All about me — Is the 'self-esteem movement' working too well?

By Emilie Le Beau

McClatchy Newspapers

Wearing a red cowboy hat and tall boots, Sarah Goldberg, 20, skipped into the "American Idol" auditions in New York City. The judges were speechless as she screeched her way through "Dreaming of You" by Selena.

Goldberg quickly admitted she wasn’t a singer but claimed she could be the next American Idol if the judges taught her how to sing. They refused and cut her from the competition.

Crying hard, Goldberg yelled: "Look at this! I’m unique! Woo-oo!"


Goldberg isn’t the only one in her age group who thinks she’s special. Researchers surveyed more than 16,000 college students between 1982 and 2006 and found narcissism has increased by 30 percent. And younger kids may be guilty too.

Narcissism is when a person is extremely self-centered. In the survey, narcissistic students agreed with statements such as, "I think I am a very special person," and, "If I ruled the world, it would be a better place."

Psychologist Jean M. Twenge was the study’s lead researcher, and says kids have been taught narcissism at school and from their parents. She calls it the "self-esteem movement" and says it began in schools in the 1980s.

"Preschoolers sang, ‘I Am Special,’ " she says. "In some schools, (teachers) even took it further by not correcting (students’) mistakes because they didn’t want to hurt self-esteem," says Twenge, a professor at San Diego State University and author of "Generation Me."

Kids also see many examples of narcissism in the media, such as Goldberg’s "Idol" audition outburst. Twenge says this is because kids have been taught they can do anything they want, even though it’s not true.

"Just wanting it isn’t enough. You have to have talent and you have to work," Twenge says.

So if college students are more self-centered these days, are younger kids heading in the same direction?

It’s possible — because there hasn’t been a change in the self-esteem programs that lead to increased narcissism. At sporting events, for example, Twenge says, kids on losing teams even get trophies, so feelings aren’t hurt.


James L. thinks narcissism can be a problem in his generation. "At my age, kids are always thinking of themselves," says James, 14. "But some kids are not self-centered."

David B., 13, agrees that not all kids are narcissistic. He says many of his friends and classmates focus on others.

"Living in Chicago, we see people on the street who are asking for money. I know a lot of kids who have a lot of sympathy for them," David says.

But on TV, David says he sees a different mentality. The phrase "It’s all about me" often is used on the MTV reality show "My Super Sweet 16."

"I think it’s used too much," David says. "Quite frankly, it’s not all about you. There are 6 billion other people in the world."

Angela P. also doesn’t think her generation is completely self-absorbed. But she feels narcissistic kids may have a harder time in the future.

"If you want to be successful, you have to think about others — especially if you have a career that involves teamwork," says Angela, 13.

Narcissists are more likely to have troubles in personal relationships. And it can be bad for society if everyone has an "it’s all about me" attitude.


Twenge says kids are being taught it’s important to express themselves. "In some cases, that’s true. But if you’re hurting someone else, that’s narcissistic thinking," she says.

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