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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

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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.”


Looking to develop leadership skills in your students? Check out
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  • Break out of the herd mentality to influence others in positive ways.
  • Take initiative and set the pace for other teammates.
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  • Capitalize on personal strengths to be career-ready upon graduation.

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3 Comments

  1. Jeff Ward on March 16, 2017 at 9:35 am

    Tim – I’m a huge fan. And I know that in a blog post like this you can’t tease out all the nuances. However, this is a very dangerous perspective. It seems you are simply telling us to replace one form of narcissim (people-pleasing) with another form (self affirmation for doing good). This is equally as lethal to the soul because once the “glory” fades from one good deed what next special service project will fill that gap? You are simply setting up one performance based system for another and leading him down a spiral of performance based anxiety. Instead our value is found in our humanity as image bearers of God (Gen. 1:27) and in our relationship with our Creator. He gives us all of our worth, dignity, and value and gave us the gift of salvation even while we were His enemies. (Rom. 5:8) He gave us work to do (Ps. 8) and even a ministry of good works (Eph. 2:10) But it is not what we DO but who we ARE that gives us value. With a correct theology, a bed-ridden quadraplegic is not simply the receiver of good deeds, but is a giver of benefit and every bit as valuable and worthy. Good deeds are an overflow of who we are and the glory is not in fueling a messiah complex in some young student, who then through his “helping” is doing harm to those he seeks to serve and himself but in bringing glory to His God who made him in his image. Matt.5:16

    • Tim Elmore on March 24, 2017 at 4:57 pm

      Jeff—thanks for your thoughtful comment. I agree with you, that our identity isn’t complete with merely asking a student to do something great. It is the first step toward helping a student who experiences a “hollow” self-esteem begin to experience something real. The fact is, every students IS special. I think you agree with that too. So all I was attempting to do in my blog post was help educators or parents take a step into greater authenticity with a narcissistic kid. But you are right, the complete picture comes when we embrace an identity from something (or Someone) that is transcendent of ourselves and cannot be taken away. I write to a public audience and rarely get into theological aspects in my blogs. I appreciate your work and am glad you see the bigger picture. Thanks again for your comments.

      • Jeff Ward on March 24, 2017 at 5:32 pm

        Thanks for taking the time to reply Tim. Grateful for your work, ministry, and example. You have blessed, inspired and encouraged me personally as a parent and leader…and thousands more. Blessings!

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The Best Response to Narcissism in Students