PBS NewsHour reports in “How Not To Raise A Narcissist” [March 9] that children who are told “I love you” rather than being told they are “special” or “superior” are less likely to become narcissists. But then there are group of thinkers that believe it is not the children who grow up hearing that they are special that become narcissists, but rather the ones that are undervalued.
That report made me think, am I a narcissist? I’m a millennial, after all, and previous generations think we are by far the most narcissistic generation–vain, entitled, materialistic and overall jerks–which stings a little when you think about it in those terms; terms that are not at all how I see myself.
I did grow up hearing I was special, however, not because I’m any better than the next person but because I think my mother and grandmother felt they needed to overcompensate for the absence of my father. I was constantly being reminded that I was special because they were trying to fill a void and soothe the fear in my mind that perhaps I was unworthy of being loved because my dad wasn’t around.
“When people attempt to raise children’s self-esteem, they might sometimes inadvertently use ‘overvaluing’ practices, such as conveying to children that they are superior to others,” University of Amsterdam postdoctoral researcher and lead author of the 2015 study “Origins of narcissism in children” Eddie Brummelman said. “Instead of raising self-esteem, these practices may predict higher narcissism levels.”
How much damage did being called “special” really do?
In my quest to learn more about narcissism, I took the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, a self-esteem test. Out a possible 40 points I scored a 7 on the quiz. According to the test results the average person scores between 12 and 15, celebrities often score closer to 18 and narcissists score over 20. So, hooray! Quantitatively speaking, I’m not a narcissist compared to most others. But there was one finding in my results that concerned me. Even with a rather low score of 7, I scored 3 of my 7 points in the superiority category.
Narcissism is not only an issue that plagues those born between the 1980s and 2000s. Most children, adolescents and even adults throughout time have suffered with the character flaw. The only difference, in my opinion, is that they didn’t have thousands of social media platforms on which to put their narcissism on a display.
In Bela Grunberger studies of narcissism between the 1950s and 70s he coined the terms “narcissistic elation” which described something he called “prenatal bliss,” a time when a person experienced wholeness, oneness and “a state of megalomaniacal (delusions of their own power or importance) happiness amounting to a perfect homeostasis, devoid of needs or desires.” In other words, Grunberger believed narcissism starts in the womb and the characteristics we exhibit as children and adults are our attempt to achieve the feeling of being the center of attention we experience while in utero.
Grunberger’s studies also revealed the possibility of a positive and negative display of narcissistic elation: either a quest for isolation or for intense connectedness. The trait could be beneficial in terms of leadership, but a hindrance in terms of entitlement.
As a Christian who is often encouraged with scriptures that tell me I am special, created for a purpose and designed to accomplish great things, I wonder how much of a role does religion play in narcissism? I think the purpose of those kind of scriptures and Bible stories of great leaders are to help people understand that while we are created for a special purpose, whatever we do, create, accomplish is NOT done out of our own power or for our own glorification.
I am not the center of the universe. Neither are you. We are, however, very integral parts of how things function in the world. I don’t believe thinking one is special is necessarily bad. Thinking that one is the only one who is special seems to breed more of the negative aspects of narcissism, namely isolation and a false sense of superiority.