can access the Internet, or carry an iPod. We can take our entertainment everywhere we go with a fancy cell phone. It's everywhere, and what are we seeing? We celebrate the "Bad Boys", the "Girls Gone Wild", and what, in fact, is their claim to fame? Physical attractiveness? Even those who are behind, or approve of the movement toward "Real Beauty"...perhaps different means, but the same "end": we all want our share of the spotlight. And in some cases, people will do whatever they can to achieve their "15 minutes of fame".

We're greatly becoming a culture of people who lack empathy, react aggressively toward any type of criticism, and favor self-promotion over helping others, according to Jean Twenge, over at San Diego State University. She's written a book entitled "Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans are more Confident, Assertive, Entitles - And More Miserable Than Ever Before". She notes that narcissists are "more likely to have romantic relationships that are short-lived, at risk for infidelity, lack emotional warmth and to exhibit game-playing dishonesty and over-controlling and violent behavior."

If you've taken to reading blogs and such on the Internet, you can see that while Twenge's assessment doesn't apply to evert single person, you can also see that she is not entirely off base. If you're like me, you read blogs written by definitive narcissists, or the people who aren't narcissistic, but who are trying to find their way in a world where it's really become a case of "me first".

I know this whole discussion isn't typical of what anyone who reads has become accustomed to, but I'm really seeing a problem. We've become way too indulgent, far too willing to accept essentially anti-social behavior. Bullying has become so pervasive, that in some instances, as in recent cases on, for example, it's seen as a form of entertainment. There are an increasingly disturbing number of people who see such behavior as simply "kids being kids", as if it's all harmless.

A recent "controversy" in Hollywoodland involves a young woman who is a contestant on the American Idol competition. Seems some photographs of her have made their way around the Internet, ones that might hinder her chances in the competition. There was a whole section of the Idol website devoted to the discussion of this matter, and in one discussion that went slightly off-topic, one poster objected to the young lady's choice of venue for her photographs, which I believe was the World War II Memorial. Another poster, who was aiming to dismiss those objections, simply stated, "It's just a monument, who cares?"

Exactly the point. It's a monument built in honor of those who gave their lives in defense of this nation's freedoms, but to her, it's "just a monument". If there was ever an example of a lack of "empathy", this was it.

I apologize for this lengthy discussion, but as a parent trying to do the right thing as far as raising my children, I'm more worried every day that the values I'm trying to instill in my kids will have little place or value in the society that I see evolving around me.

Ironically, I guess it's somewhat narcissistic of me to expect anyone to read this amount of drivel, but if you have, thanks.


  1. Hey, I made it through all the 'drivel' ;)

    The first place we can start is within the walls of our own home. Parents should lead by example and instill in their chilren proper morals and values. Jimmy, it sounds like you are making a valiant effort in that dept.

    I too feel like we have overindulged, spoiled, self-absorbed people running around. It is evident EVERYWHERE and we are paying for it as a society. Think of how morals and values have plummeted; regard for authority has plummeted; and in my opinion, true patriotism has plummeted.

    Thankgoodness for individuals who know what's right and are trying to make a positive difference.

  2. Anonymous5:14 PM

    I've read the whole thing, and now have limited time to respond. I hate to sound so trite as in "I couldn't agree more...", but it truly is a big gripe of mine. And it's comforting in a way to hear of a like mind.
    I do believe that it is an epidemic of sorts, and only through good articles (such as this) and good examples (as you provide), will this change. I do my best to help both the kids and adults in these situations.
    I also feel that many addictions stem from the need for immediate gratification. People do not learn how to cope with uncomfortable feelings, so they numb out any way they can do it the quickest.
    Anyway, I gotta get to work now.

    Well done, my friend...well done.


  3. AMEN.

    That's all I have to say--you said the rest. And I couldn't agree with you more.

    Annie =)

  4. Anonymous1:45 AM

    send this to local paper and offer to write a weekly column. Barb

  5. Amen. I was at the symphony with my ex (we're good friends) a couple of weeks ago, and there were three young girls, maybe 8 years old, whispering and giggling during the concert. I gave them "the look"...several times...and I'm happy to say, it still works. They didn't appear frightened (as my kids were by "the look") but rather sullen and resentful. What did I care, they were quiet. After the concert, I told my ex that I accept full responsibility for any self-esteem problems our 4 adult children may have, because as much as I love them (and I do) I would never have permitted them to misbehave in public in that way...and I guess that's hard on self esteem.

    Good post.


  6. Jimmy, this was so good, and I couldn't agree with you more.

  7. All we can do is to set good examples for our children. We ARE their #1 teachers.

  8. You nailed this Jimmy! Dave and I have three daughters and I see it clearly. I did not raise my girls to be like this...promise! You must send this to the paper. Well done!

  9. Anonymous10:36 PM

    We have children having children, public schools that are a disaster, TV and movies that promote this kind of behavior, and those crying discrimination, or prejudice when they don't get their way, or are made to follow the rules. It is a sad thing to see this all around us. We have to keep trying to make things better starting with our own family and close friends.
    Great entry and responses.

  10. I drank up this entry like I was dying of thirst.

    Thank you. Thank you for letting me know someone else gets it. Someone that's raising a child that will, no doubt, fight back the same things their father is when they have children.

    I feel exactly the same way and these are people in MY generation and the ones after me that are the worst. I have the hardest time relating to anyone my age because I just don't believe that I deserve everything, that I'm entitled to be happy in all senses. I didn't think I needed a car for my 16th, I didn't think I deserved to go to NYC in Oct just because I'm me, I don't think I deserve this and that just because I roll out of bed in the morning.

    Why is it that kids can't ENCOURAGE and CONGRADULATE the best player, the winner, the most artistic person, and instead feel a need to back stab? Am I really daffed in thinking that people actually knew how to be gracious losers?

    Thank you for writing this, it made my day.


  11. Fanbloodytastic writing. I am so with you on this one. Yep I made it through the drivel too and have time to comment. How good am I? LOL. Can't wait to read more of your words Jimmy

  12. Anonymous8:07 AM

    Though I completely agree, I choose, myself to focus more on the punishment of people and how it relates to our narcissistic American society. Because our society, as a whole, and like any religion, believe our morals and values to be superior to those of anyone elses. I recently wrote a pursuasive speech completely proving that serial killers aren't even the least bit immoral in what they do based from this commonly overlooked fact. So, I just want to say, keep up the good work!

  13. Anonymous6:31 PM

    8:07 Anonymous = full of shit.

  14. Anonymous11:13 PM

    great scott, blogosphere!
    i am writing this from 4 years in the future (2011), and you are correct!
    hopefully i can get this flux capacitor working again.
    until then, be on the look out for one, sarah palin, who becomes the unquestioned narcissistic ruler of the world!


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