Dealing with Narcissism: Are Our Students Self-Absorbed or Just Afraid?

By Crappell, Courtney | American Music Teacher, June-July 2013 | Go to article overview

Dealing with Narcissism: Are Our Students Self-Absorbed or Just Afraid?


Crappell, Courtney, American Music Teacher


At a recent conference, I attended a session that included a discussion of the characteristics of Millennial students. At one point, the presenter polled the audience, asking for a show of hands by anyone who had at least 1,000 or more Facebook friends. Unsurprisingly, a generous number of young hands promptly rose. What was surprising, at least to me, was how enthusiastic several hand-raisers became at this question. One audience member went to the point of waving both hands wildly and began boasting to seat neighbors about the actual number of Facebook friends she had acquired. The entire experience called to mind the current dialogue about the narcissistic trends of today's society.

In modern discussions about narcissism, Facebook inevitably surfaces--perhaps since it is so easily recognizable as a vehicle for self-promotion--but many media vehicles facilitate and contribute to this trend. Twenge and Campbell in their book, The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement, mention many narcissistic cultural identifiers, including prevalent attitudes displayed by reality TV contestants, the popularity of plastic surgery for young people, self-promoting song lyrics and many more. (1) While the societal trend toward narcissism warns of many possible negative future effects, as music teachers we mainly deal with the daily challenge of teaching a group of students seemingly convinced of their own imagined abilities. In facing this group, we often experience frustration as we endeavor to foster interest and fascination for music within unengaged students. How do we teach students with attitudes that cut them off from considering external ideas?

When I originally read Twenge and Campbell's book on narcissism, I was primarily interested in their suggestions for dealing with the issue and how those concepts could apply to music teaching. Their ideas were insightful and valuable, but they were generally geared toward long-term goals for society through changes we can make in our personal perspectives and interpersonal communication strategies with our children, friends and others. In some ways, their suggestions made me somewhat uneasy since they rely on our own refusal to participate in an arms race in which narcissism is the weapon of choice--a situation in which people treat each other as they fear others may treat them, but if they do it first, they protect themselves from being, or appearing to be, weak. You have probably seen this race play out itself at airport baggage claim areas. The airports normally provide ample room for every passenger to pick up his or her bag, and yet, as more passengers enter the area, each person stands closer and closer to the baggage conveyor, making it difficult for the crowd farther back to see baggage arrive. In this case, being polite and leaving room for others only facilitates the rush to the front. If no one crowded to the front, everyone would win--of course, no one trusts that will actually work out, and the me-first race is on.

Contrastingly, I find that Brown's insights in her book Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead changes one's negative perspective on the narcissism trend. As the title of her book suggests, the research she outlines demonstrates how embracing vulnerability, which is normally perceived as a weakness, can empower us as individuals. Her thoughts echo many of Twenge and Campbell's, but, at least for me, in a more potentially positive light. She states:

   When I look at narcissism
   through the vulnerability lens, I
   see the shame-based fear of
   being ordinary. I see the fear of
   never feeling extraordinary
   enough to be noticed, to be lovable,
   to belong, or to cultivate a
   sense of purpose.... I see the
   cultural messaging everywhere
   that says that an ordinary life is a
   meaningless life. And I see how
   kids that grow up on a steady
   diet of reality television, celebrity
   culture, and unsupervised social
   media can absorb this messaging
   and develop a completely
   skewed sense of the world. … 

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