Narcissism Has Reached Epidemic Levels in the United States — Could Self-Compassion be the Cure?

-by Carolanne Wright

Narcissism is on the rise. We see it on social media, in friends and family — even ourselves. In fact, Jean Twenge, author of Generation Me, believes we are experiencing a “narcissism epidemic” in America. To explore the idea, she surveyed more than 15,000 US college students between 1987 and 2006. During those two decades, levels of narcissism soared — with an astonishing 65 percent of modern-day students ranking higher in narcissism than what we’ve seen in previous generations. Self-esteem also rose, surpassing the upsurge of narcissism throughout the same time period. This has researchers and mental health professionals concerned — largely because self-esteem has a dark side, one of increased aggression, prejudice and anger toward those who threaten such a fragile sense of self-worth. Bullying on the playground is a prime example. All the same, we also don’t want to have low self-esteem. So what’s the answer? Self-compassion, says Kristen Neff, a psychology professor at the University of Texas.

The Quest for High Self-Esteem

Take a stroll down the self-help aisle of your local bookshop and you will be confronted with an almost overwhelming selection of titles promoting how to get, raise and keep high self-esteem. In the US, this self-help movement has its basis in competition — it doesn’t matter how amazing you are in your parenting and work, or how physically fit, there is always someone who’s smarter, in better shape, richer or more successful. For Americans, this is unacceptable. Subsequently, a 10-billion-dollar-a-year self-help industry was born — to the great financial benefit of therapists, pharmaceutical companies, book publishers and personal improvement gurus.

“Our culture has become so competitive that we need to feel special and above average to just to feel okay about ourselves—being called “average” is now an insult,” writes Neff

She points out that, due to extreme competitiveness, we need to puff ourselves up, while putting others down, just so we can be secure in ourselves. But it’s a double-edged sword as competition also feeds feelings of isolation and separation. Once you’ve achieved high self-esteem, it becomes an “emotional roller-coaster ride: Our sense of self-worth bounces around like a Ping-Pong ball, rising and falling in lockstep with our latest success or failure,” says Neff. We can also fall into a depression when our performance or our person is deemed “ordinary”, causing our self-esteem bubble to burst.

Jean Twenge agrees, but also adds that it’s not necessarily high self-esteem that’s the problem, but the way we pursue it — which usually involves a feeling of specialness and being better than others. We can think of it this way: it’s not that you have it, rather what you do to get it. Although, in truth, there’s a much more insidious side to being overly confident: narcissism.

Neff thinks we’ve encouraged generations of narcissists by creating a culture of competition and comparing our achievements to those around us, as well as putting such enormous emphasis on self-esteem. She believes there’s a better way — by focusing on self-compassion.

The Path of True Self-Worth

The foundation of self-compassion involves being kind to ourselves — instead of harsh or self-critical — when life doesn’t go the way we want or if we see something about ourselves that we find unpleasant. With an orientation of self-compassion, we realize we aren’t perfect, but actually human — just like everyone else. When we view ourselves in this way, it fosters a feeling of connection with others on this human journey. As Neff points out, “It means treating yourself with the same kind of kindness, care, compassion, as you would treat those you care about—your good friends, your loved ones.”

She goes onto say it’s crucial to differentiate self-compassion from self-esteem:

“Self-esteem refers to the degree to which we evaluate ourselves positively. It represents how much we like or value ourselves, and is often based on comparisons with others. In contrast, self-compassion is not based on positive judgments or evaluations; it is a way of relating to ourselves. People feel self-compassion because they are human, not because they are special or above average. It emphasizes interconnection rather than separateness. With self-compassion, you don’t have to feel better than others to feel good about yourself. It also offers more emotional stability than self-esteem because it is always there for you—when you’re on top of the world, and when you fall flat on your face.”

Multiple studies have found self-compassion far surpasses self-esteem in overall benefits. One example is a large survey of over 3,000 people from diverse backgrounds. The results showed that, like high self-esteem, those who have self-compassion experience less depression and greater happiness — but they also have higher levels of self-worth. The researchers speculate this may be related to the fact that self-compassion isn’t contingent on success or physical beauty — and has absolutely zero association with narcissism, whereas self-esteem does.

Another study asked participants to bring to mind a previous failure, rejection or loss which triggers bad feelings about themselves. Then the researchers asked one group to think about the situation in a manner that increased their self-compassion, the other group was told to think about the event in ways that protected or increased their self-esteem. Those who used self-compassion had less negative emotions than the participants in the self-esteem group. Interestingly, the self-compassion group also took more personal responsibility for the event, compared to the other group. Neff believes this demonstrates that self-compassion doesn’t require us to blame others in order to feel positive about ourselves.

She leaves us with this final thought:

“Instead of endlessly chasing self-esteem like a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, I would argue that we should encourage the development of self-compassion. That way, whether we’re on top of the world or at the bottom of the heap, we can embrace ourselves with kindness, connectedness, and emotional balance.”

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