In this week’s Success Newsletter, I would like to talk about ‘how special are you?’ and the difference between plastic self-esteem and authentic self-esteem.
First a quick update:
Hollywood continues to portray women as sexual objects – “The new female comedian has to be the sexual aggressor, sexually provocative, dominant & successful.” Read my insights on FoxNews.com: https://www.foxnews.com/entertainment/2011/10/12/new-crop-comediennes-combine-funny-bones-with-banging-bodies/
Now, let’s talk about “How special are you?”
“On a reality TV show, a girl planning her Sweet Sixteen wants a major road blocked off so a marching band can precede her grand entrance on a red carpet. Five times as many Americans undergo plastic surgery and cosmetic procedures as ten years ago, and ordinary people hire fake paparazzi to follow them around to make them look famous. High school students physically attack classmates and post YouTube videos of the beatings to get attention. And for the past several years, Americans have been buying McMansions and expensive cars on credit they can’t afford.” – The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement – by Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell. 2009
Jean Twenge is a Professor of Psychology at San Diego State University. She quotes me in her book above speaking about celebrity narcissism, Paris Hilton and others.
In an hour-long recorded conversation, Professor Twenge and I debated various points about narcissism and its causes. Professor Twenge believes that narcissism became widespread from the 1980s onwards largely due to parenting, the media and the self-esteem movement. (You can listen to our recorded interview and conversation here: https://patrickwanis.com/blog/selflove/Packages
“We live in a time when high self-esteem is encouraged from childhood, when young people have more freedom and independence than ever, but also far more depression, anxiety, cynicism, and loneliness… More than any other generation in history, the children of Baby Boomers are disappointed by what they find when they arrive at adulthood.” – Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled — and More Miserable Than Ever Before – by Jean M. Twenge. 2006
Professor Twenge and I have differing opinions about self-esteem as the cause of narcissism. Professor Twenge argues that parents continually tell their children how special they are and therefore the children grow up feeling entitled and turn into narcissists. However, I refer to narcissism as fake or plastic self-esteem and argue therefore that authentic self-esteem is not the cause of narcissism.
A narcissistic person is self-promoting, self-indulgent, selfish, self-serving, promiscuous, highly competitive, unable to form meaningful relationships, displays strong and aggressive reactions to criticism or rejection, suffers from deep insecurities and is motivated by instant gratification.
But I do agree with Professor Twenge that parents are a primary cause of narcissism: not when tell their children they are special but when they tell them that they are special for no reason. And here is where the argument begins, not with the academic psychologists and researchers but rather with the New Age teachers who believe that we are all naturally special and wonderful because we are children of God or some similar argument i.e. we are all wonderful for just being here.
While that principle sounds poetically and philosophically inspiring and warming to the heart, it doesn’t translate with the psychological and behavioral development of a child. Here we are presented with two extremes – 1. The parents who destroy a child’s self-esteem by continually judging, condemning and criticizing the child and; 2. The parents who create narcissists by continually telling their children they are special and winners even when they do nothing at all (thus instilling fake self-esteem, entitlement and greed.)
Humans have six core emotional needs – including significance, challenges, love & connection, meaning & purpose and growth. https://patrickwanis.com/blog/getting-your-six-needs/
Authentic significance occurs when a person feels that they are needed and are making a difference – when they are contributing. The experience of fulfillment and pride in one’s abilities and achievements only occurs when one faces challenges, conquers them and achieves something of note – even if that simply entails completing chores around the house, writing an essay, passing an exam or performing in a co-curricular activity. Love and connection occurs when there is real intimacy in the relationship (vulnerability, triumph, disappointment and failure); this cannot occur when a parent tells a child that he or she is a winner even though they lost the race, failed the test or didn’t even make an effort; or when a parent prevents the child from experiencing loss or disappointment. Motivation is replaced with entitlement when a child believes that he or she has to do nothing in the world to succeed or to possess whatever her heart desires.
Children need authentic praise, feedback, guidance, discipline and structure. Although the human brain doesn’t fully develop until we are in our mid-twenties, children recognize the difference between earned praise and fake adoration. And I believe it is this ability to perceive the difference between earned praise and fake praise that leads to such emptiness, anxiety and depression in adulthood; at a subconscious level the person realizes that there is not authentic achievement in what they are doing because the parents never really saw him as an individual because they were too busy praising him no matter what he did or how he performed or behaved. It is impossible for a child to learn to appreciate his individuality when he is always told he is better than everyone else and never taught to recognize and appreciate the individuality, uniqueness and differences in others.
Anxiety is also created in the adult because the parents never allowed the child to experience the full range of emotions including disappointment, loss and fear. And instant gratification and constant consumerism are created in the adult because the parents never taught the child to appreciate the process of goal-setting, planning & working for the goal or the pride of attaining that goal. Loneliness is created in the adult because the parents never taught the child how to relate to others, how to give authentic praise, how to receive criticism or how to love and connect with another human being by identifying and accepting imperfections in self and others and learning to give and receive – not just constantly take.
If narcissism is fake or plastic self-esteem, what is real self-esteem?
Authentic self-esteem is simply how much you like yourself – how significant you feel and how talented and capable you believe you are. If you look at the examples of the narcissistic celebrities (including many of the TV reality stars and all of the Housewives TV series) you quickly see that although they scream loudly about how special they are, it is obvious that they do not like themselves and they have no meaning, significance, purpose or passion in their lives. In other words, their self-love is not organic or authentic – it is a desperate attempt to fill an inner emptiness, self-loathing and meaninglessness in life.
While the New Age movement and some spiritual leaders teach that we are human beings not human doings, they miss the point that we only feel fulfilled, worthy and significant when we are doing something truly beneficial for others. Yes, when we are giving and helping others is the moment that we truly feel and believe we are special. When we express love, we feel more significant and we raise our self-esteem!
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I wish you the best and remind you “Believe in yourself -You deserve the best!”
Patrick Wanis Ph.D.
Celebrity Life Coach, Human Behavior & Relationship Expert & SRTT Therapist