Center For Advanced Studies In Mental Health
There has been plenty written in both the professional and popular presses about narcissism of late. Research findings suggest that narcissism has increased a great deal in recent years (especially among young perople). While living in a Facebook, celebrity driven, reality show, and selfie environment, how can we not become more narcissistic? There is a lot of hand wringing about this too. Many fear that our culture is going downhill fast due to so many self-centered people who care only for their own needs and not those of others. Additionally, recent research has suggested that those with significant financial means are insulated from the larger world around them becoming, over time, even more self-centered and less compassionate towards those who have much less than they do.
But upon further reflection and consideration of research from multiple sources, I wonder if the perception that the world is going to hell in a hand basket due to an increasingly narcissistic culture might be a bit overblown. Sure, we’d likely all prefer a more compassionate and less narcissistic culture but there may be a more nuanced way to look at this important issue.
Self-centeredness is just part of life and is actually rather adaptive. It is in our DNA to find ways to take care of ourselves and those most closely connected to us such as our offspring. If you don’t take care of yourself (and your loved ones) who will? In over 25 years of teaching ethics at the college and post graduate levels I have been struck that whenever an ethical dilemma emerges everyone (and I really do mean everyone) will consider solving their problem or conflict using the principle of egoism (e.g., “what’s in my best interest?”). In other words, when presented with an ethical challenge everyone at least considers the question, “what’s best for me?” They may not ultimately act using an egoism approach to ethical problem solving but they surely will consider it...100% of the time!
Even when people do compassionate and altruistic things they often do them for reasons rooted in egoism. For example, they may give large charitable donations to impress their friends and, if the donation is large enough, see their name on a building. Someone might help another in need so that they won’t feel uncomfortable or guilty if they ignore the person’s distress. If religious, some might act in an altruistic fashion to gain entry to heaven. Others might be motivated to win awards for their charitableness such as the Nobel Peace Prize. You get the idea. The motivation behind altruistic behavior might be a healthy dose of self-centeredness and narcissism. However, these charitable outcome may serve the greater good as well as the individual: A win-win!
While we clearly appear to be living in a more egotistic and narcissistic culture perhaps we should consider accepting this reality (and perhaps even embrace it) rather than denying or fighting it. Just because we tend to be self-centered, egotistical, and narcissistic doesn’t mean that we have to always act in our own self-interests and neglect those of others. And if acting on our own self-interests can make the world better through charitable and altruistic behaviors then we may have an important win-win situation where the narcissistic can stroke his or her ego while doing so in a way that actually helps others and makes the community better for all.
Ultimately, we have to learn to balance and manage our narcissistic tendencies in a way that considers the needs and rights of others. Trying to deny or eliminate our narcissistic tendenies seems unrealistic and perhaps even foolish. A foot on the accelerator and a foot on the brake might be just what the doctor ordered to best balance our needs and those of others in our increasingly self-centered culture.
One of my clinical patients donates a great deal to many charities. He states that he gets much more out of his donations than the charities he is so generous with since he obtains so much joy from watching his money make others happy. He also enjoys seeing his name on the high level donor list, on buildings, and other places too. He does a great deal of good for others and for himself by being generous. Maybe we need a world with more people like him.
So, what do you think?
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