The Best Response to Narcissism in Students

I have written on the rising number of students who are narcissistic and those who suffer from NPD (Narcissistic Personality Disorder). Dr. Jean Twenge, author of The Narcissism Epidemic and a speaker at next year’s National Leadership Forum, unveils the signals of a growing population of students who are narcissistic:

  • College students now endorse narcissistic personality traits.
  • The words “I, I’m and Me” are used in song lyrics more than any other time.
  • Young adults are more prone to experience narcissism than other age groups.
  • Nearly one in ten twenty-somethings experience N.P.D.
  • The average Millennial will take 25,000 “selfies” in their lifetime.

One brief summary from a recent study reveals narcissistic students have inflated but vulnerable self-views, can’t regulate their self-esteem and rely on others for affirmation. Narcissism has been linked to a number of dangerous behaviors in business, including white-collar crime, aggression and risky decision-making.

At the core of narcissism is the fantasy that you are better than you really are. You are special and deserve special treatment; you are entitled to things that others may have to work to obtain. But . . . what might be the cause of this misperception?

Understanding One Root Cause of Narcissism


In her book, Daring Greatly, University of Houston professor Brené Brown offers a new angle on narcissism—one that makes sense to me and explains a root cause for narcissism that gets past believing kids are merely being selfish, entitled brats.

She says: “Narcissism is a shame-based fear of being ordinary, which cannot be cured by more shame.”

Consider this thought. Among the many reasons for the rise in narcissism today is the notion that a student feels like a mere number; that they aren’t special after all. It’s the fear of being ordinary and a reaction to feeling shame for being so common. Perhaps it’s an over-reaction, compensating for the quiet despair that they are not valuable to others or to society. It’s the fear they won’t be famous; they won’t get a million followers on Twitter; they won’t get ten thousand “likes” on a social media platform. If that is our culture’s scorecard, then it’s enough to push a kid to do strange things to feel better.

Our worst sins arise from the desperate fear that we are worthless.

Certainly there are other causes for narcissism, but if your students feel this shame, it cannot be resolved by making them feel even more shame for being narcissistic. Shame doesn’t cure shame. It’s like fighting fire with more fire.

Responding to Narcissism

If you suspect that shame may be a cause for narcissistic behavior in your students, why not try a contrarian response?

Instead of making them feel ashamed for being narcissistic, communicate that truly special people tend to do special things for others. At the risk of sound cliché, they make the world a better place. In fact, serving others greatly proves their specialness. They’ll actually feel better about themselves for their altruistic action.

I once mentored a college student from San Diego State University who showed all the symptoms of narcissism. It appeared that he was in love with himself. It didn’t take long for me to peel back that layer and uncover he was woefully vulnerable to others’ opinions of him, and he labored to gain others’ approval and affirmation. My prescription for those symptoms was simple:

Go show me how special you are by doing something great for those less special.

When he did, I observed a win/win situation unfold before my eyes. He took on a service project in Tijuana, Mexico and included several other university students in the project. When it was done, the children in a Tijuana orphanage benefited AND this student benefited from the feeling of genuinely adding value to someone else. We never feel more valuable than when we add value to others.

The bottom line is simply this. We will not end narcissism by telling our students they aren’t that special. Instead, challenge them to prove how special they are. Respond wisely, rather than react impulsively to them. Viktor E. Frankl once wrote: “Between stimulus and response, there is space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

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The Best Response to Narcissism in Students