Investigating How Children Develop a Sense of Self

Have you ever logged onto Facebook and been fascinated with the discrepancy between someone you know and his/her Facebook account? Perhaps you’ve even felt this about your own account. Social Media creates a world where people can create an inflated version of their self – where they can present themselves in an unrealistically positive way, and audit out any negative information, photos or feedback. If used in this way, Social Media can create a world of unreality. This is known as ‘Facebook Image Crafting’. Unfortunately, an image that is bigger and better than reality may not make people happier. Although it may make us feel better right away, it risks disappointment and frustration due to the difference between expectation and reality.

This phenomenon is not exclusive to Social Media. Focusing on the self has become increasingly entrenched in Western Culture. Social Media puts it on display by allowing people post a pin-up board of ‘selfies’ or to exchange their deepest (or most shallow) thoughts for ‘likes’. Reality television brings us the dream of overnight stardom. But it is not always so extreme. How many feel the warm glow of acknowledgement when we hear the mantra of the self-esteem movement, ‘I am special’?

We have not always had the same access to being able to promote ourselves and interests as we are able to do today, and they have not always been part of our culture. These cultural changes have unsurprisingly linked to the ‘Me’ Generation, the baby boomers. This fixation on self-esteem enhancement has developed what some researchers are calling ‘the Culture of Narcissism’, and these changes have actually been measured. Research by Jean Twenge has found that in the 1950s, 10% of American university students endorsed the statement, “I am an important person” in research surveys. In the 1980’s this number had grown to 80% of university students endorsing the statement. The problem with this is that not everyone can be special and important. Because if everyone was special, then special would not be special anymore, it would be ordinary. It is a contradiction of the word. But is there actually anything wrong with people thinking that they are special, even if they are not? Won’t this just make us dream big, work hard, be absurdly ambitious and eventually achieve our goals, realise the dream… and be special?

In some ways, it is hard to answer this question. It may indeed be that thinking we are special will mean that we are reluctant to settle for less, and to strive to achieve our best. This has not been tested in research, however. What has been researched that may help us answer this question in part is a personality trait, called ‘narcissism.’ Narcissism can be defined as a grandiose sense of self, and as such is partly defined by feelings of ‘specialness’. One of the central characteristics of a narcissistic personality is entitlement (i.e., the feeling or belief that you deserve something). A great source of unhappiness for people with a strong sense of entitlement is unmet expectations. If you have grown up believing you are exceptional, there may be something extremely disconcerting about the idea of having to have to start at the bottom and work your way up, or perhaps to work hard at all. But any successful person will tell you that great careers take years of blood, sweat and tears to build. People who have high levels of narcissistic personality traits feel entitled to respect and reward that is not consistent with their effort and ability. Paul Harvey has published important research designed to help employers deal with this entitlement in the workplace.

Another possible consequence of a highly narcissistic personality is that it is linked to an unstable sense of self (i.e., one’s personal regard or value is subject to fluctuate depending on feedback from ones environment). If so, these people could become reliant on the approval of others. If their view of themselves is not in line with reality, then it cannot be internally regulated. On the one hand, this need for admiration and validation may motivate the individual to seek out new opportunities (e.g., in order to self-enhance), but on the other hand, it may also make them extremely sensitive to criticism or any threat to their inflated self-image. This may lead to further problems because the external world will not often validate an inflated perception.

This brings us to the most problematic part about having a narcissistic personality. Narcissism and inflated high self-esteem has been found over and over again to be highly correlated with hostility and aggression (Baumeister, Bushman & Campbell). It can contribute to difficulties in the workplace, and within close relationships – families, partners and children. While the extreme confidence of a person with a narcissistic personality helps them make positive first impressions, it may also risk a lack of empathy and interest in the lives of their significant others.

It is the purpose of my research to try and understand the nature of narcissism and identify factors that contribute to its development. I also want to know how narcissism functions for children – that is, it could be that having very high confidence during childhood works differently than in adults because children are confronted with failure and struggle during this time of development as they work hard to master new skills and tasks. My hope is that looking at these factors in children will help us understand how narcissism, very high confidence, and entitlement work during childhood, and, eventually, provide information to parents that will empower them to make choices that will help to ensure a happy and fulfilling life for their children.

To take part in the survey please head to this link www.tinyurl.com/SSBParents.

Kind Regards and thank you

Kate Derry – PhD Student – University of Western Australia

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