Is it possible to have too much self-esteem? A Google search finds many links addressing this. There is, for example a post on Psychology Today’s website, “Self-esteem and Narcissism, Can there be too much self-esteem?” (Posted on July 19, 2011- https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/am-i-right/201107/self-esteem-and-narcissism. Narcissism is not a healthy sense of self as it is egocentric and precludes the feelings and rights of others. In the Psychology Today post, the author makes a point of associating high self-esteem with empathy for others. Not surprisingly, narcissists tend to use the personal pronouns “I” and “me” quite a bit. The post mentions how current popular music has shown an increase in personal pronouns and a decrease in the collective personal pronouns of “we” and “us.” In as much as adolescent values and interests drives some powerful trends and sales in popular music, there seems to be significant current cultural themes of egocentrism.
When adults contemplate the shenanigans of Donald, Mandy, Noah, Kwame, Cathryn, Amanda, Marcin, and Ana Lucia described in the previous blog, they may be conflicted in admiring their “self-esteem,” drive, ambition, and successes, and disgusted with their cockiness and disrespectful treatment of others. When parents see similar behaviors in their children- especially, their teenagers, they may be similarly conflicted. Or, parents may overlook the self-righteous entitlement and mistreatment of others- perhaps, validate, dismiss, justify, or minimize socially negative behavior as unfortunate but necessary by-products to their children’s success. They may glorify in their darlings’ awards, accomplishments, and academic, social, athletic, or artistic status. In fact, some parents may directly support their children’s ascent to dominance and superiority, readily accepting the cost to others less driven, less skilled, or less worthy. Parents may promote from earliest childhood being the biggest shark in the water or the top dog- being the best and having the most. Cooperation and inclusion or group harmony can be dismissed or valued only as it serves some egocentric advantage. No doubt, there are social and cultural models that support this perspective and behavior. Unfortunately this remains quite tempting, since aside from damages to others and various communities, the individual who internalizes and practices such selfish attitudes may be very successful across several criteria: financially, social status, career achievement, etc. However, for the individual there is often a legacy or trail of scorched earth relationships and lost opportunities for intimacy. Highly successful in career, their “benefit” is that such an individual may be able to afford the alimony, child support, alcohol and drug rehabilitation, and psychotherapy to address consequences of narcissism!
“Along with increased narcissism are also increased levels of loneliness and depression. This makes sense: mature relationships require mutuality, where neither partner is more important than the other. There can be no reciprocal relationship when one partner is self-centered. Egoism pushes others away, thereby leading to loneliness. And being disconnected from others in a meaningful way is a road to depression.”
High Fragile Self-Esteem vs. High Stable Self-Esteem
Fortunately what can be some very scary omnipotent, grandiose, self-righteous, and entitled adolescent behavior is NOT necessarily the precursor to adult narcissism. Insecurity or low and fragile self-esteem are roots of both the natural narcissism of adolescence and adult narcissism. However, the adult’s narcissism by definition has become calcified and usually highly resistant to change. The adult’s emotional, psychological, and mental processing habitually activates to threats to his or her omnipotence, grandiosity, and competitiveness. High fragile self-esteem disables the narcissistic adult from tolerating anything that even hints of not being good enough, being wrong, or a risk of being surpassed. As such, anyone who contests, disagrees, disputes, or otherwise threatens or even implies a challenge to the narcissist’s preeminence becomes a mortal enemy to be destroyed.
Someone with high stable self-esteem may not like to be argued with or found wanting in some fashion, but can tolerate being wrong or not being the best. Disappointed and even shaken if the challenge is intense or especially, if fundamental values are proven erroneous, the individual with high stable self-esteem can re-stabilize and center him or herself. Others that have challenged him or her or revealed the individual to be mistaken or having messed up do not have to be annihilated. Whereas, the adult narcissist at his or her core is terrified at not remaining undisputedly and securely at the pinnacle of righteousness, the teenager in his or her developmental stage of natural narcissism is more afraid of not finding his or her true self. The teenager has normal developmental doubt and anxiety that there is a place for him or her in society, and is actively in the process of forming an emerging sense of self. The adult narcissist to manage his or her fundamental terror of being found inadequate, incompetent, or unworthy of love and respect has become stuck on the need to be supreme… or else. On the other hand, the teenager is trying to find him or herself- to develop and discover what works for him or herself. That does not necessarily have to be being omnipotent or special. With new awareness of the fallibility of adult guidance and society, their childhood innocent trust of adult wisdom has been shaken. If they, the adults are not supreme, teenagers may conclude that therefore “We… or I must be supreme?” Adolescent narcissism as a reaction to the inconsistencies of adult prescriptions and the temporary loss of confidence in social models for survival and flourishing can then be seen as a normal developmental reaction.
While adult narcissists cannot submit to another’s knowledge or guidance (which constitutes being NOT omnipotent), in the stage of natural narcissism teenagers are looking for leadership. Rather than threatened by adult wisdom and leadership, teenagers relish credible sensitive wisdom. No matter how grandiose teenagers may be, most are not so egotistic to not know that with between 13 to 19 years of life experience that they have the barest experience to successfully navigate the demands of adulthood in the real world. They may however be experimenting with or testing if adults are intimidated by their arrogance and superiority. Adults, especially parents who are unable to speak confidently, authoritatively, and with sensitivity and understanding of adolescent challenges fail the test so to speak. Despite a gratuitous sense of superiority, teenagers are essentially at deeper levels terrified that they with so little life experience, skills, or resources can intimidate or fool the adult leaders of home, school, and community. Without sane, sound, and wise adults to access, teenagers feel isolated as neophytes in a big scary world.
