Young people need to feel good about themselves – but not too good

by Marc Wilson / 05 September, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - Young people self-esteem narcissism

Salvador Dali’s Metamorphosis of Narcissus. Image/Alamy

Narcissism is not just good self-esteem, but a different flavour. It’s a kind of fragile self-esteem, says psychology professor Marc Wilson.

So you know I love Salvador Dalí’s surrealist paintings, right? Well, my favourite Dalí is Metamorphosis of Narcissus. I once saw it IRL (as the young folk say – In Real Life) at the Tate Gallery when I was a youngster, and it was even better than it looked in books. In it, Narcissus is shown kneeling by a pond admiring his reflection until he literally turns into a flower. Or, at least, a flower emerging from an egg being held by a hand rising out of the water. I’ll return to this.

In my team of students, the phrase, “Adolescence is a time of change”, is prohibited because it’s so obviously true that it really doesn’t need to be said. Use those six words for something else.

One of the things that is a-changing is how young people think of themselves and their place in the world.

We want young people to have what it takes to successfully negotiate their way through the world, and to feel confident that they’ve got what it takes to do so. This subjective feeling of competence, value, and self-like is, of course, self-esteem. It’s not the sole preserve of young folk, either – we all have it to some extent, and we all need it. Low self-esteem is a pretty reliable predictor of most things bad, from depression and anxiety to cognitive faculties like memory and attention.

In fact, self-esteem generally increases with age. While self-esteem might tail off a bit as people reach advanced old age, the older you are, the better you feel about yourself. Very importantly, men tend to feel better about themselves than women, regardless of how old they are.

So, while 16- to 20-year-olds are at the relative bottom of the self-esteem pecking order, they do come tops in another league table, narcissism. While positive self-esteem means feeling good about yourself and at least as worthy as others, narcissism takes this off the chart – you’re not only the good shizzle, but the very best shizzle. Anyone who doesn’t appreciate how fantastic you are is not only deluded, but missing out on the opportunity to bask in your greatness.

Photo/Getty Images

Fun research shows, among other things, that as you move down the country, New Zealanders become less narcissistic. North Islanders are more narcissistic than their mainland cousins, and Aucklanders … well, Aucklanders are, on average, the most self-involved of us all.

Unsurprisingly, the more narcissistic you are, the more attractive you think you are. In one fun study, researchers stopped bystanders on the footpath and asked them to quickly complete a measure of narcissism, thanked them, and then watched as they walked away, past a shiny reflective storefront. Sure enough, the people who paused to check themselves out scored higher on narcissism.

This last is at least a little ironic, because objective comparisons of the facial attractiveness of large samples of people show that narcissists are no more (nor less) attractive than anyone else.

Taken to its extreme, narcissistic self-love may be diagnosable as narcissistic personality disorder – something that’s not fun for the people around a narcissist, or the narcissist themselves. Narcissism is not just good self-esteem, but a different flavour. It’s a kind of fragile self-esteem – you think you’re the shizzle, but deep down you worry that you’re not. The narcissist lashes out when their self-esteem is questioned.

So back to young folk. How we treat them has a part to play in the kind of self-esteem they develop. This is not just about telling a young person they can be anything they want, but helping provide opportunities to learn to do things competently. Give a boy his laundry and you clothe him for a day, but teach a boy to launder and you’re adding to the foundation of a competent human being.

This article was first published in the August 25, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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