Narcissim and today’s loss of empathy
Adrienne Gross

Adrienne Gross

Narcissus was a beautiful youth. The son of a river god and a nymph, he was known for his extraordinary beauty and physique. He was beloved by the nymphs but he shunned their affections repeatedly. One day while hunting in the woods he stopped to take a drink from a clear pond. As he lowered his face to the water he saw his reflection, and thinking it was the most beautiful water nymph that he’d ever seen, he stayed by the pond obsessed by his own face until his charm, strength and eventually his own life, faded away. He was carried off into Hades where it is said that he still gazes at his reflection in the River Styx. The woodland nymphs created a lovely flower in his memory, the Narcissus—a delicate white flower of the daffodil family which grows and blooms in the spring.

You may or may not recognize this story from Greek mythology. I was a huge fan of mythology when I was in school. It was required reading for years, but I read Homer’s Odyssey for fun. It was always fascinating to me how these ancient tales were still applicable to interpersonal relations and referenced by many modern writers and scholars. The tale of Narcissus is unique, however, in its lesson on humility, its caution on the dangers of self-worship. (The only other Greek myth that comes to mind that is similar is that of Icarus).

Recently I saw a disturbing statistic which charted the steady rise of narcissism among America’s youth in conjunction with the decline of empathy.

This graph (made by a non-profit organization called The Positivity Project) is not surprising to me in what it reveals, but it is certainly disconcerting. This jump in narcissism seems to have started back in the 1980s when schools, especially, launched a movement to emphasize “self-esteem.” To teach kids that they needed to first, esteem themselves.

In his article entitled, How The Self-Esteem Craze Took Over America on nymag.com, Jesse Singal says:

“If you grew up, or raised a child, during the 1980s or 1990s, you almost certainly remember this sort of material, as well as goofy classroom exercises focusing on how special each individual child was. A certain ethos took hold during this time: It was the job of schools to educate, yes, but also to instill in children a sense of their own specialness and potential. It wasn’t just schoolkids. During this span, just about everyone, from CEOs to welfare recipients, was told — often by psychologists with serious credentials — that improving their self-esteem could, as The Lovables put it, unlock the gates to more happiness, better performance, and every kind of success imaginable. This was both a personal argument and a political one: The movement, which had its epicenter in California, argued that increasing people’s self-esteem could reduce crime, teen pregnancy, and a host of other social ills — even pollution.”

It still baffles me why administrators and psychologists thought this would be a clever idea in the first place. Don’t human beings inherently think about themselves first anyway? Isn’t a child naturally selfish? Every toddler I’ve ever observed is. True, most people do possess a certain amount of kindness, some degree of generosity and altruism, but it doesn’t take much convincing for people to start believing that they need to look out for themselves and protect their own interests first. This is why you see battles for territory—whether it’s between two toddlers fighting over a spot on the see-saw, or Israel and Palestine fighting over the Gaza Strip.

I suppose the thinking in promoting self-esteem was that if children grow up with increased self-confidence, they won’t resort to dangerous or potentially damaging behavior. Using the theory that Singal highlighted in his above quote, if kids believe in themselves, they’ll realize that they don’t need to commit a crime because they can work harder to achieve their dreams; teenaged girls won’t get pregnant because they won’t feel pressured to give in to sex; oh, and let’s not forget that people with tons of self-esteem don’t litter or cause pollution because they are more self-aware and make sure to throw away their trash!

If we lived in a utopia where self-esteem can reign apart from selfishness, this movement may have worked exactly the way psychologists and school administrators hoped that it would. But alas, human nature is not programmable. Whereas there were probably many people who grew up being spoon-fed self-esteem and became self-reliant, capable adults, I would argue that there were even more who grew up believing that because they were so important, it was perfectly fine for them to step-on people who they perceived to be “beneath” them, or simply to look out for “number one” to the extent that they ignored everyone else. And then we handed all of them smart phones with cameras…oh boy.