But You Were a Teenager Once
The irony is that teenagers have never been adults as they are on the brink of entering the adult world, while adults who are deeply embedded in the adult world have been teenagers! Yet, many adults seem to have a developmental amnesia about how they felt and thought- especially relating to their anxiety during their teenage years. Perhaps, adults are terrified that teenagers will make the mistakes they made, take the dysfunctional paths they took, and suffer the turmoil of the journeys they traveled. Or, the mistakes, paths, or suffering they almost endured- that they barely survived or came so close to having to deal with. Or, adults fear the tragedies of other teenagers they knew, were related to, and hung with who were just a bit worse or a bit less lucky or fortunate. Upon reflection, adults can often recall their deep anxieties over not knowing what was right or wrong. They remember trying out attractive, easy, and gratuitous paths to dealing with life. They remember being tempted by and indulging in behaviors that they survived by the skin of their teeth, luck, or the intervention of a kind person or fortuitous circumstances.
And, adults should also remember how amazing and reassuring it was when they found wisdom that resonated with their experiences and lives. They remember the often circuitous routes it took them to become able to listen to wisdom and search for and submit to leadership. In their processes, adults may remember when no one could tell them anything. They recall how smug they felt, and how they thought they knew it all. Don’t trust anyone over thirty? Don’t listen to anyone over thirty! Music, technology, science, history, and everything else only started in the last five years… ten years max! What happened before was not relevant (Not Now-Before). Only the very recent Now mattered. Little or nothing from before- that is, the life experiences of adults related to Now for them, and the hypothetical later (Not Now-Later) of their immediate future. Yes, many adults had the same grandiose disease of adolescent uniqueness that their teenagers now have!
A first cue on how to deal with adolescent narcissism is to remember how adolescence was for you. Give teenagers the leadership that desperately need and want. That does not mean telling what to do. It does not work to tell them what knuckleheads they may be. They probably already know that deep inside. Or, they fear they are. That means honoring who and what they are. Start with identifying and validating their angst as teenagers- that is, as children trying to become adults in a very challenging world. Tell them how YOU were a knucklehead as a teenager. Or if you were not, then tell them how you were tempted to be a knucklehead or experimented with knuckleheadedness, and pulled back. If you never were a knucklehead or tempted to be one (really? It is possible, though rare), then tell them about the other knuckleheads that were your friends and family! Only when teenagers have some sense that you actually relate to their feelings, thoughts, or experiences will they even consider listening to you- to consider that you might be a viable leader with something to offer.
Understanding + Compassion = Acceptance is the formula to deal with adolescent narcissism and to offer leadership to teenagers in general. If you understand the dynamics and challenges of the teenagers (not just how what they are doing is dangerous or immoral), you can then have compassion for how stressful and difficult it is for them. With that then you can accept them. Acceptance means accepting their experiences and world. You then become a credible leader- not only in offering guidance and support, but by modeling understanding and compassion. As you model understanding and compassion of teenagers, you can justifiably require their trying to understand and have compassion for your role as an adult, especially as a parent. As you acknowledge and accept how scared they may be trying to become adults, they become more able to acknowledge and accept how scared YOU are trying to help them become adults. Your understanding and compassion of how hard it is to be a teenager may enable them to understand and have compassion it is to be the parent of a teenager.
Leadership for your teenager may be being the leader that you wanted as a teenager. Listen to your teenager. So many parents are so consumed with anxiety about the teenager’s poor choices that they feel compelled to set them straight- to tell them what to do. They become so intent on preventing disaster that they do not hear or see what the teenager is trying to tell or show them. Listen. Listen. And if your teenager has trouble articulating to you or is resistant, then listen to yourself. Listen to the teenager you were and offer your old adolescent feelings, thoughts, and experiences to your teenager. They may be quite revealing and quite comparable to their feelings, thoughts, and experiences. That also is leadership in modeling a willingness to be introspective, insightful, and to share vulnerability. If you share rather than preach, your teenager is more likely to share as well. You may need to go first for him or her to go second. If you go first and also show understanding and compassion, it can open communication quite a bit.
Such intimacy, vulnerability, self-disclosure, and ownership of mistakes are not characteristic of true adult narcissism. For a narcissist, that would expose too much and be perceived as revealing weakness to potential mortal enemies for them to use against the narcissist- an intolerable risk for high fragile self-esteem. For the teenager in the stage of natural narcissism, adult vulnerability, understanding, and compassion implies the caring leadership he or she needs. Considering the adult’s wisdom is not a competitive submission admitting inferiority, but an acceptance of guidance and tools to become more empowered. The true adult narcissist always fears deference will disempower his or her omnipotence, but the teenager can set aside developmental narcissist fears as adult feedback is experienced as empowering. Parenting and guiding teenagers is not about controlling them or making them behave or make the choices you deem best. In some ways, that orientation was more appropriate (but not completely appropriate) for younger children who are more impulsive and less able emotionally, intellectually, and socially able to consider various ramifications of decisions. Parenting and guidance for teenagers needs to be about helping them become more self-sufficient with greater productive control and mastery in their lives. The true adult narcissist remains suspicious that there may be some insidious trick for another to surpass him or her, while the teenager is calmed and reassured that others are investing in his or her growth.
Worthy and Credible Leaders
Teenagers seek leadership. That does not mean they want to be told what to do. That does not mean they will accept being controlled. That does mean being respected. Any leadership is not acceptable. Can you be a worthy and credible leader? Can you demonstrate in your words and actions that you are a worthy, credible, caring, and invested leader?