Published in Health Intelligence Magazine – May 2015

South Africa’s EQ expert (or guru) Steph Vermeulen explains why the “self-esteem movement” has made narcissism look normal.

EgoMania-NarcissistCountless books and self-help programmes have been dedicated to the subject of cultivating self-esteem. With a few generations having been raised to believe the central importance is self-worth, the proof is in the platitudinous pudding and it is leaving a bit of a bad taste. Instead of churning out young people who feel comfortable in their own skin, the self-esteem movement is producing youngsters who lack confidence and are depressed about not being famous. Not only has the idea of feeling good about oneself backfired but according to researchers and the authors of The Narcissism Epidemic, Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell, the emphasis on loving oneself is making narcissism appear normal.

The idea that we’re all special

Twenge and Campbell warn that it is the idea of being special or outstanding “simply because I am me” that has caused untold confusion and, after decades of brainwashing, no one thinks they are average or ordinary anymore. To most people this may not sound like a bad thing but the problem is that high levels of self-esteem are accompanied by unrealistically high expectations.

When anyone with idealistic expectations attempts something new and fails to produce extraordinary results, they end up feeling ashamed, guilty, hopeless and humiliated. These unpleasant feelings would make even an emotional heavyweight give up and that’s why those with high self-esteem seldom learn to bounce back from adversity and disappointment. Licking one’s wounds doesn’t help develop resilience; it makes one more and more self-involved.

As the line between self-esteem and self-involvement has gradually blurred, the need to feel good about ourselves has been shortened to the need to feel good, full stop. Thrill-seeking has replaced soul-searching and what started out as self-esteem has become self-absorption. High levels of self-involvement make us unhappy and, unlike the cure-all promise of the self-esteem movement, it is having a destructive effect on society.

Living in a fantasy world

Twenge and Campbell claim that the focus on self-admiration in America has caused a flight from reality to the land of grandiose fantasy. “We have phony rich people (with huge mortgages and piles of debt), phony beauty (with plastic surgery and cosmetic procedures), phony athletes (with performance-enhancing drugs), phony celebrities (via reality TV and YouTube), phony genius students (with grade inflation), a phony national economy (with trillions of dollars of government debt), phony feelings of being special among children (with parenting and education focused on self-esteem) and phony friends (with the social networking explosion).”

It appears the self-esteem miracle that would have had us all walking on water may have been the very thing that plunged us into turbulent times.

Needy consumerism

Twenge and Campbell attribute a large part of the mortgage meltdown that led to the 2008 financial crisis to satisfying “inflated desires” that may fleetingly feel good but the fantasy eventually crashes. Much advertising makes the phony promise that you’ll feel better or look better if you buy another piece of expensive rubbish you don’t need, but satirist George Carlin put this into perspective when he said, “Trying to be happy by accumulating possessions is like trying to satisfy hunger by taping sandwiches all over your body”.


The authors also warn that it is unwise to refer to your children as little princes or princesses because your kids know you and your spouse are not the king and queen, so your only role is to be the tiny royals’ servants or subjects. Worse still, Twenge and Campbell point out that many fully grown “princes” and “princesses” are persuaded by the idea of having been granted a title and expect the world to treat them accordingly.

The desire to feel good is a human need that can only be satisfied by our actions, not our purchases. Accomplishment makes someone extraordinary and self-esteem is created by doing, not by thinking. Little things we do well make us feel good and it really is as simple as that. You don’t have to love yourself before tackling a new challenge; you just need to get on with it. And if like the rest of us, you mess up before achieving the outcome you want, learn from each mistake and keep moving on. No one likes feeling like a klutz and, if you’re nervous or unsure in the beginning, be comforted by the knowledge that it’s normal to feel antsy when tackling anything new. If that doesn’t help – fake it until you make it. The more skills you learn, the more faith you’ll have in your own abilities, and the more confident you become the better you’ll feel about you.

Self-confidence produces self-esteem not the other way round and – unlike being a “me addict” – confidence is about respecting your capabilities rather than loving or admiring yourself.