Narcissism is part of our makeup from early on in life. In many respects, developing sound character is all about becoming less narcissistic (see also: Narcissism and Character Development). But as we grow, certain things can influence how narcissitic we remain or how much more narcissistic we become. Sometimes it’s the things happen to us that make all the difference. Sometimes, it’s what doesn’t happen that makes all the difference. And, of course, sometimes it’s a matter of both.
While doing clinical case study research for my books Character Disturbance and In Sheep’s Clothing, I came to believe I’d stumbled upon some very important factors that could foster narcissism in a person’s character. At the time, there was little empircal support for any of these notions. But in recent years, some hard scientific evidence has been emerging supporting many of the conjectures I made. For one thing, it seems that when it comes to forming a healthy, balanced sense of self, what we give recognition to and reinforce as a person grows and develops really matters.
In my books and in several of my online articles (see, for example: How to Inflate an Ego in Three Easy Steps, Getting It Right about Self-Esteem, Fostering Healthy Self-Esteem in Children, and Self-Image: How We See Ourselves and Why It Matters) I make the case that paying attetion to and heaping praise upon a person for their nature-conferred (i.e. God-given) attributes, like their intelligence, physical beauty, talent, etc. is a good way to inflate their ego and distort their sense of self-worth. For one thing, no one can legitimately claim credit for any of these things. They’re purely accidental occurrences – “gifts” as it were – and the benficiary of these things had absolutely nothing to do with conferring them. The person who claims ownership – and on top of that claims credit for these things – is sure to get a big head. So if you want to help create a narcissist, give them lots of recognition, praise, and reinforcement for their natural “gifts”. On the other hand, if you want a person to develop a legitimate, healthy sense of self-regard (i.e. “self-respect”), it’s important to recognize and reinforce the only thing for which they can legitimately claim sole credit: what they do with the gifts they’ve been given. It’s the effort someone puts forth to conscientiously use their talents and abilities that makes all the difference in developing healthy, positive self-regard. And now, research has emerged solidly supporting both of the aforementioned notions.
An investigator by the name of Brummelman and several of his colleagues have been researching this area for quite some time. Several of their studies have bolstered the contentions I’ve long made. One study in particular (as referenced in the American Psychological Association’s online journal) suggests that praising children for the wrong things (i.e. their personal attributes as opposed to their efforts) in an attempt to boost their self-esteem can actually backfire :
Praising children, especially those with low self-esteem, for their personal qualities rather than their efforts may make them feel more ashamed when they fail. (http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2013/02/children-self-esteem.aspx).
When I’m working with someone on character development issues (especially someone who tends to be fairly narcissistic), I’m always looking for opportunities to both recognize and reinforce even the smallest efforts they might make to exercise their will more conscientiously (i.e. with more care and concern for others). I find it the single most critical aspect of encouraging someone to undertake the hard work of forging a character of real integrity. And I’ll have much more to say about this in the coming weeks. In next week’s post, I’ll be addressing how a sense of gratitude about the “gifts” one has been given and the attitude one develops toward the “higher power” conferring those gifts beget a sense of obligation, which is at the heart of developing a sound sense of personal responsibility (you can also read more about this in my book The Judas Syndrome.
More information has been posted on the Seminars page about upcoming workshops, and there will be even more information posted in the next few weeks. And Character Matters will again be a live program Sunday at 7 pm Eastern (4 pm Pacific), so I can take your phone calls. Lastly, look for a big announcement very soon on the release date for my latest book with Kathy Armistead How Did We End Up Here? which will be available from Amazon, all the major booksellers, and in e-book format.