Is narcissism becoming a virtue – or whatever happened to humility?

Posted by on Aug 23, 2016 in Blog | 4 comments

Yesterday I led a professional development day for staff at Grace Christian School, in Bunbury. One of the topics we explored was the rise of narcissism, and ways Christian schools can help provide a corrective for it. Of course there might be some readers who wonder if a corrective is necessary. After all, pendulum’s tend to swing back and forth, and the current wave of self love has followed hot on the heals of too long an era where the need of the individual was always seen to be subservient to the needs of the group, and when any delight in self was viewed as sinful and a display of pride at its worst. That was a repressive era, with shoots of individuality feared and quashed. A cookie cutter model tried to ensure that people essentially thought and acted the same way.

My, that has changed. Individual expression is now highly valued. This is the selfie era, the age when everyone feels a need to publicise their every move to all and sundry. Be it the meal we are about to eat, a new hairstyle, or the fact that we are in the Qantas lounge, we quickly photograph each move and publicise it on Facebook, often measuring our worth by the number of like our post receives. The subtext is – this is my life, everyone should know about it and like it. The question is, has the pendulum swung too far? Are we becoming self-obsessed, self-absorbed and somewhat boorish?

The answer appears to be yes. A study by Hoover (2007) researching 16000 students between 1982 to 2006 found that the average score on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory increased 30% in that time. Given that this study is now aging, I suspect the rise would be even more dramatic if tested now. Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell have written a book The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement (and thanks to Chris Parkin for alerting me to it) – which clearly chronicles our increasing obsession with self. The same book also helpfully distinguishes between self esteem and narcissism, recognising that a realistic and valued sense of self is important, but that it is at risk of being tipped over the line in our time.

What’s wrong with narcissism… Many things, but here are a few

  • An inflated sense of self sees us magnifying trivia. Everything about me must be awesome – and if it isn’t that’s tragic. But if everything is awesome, how do we differentiate and nuance things. How do we cope with disappointment? How do we face our shadow side? And how do we celebrate the ordinary?
  • Narcissism blinds us to sin (and I mean sin in the biblical sense of being people who miss the mark of God’s goal for us). It stops us from seeing our need for forgiveness and redemption.
  • A world that is about me, myself and I quickly becomes too small.
  • The order is wrong. Jesus taught that if we are willing to lose our life, we will find it. Paradoxical though this is, it is true. When it is all about me, something inside of me dies.
  • I become a consumer of services to which I feel entitled (because I matter so much). I become fixated on my rights, and usually gloss over my responsibilities.
  • Self preoccupation blinds me to the needs of others.
  • It makes me indifferent to the stories of others – the only story I want told is my own.
  • I place my confidence in myself. I want my world to be about me. Worshipping Jesus and having him at the centre quickly disappears from my agenda.

It is never enough to simply tut tut about a social trend. What can be done about it? It was a question we discussed at the PD day at Grace.

Some simple remedies were floated. Instead of getting students to draw a pie graph of how they use their time each day, it was suggested that teachers could get pupils to draw that graph for their mother – how does she spend her day. That little act of doing an exercise that requires awareness of the other, can go a long way. It could be even more pointed. We could ask students to work out a pie chart depicting time use of the average child having to scavenge in the slums of Manila. Just researching that question provides exposure to a very different world.

Could it be that the rise of narcissism is a comment on a world that has become too small… a world that has lost a narrative that can inspire, and challenge and motivate… a world that can make me bigger by getting me to move beyond my own very limited parameters? Perhaps we need fresh reminders that while God assuredly loves me, a God sized love actually encompasses the whole world. There are many stories to be told, and even more waiting to be written. And my role does not have to be the lead character in each. Simply cheering on the sidelines, and celebrating a story that has nothing to do with me, can be a helpful start.

As always, nice chatting…



  1. Great read Brian and very wise reflections indeed. I would have loved to have attended this P.D. Thanks for sharing. Gb.

    • Thanks Stuart. Good to be in touch again. Hope things are going well for you.

  2. That’s a really well articulated summation of the issue, thanks for that. You really captured the problem which lies at the heart of the current obsession with self, that its a short term meaningless pursuit of empty validation at the expense of true meaning.

    • Thanks Marcus. I wrote that piece back in 2016 – almost 8 years ago now, and it seems to me that the issues are now perhaps even more relevant.

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