What’s with all the hubbub about narcissism recently? This past week a study by the National Academy of Sciences reported that certain styles of parenting can actually foster a sense of narcissism. At one point, the report stated, “Children believe it when their parents tell them that they are more special than others.” In other words, inflated praise for children that uncritically feeds esteem, doesn’t help them gain a realistic picture of themselves, others, and the world (NPR article).
What is narcissism? According to Greek mythology, Narcissus was evidently one stud. His enemy Nemesis, the goddess of revenge, tricked him into viewing his reflection in a pool of water. Unable to take his eyes off himself, Narcissus drowned in his own image (there are multiple versions – one has Narcissus killing himself because he couldn’t have himself completely). So the term narcissist came to mean a person who was fixated on him/herself in self-absorption.
It seems the awareness of narcissism has been increasing. There’s even been articles regarding warning signs of narcissistic pastors (Epiclesis article). There’s even a spoof of it (The Onion). The problem with creating little narcissistic people is that it’s incredibly difficult to know the limits of how much one should love themselves. This is really the problem with any talk of self-esteem – what are the limits to esteeming myself? Should one love themselves unconditionally? What does that even look like? While it sounds good on a talk show, can a person even do that or is it wise to even do that? In some ways, it’s much like another problem we have in the west. How much is enough to live comfortably? Give that we all consume to some extent, how does one know when they have enough “stuff”? As someone once told me once, your needs are insatiable (or never satisfied). You can always cook up reasons for wanting more.
What hopefully is evident quickly is this kind of over-parenting will leave kids drowning in a pool of self-admiration. The need to “feel good about oneself” is insatiable. Rather than leading to emotional health and living in reality it actually ends up promoting vices like pride, fear, gluttony, envy, anger, lust and even sloth while encouraging living in a kind of non-reality. So when parents cater to their children’s every whim it should not surprise anyone that the end up with little narcissists who feel entitled and rant when they can’t get their way or people disagree with them. These little narcissists grow up to be adult narcissists.
The message of God’s love is always connected with the message of one’s own inherent brokenness. The Latin phrase incurvitas en se was probably coined by Augustine in trying to describe the Apostle Paul’s teaching in Romans 7. Martin Luther furthered it by explaining that sin was a radical bending inward through self-promotion, self-salvation, self-justification, self-protection, etc. That is the default mode of the heart. I consider Sören Kierkegaard’s description of sin helpful as the inability to transparently be oneself before God leaving one in a state of despair (The Sickness Unto Death). The universal experience of sin (contrary to Joel Osteen’s omission, who in my opinion, exemplifies a kind of Christian narcissism), is more than just “doing bad things”. There’s something about our heart that feeds on narcissism.
The answer to narcissism is really not “stop it” because, again, the default mode of the heart is bent in. Besides, it’s really hard to stop “I love me some me” after a person has spent years in forming this kind of character. Whatever the radical bending inward is, there must be something to radically bend us outward in love, compassion, and good deeds. To even battle against narcissism one must be able to gain an honest look at their own heart and admit they are adrift in a “sea of me”. They really have to see the depth of how bent inward they are. But they also need to experience love not as a concept but as relational love, which brings a calming sense of security. It’s the power to get outside of yourself; to give yourself away to others.
To think they spent all that money on a study when I could have told them for free…