Technology, like so many other modern tools that we have today, is only harmful when abused or wielded as a weapon. All of us have taken and posted selfies. Many of us have publicly posted personal achievements—like losing some weight, getting a promotion or winning an award. The instant feedback or praise that we receive from friends and family is a gift in and of itself. The immediate support people can provide us through social media is remarkable. However, research has also shown that our brains release dopamine when we look at our screens. It’s a response to what psychologists call “seeking behavior.”

So, what are we “seeking” all these years after being introduced to the importance of self-esteem? Like Narcissus beside the pond, are we infinitely gazing into our mobile screens, searching for a perfect reflection of ourselves? And does this addictive return to ourselves deprive us of practicing the skill of empathizing with those around us? Does it make us so short sighted that our privileged rights and reputations prevent us from being able to relate to others?

Richard Wellins, Senior Vice President of Development Dimensions International (DDI) argues that empathy is critical not only in personal relationships, but also in the work place: “Empathy, in turn, is the most important behavior in any conversation (leadership or otherwise). Empathy is about being aware of, and even experiencing, the feelings and thoughts of others. It often involves taking on the perspective of those you are talking with. It is important to note that empathy is not just feeling. It needs to translate into verbal and non-verbal behavior so that the receiver feels your empathy. And it must be expressed in a way that is sincere and authentic. In great part, the ability of a leader to empathize impacts employee engagement, retention and performance. It is critical to good teamwork. It helps fuel customer-centric innovation. Our own research revealed that the correlation between empathy and leadership performance was stronger than any other skill.”

The indications that our culture is losing the ability to empathize are very subtle, but if you start to pay attention to small interactions between people, you’ll notice them. You’ll notice it when someone is trying to merge into a lane of traffic, and everyone is in too great of a hurry to slow down and let the person in. You’ll notice it in the gym when people become territorial over a space in a class or a piece of equipment. You’ll notice it when a mother asks a group of teenagers to turn their music down, or to not curse around their young kids at the park, and the teens cuss at her or threaten her and her children. You’ll notice it when someone experiences the great loss of a spouse, and people who claimed to be friends don’t call or visit. You’ll notice it when someone must legitimately back out of a commitment they made, and others instantly become angry or offended without trying to understand the person’s reasons for breaking their plans. We all see it when we don’t get our way. Coincidentally, our culture is more depressed and medicated than ever.

It’s no wonder that organizations like The Positivity Project are trying to turn the self-esteem movement upside down by teaching kids to esteem others first. Their statement #otherpeoplematter seeks to convince this generation that is being raised on smart phones that there is a lot going on beyond their screens. The challenge for these kids is to fight the urge to look in, and instead look up, look out, and see that putting others first provides a unity and fulfillment for which we were made. When we try empathy, we stop seeing others as a means of comparison and instead we can join them in their triumphs, their struggles, their pain and their joys.

We have some close family friends who recently lost someone they love. His death was sudden and shocking to not only his family and friends, but to his entire community. The outpouring of support immediately following his death was great, but in the weeks that followed, it was interesting to see which local friends made good on their promises of emotional and physical help, and whose support didn’t extend past Facebook. It is not easy to enter someone’s struggle—it exposes you to uncomfortable silences, overwhelming emotions that are difficult to sort through and it may demand a good portion of your own time. But, choosing to empathize will prepare you for all the unknowns in your own future. It will build character, show you where you need to grow and change, reveal your strengths and weaknesses. Empathizing expands your network of friends and supporters; emboldens you to help in the fastest and most effective way possible; strengthens your interpersonal and leadership skills and gives you a deep sense of fulfillment.

Although the nymphs offered Narcissus all the affection he could ever want or need, he remained immobile and gazed at himself until he perished. How much better it is to gain strength by taking action than to be so consumed with ourselves that we miss the opportunities to bless those around us.

Adrienne Gross is a writer based in North Carolina. She is a lover of travel, fitness, wine, good conversation and quality time with her friends and husband and three young children. You can find her blog at presentlysite.blog or on Twitter at @adrienne_gross.