From Me Generation to Generation Me
Why wouldn’t our narcissistic age yield a narcissistic leader?
Been snubbed by an introvert? Made a Highly Sensitive Person melt down by giving constructive feedback? Inadvertently commit a hurtful micro-aggression by saying something brutally insensitive like, “Nice shoes”?
I feel you. We’re in the Age of Narcissism, when we’re all the center of our own universe, on a personal pedestal, where everything is about me, how I feel, and how you make me feel.
I’m far from the first to note that the “Me Generation” — the Baby Boomers — spawned “Generation Me” — the Millennials, or why.
Many years of American prosperity have elevated our human needs to the tippy-top of Maslow’s Hierarchy, where our daily concerns rise far above basic needs like food, shelter, safety and belonging. Self-fulfillment matters most, and we’re running out of space and oxygen up there.
In our self-centricity we obsess about self-esteem, self-expression, self-knowledge, self-actualization and self-improvement. We read Self magazine offering 15-minute dumbbell butt workouts. TED Talks has a whole section on the topic of self.
We love to take selfies. And we’re loving what classic museum portrait Google’s explosively viral Arts & Culture app says we look like. (Mine writing this piece is every worthy parody of “The Scream”.)
We’re taught to “write what we know.” We know our own personal lives the best, so we write autobiographies and thinly-veiled novels elevating ourselves and our timeless, remarkable story before we’re 35.
We’re addicted to social media that’s more “me” than social.
The self is all.
Sometimes the focus on “me” is long overdue to make things right, like the #MeToo movement.
But sometimes even selfless acts are punished by the self-righteous. (Google “Milkshake Duck.”)
SNL’s old “Daily Affirmation by Stuart Smalley” by Al Franken was supposed to be a joke. But Smalley’s “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me” is a mantra we teach and preach in many forms without irony to ourselves and our kids.
(And we think Franken would still be in the U.S. Senate if only he’d been more self-aware.)
In this Age of Narcissism, my personal feelings — however self-serving or confusing even to me, or affected by blood sugar ups and downs — are facts. My experience is the one truth, and my truth matters most.
If I fail or flail at work, it’s my manager’s fault for not getting me, valuing me, mentoring me and then promoting me to the position I deserve.
Any struggle or shortcoming in my life is someone else’s fault — my parents, my schools, my student loans, the patriarchy, a toxic employer, Wall Street, the greedy corporations, the greedy medical system, the government, the Washington swamp, globalism, the elites, the immigrants, the minorities, the liberals, conservatives, capitalism, socialism, the Democrats, the Republicans.
Up here on my pedestal, I’m never wrong, I can’t be wrong, and if you call me out, I’ll defend, conflate explaining with excusing, shift the blame, or redirect and lob a whatabout (“I didn’t do the dishes like I promised? What about the time you didn’t make the bed?”).
And any issues I have are not mine to deal with, they’re yours.
Take “Highly Sensitive Persons.”
We don’t call them neurotic anymore. That’s insensitive. They have a scientifically explained condition.
“Approximately one in five people — women and men — can be classified HSP, or as a highly sensitive person, according to HSP researcher and psychologist Elaine Aron, Ph.D.”
So writes Lindsay Holmes, Huffington Post Deputy Healthy Living Editor and self-proclaimed HSP (which makes her unlikely to be a foreign correspondent reporting from war zones).
Holmes lists how it’s hard to be an HSP like her: We’re going to cry, she says. Decisions make us nervous. We notice that subtle change in your tone. Repetitive and loud noises are the worst. Our workplace habits are a bit atypical. Criticism is incredibly distressing. We’re constantly being told we take things too personally. We have a low pain tolerance. We just can’t stop being highly sensitive. Etc.
HSPs sound like highly difficult people to be around. And folks who might lay a hidden minefield you have to gingerly tiptoe through lest you trip and hurt their feelings with an accidental micro-aggression. But they alone get to decide their emotional triggers and let you know what they are — after you’ve triggered them.
We can’t just avoid HSPs, not when they’re 20 percent of the population. But if we roll our eyes, get frustrated and blurt, “Please pick an entrée already, for chrissake!” we’re victimizing them. They’ll cry. Which is the ultimate power play.
Similar story with introverts.
Many thanks to Susan Cain, author of “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking,” Chief Revolutionary and Co-Founder of Quiet Revolution, popular TED-talker and self-proclaimed introvert.
We’re told that introverts are better than gregarious, shallow, self-promoting extroverts because “shy” people are more thoughtful, insightful and productive. They just hate noise, parties, networking, crowds, phone calls, socializing, group activities and, most of all, small talk.
But introverts don’t hate people. So don’t forget to invite them to parties, team-building exercises, conferences, or group projects. Just make sure you keep the decibels and head count to a minimum, along with expectations for contributing.
And by all means, when striking up a conversation with an introvert — which is your job, not theirs — don’t mention the weather, sports or what you’re binge-watching. You need a meaningful topic to discuss.
I suggest you bring note cards with compelling subjects. For example, whether Derrida has been forthcoming enough with negative than with positive descriptions of deconstruction.
And remember: It’s your challenge, not the introvert’s, to fill in any awkward silences and keep the discussion entertaining enough for them.
Then we have “truth-tellers.”
These are folks who have the self-proclaimed courage to gift us with their unvarnished, often harsh and cynical thoughts.
You’ve met these folks, wish you hadn’t, and hope you’ll never see them again. But they’re just being authentic, speaking their personal truth, being “real” and allergic to bullshit, refreshingly and heroically unlike everyone else.
Diplomacy, consideration, good manners and other social niceties are not only stupid, they’re part of the problem. Harry Truman’s flinty rejoinder to being called “Give ’Em Hell Harry” is perfect: “I don’t give ’em hell, I tell the truth and it sounds like hell.”
Truth-tellers also suffer from a scientifically explained condition: narcissism. If we don’t like or agree with them, or even listen, then we’re among the pathetically blind or willfully blinkered. And disrespecting their personal agency.
Let me apologize to any highly sensitive people, introverts, or truth-tellers that might be offended by my thoughts here.
But if I’m even close to being right, then why should it surprise anyone that we have a president who behaves like a clinical narcissist?
This, we know, is a guy who acts in a way we would never accept or appreciate from family, friends, mates or colleagues. Or a president, until him.
This is a president who refuses to express any modicum of humility. He’s gleefully insulted some 400 persons, places and things to date, according to the ongoing New York Times tally. Sometimes he gaslights with bald-faced lies and denial that he said what people heard with their ears.
To my knowledge, this president has never said hey, geez, I’m sorry, I made a mistake, I misspoke, I didn’t mean to hurt anyone, I got it wrong, I overreacted, I overpromised, I changed my mind, I really shouldn’t have said that, I’m not helping my supporters or agenda with my nasty comments, I promise to do better.
We should trash Trump for being a bad president if we must; with his needless, self-indulgent aggression against innocent and well-meaning folks, he’s asked for it.
But whatever our politics, we shouldn’t be shocked and appalled that the Age of Narcissism has produced a president that reflects our obsession with self.
This is not so good for the e pluribus unum this country was built and thrives on.
Yes, I know, many Americans commit random kindness and senseless acts of beauty every day. Selflessness is still quite alive in the land.
But before the cult of self weaves deeper into our culture, let’s take a collective look in the mirror, or a pond, reflect a little more self-critically on our reflection, and get over our wonderful selves. For all of us.
Jeffrey Denny is a Washington writer