In the study, two thirds of 16,475 students surveyed responded positively to statements like “I think I am a special person,” or “I can live my life any way I want to.”
Students in 2006 scored 30 percent higher on the standardized inventory than students in 1982, ranking their narcissism nearly as high as the average celebrity. Jean Twenge, a San Diego State psychology professor and lead author of the study, noted that people high in narcissism lack empathy for others, are aggressive when insulted, and favour self-enhancement over helping others look good.
In Greek mythology, Narcissus is a beautiful youth who fell in love with his own reflection. A victim of his own self-adoration, he pined away until he died and the gods changed him into the narcissus flower, some varieties of which contain a sleep-inducing drug, giving us the word “narcotic.” Because Narcissus was numb to the feelings of those who admired and loved him, he came to stand for callousness and insensitivity as well as self-love.
While grandiosity, a sense of entitlement, and self-centeredness are qualities that may run rampant in contemporary college students, they are also familiar traits of alcoholics and drug addicts throughout history.
“As the Big Book of ‘Alcoholics Anonymous’ points out, the core problem of many addicts is that they are egocentric yet they have inferiority complexes,” said Cecelia Jayme, supervisor of a women’s treatment unit at Hazelden. “They have a tendency to try to control everything around them and think that if only they were in charge, everyone would be better off. In recovery, addicts learn to look beyond themselves.
“When you step outside the center of your own universe and let a Higher Power get in there, you become ‘other focused,’ ” continued Jayme. “That’s not to say you stop taking care of yourself, but you allow others in. You let them have a say, and you stop taking everything that goes wrong or right personally.” In other words, you discover it really isn’t all about you.
The authors of the narcissism study, which is said to be the largest of its kind ever conducted, trace today’s “all-about-me” phenomenon to the self-esteem movement of the 1980s, when adults were encouraged to shower praise and emphasize how special their children were in efforts to build self-confidence. Jayme agrees. “Many parents have been overindulgent, and young people now think they are entitled to all the things their parents have without putting in any effort,” she said.
Jayme attributes the self-centeredness of today’s youth to what she calls a “spiritual disconnect.” “At our core we are spiritual beings trying to be human. If we avoid our spiritual well being, it leaves a big hole, and young people try to fill that void with external and material things. They want the best clothing, the best haircut. They go to college and want to live in a condo rather than the dorm. They really believe they are entitled to the condo. That’s why they get caught up in drugs and sexual acting out. I believe it’s a reflection of a spiritual thirst.”
According to Jayme, that’s why people in Twelve Step recovery can serve as helpful examples when it comes to overcoming narcissism.
“When you recognize that you are powerless over people, places, and things, you discover inner strengths. If you reach out for help, there is hope. You can change negative behaviors and thinking. When you work the Steps, you identify your shortcomings and then start going beyond yourself to see how your actions affect others. When you get to Step Twelve, you learn you can actually be of service to others. You learn how to ‘pay it forward.’ Twelve Step people can teach young people that their worth is there, it just needs to be uncovered and put to good use.”
Alive & Free is a health column that offers information to help prevent and address addiction and substance abuse problems. It is provided by Hazelden, a non-profit agency based in Center City, Minn., that offers a wide range of information and services on addiction and recovery.