I recently watched the documentary on Fred Rogers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? For those of you who don’t remember Mr. Rogers children’s television show, it sent an important message to children everywhere – that they are special. Mr. Rogers regularly told his preschool audience that he liked them just the way they were, that he was proud of them and that they were important and loveable.
I was unaware until I saw the documentary on Mr. Rogers’ extraordinary life, that there were critics (yes, believe it or not, people even tried to criticize Mr. Rogers) who claim that Mr. Rogers’ relentless encouraging messages to children was at fault for a generation of entitled, narcissistic children.
Wow, some people are just so negative!
I think everyone who parents, teaches, coaches or mentors children in any way wonders how to boost children’s self-esteem so they have confidence and resilience to handle what life dishes out. By contrast, at what point does that encouragement turn into coddling? Worse yet, when do caregivers go overboard and create a selfish and entitled monster of a child?
I used to think that it was possible to boost a child’s self-esteem too much, turning them into narcissists. But now I know that having a great deal of self-esteem and narcissism are, in fact, opposite concepts.
Narcissism isn’t a result of someone who has an abundance of self-esteem. It is the result of someone who has NO self-esteem. To make up for deep feelings of insecurity, narcissists inflate their sense of their own importance to overcompensate for those feelings. They can exhibit extreme confidence in an unconscious attempt to keep others off the scent of their insecurity. They tend to have a deep need for excessive attention and admiration and in turn, lack empathy for others. Behind this mask of extreme confidence lies their fragile self-esteem, vulnerable to the slightest criticism. These are not your normal levels of insecurity which all of us experience. For narcissists, if self-esteem were a glass of water, they have no water in the glass. In fact, they don’t even have a glass.
Telling children they are special – and that everyone else is special in their own way – keeps a child grounded in reality. They learn to love themselves – and others. They learn that differences are to be expected, embraced and never feared. They learn to navigate human interactions and relationships on the basic premise that humans are incredibly valuable, simply because they exist. These same children can be told that they are special and also be expected to grow into mature responsible adults – and that learning will continue throughout their lifetime. This seems to be in line with Mr. Rogers’ approach.
By contrast, some children are told that they are special – more special than anybody else. Yikes. That seemingly subtle and yet very important phrase makes all the difference between a child with a healthy self-esteem and a child without one. Why? These children are being taught that they are better than everybody else. Why does this approach lower self-esteem, rather than boost it?
First of all, teaching a child that they are better than everybody else is simply untrue. These children are not grounded in reality but brought up in a lie. The more they interact with the world outside their bubble of adoration, the more disoriented they must feel. Furthermore, they haven’t been given any tools to navigate the strangeness they encounter.
If they are constructively criticized, they may feel blindsided and defensive, instead of able to learn from their mistakes. Their ego may be too fragile to even admit that they could make a mistake. They may be unable to celebrate the accomplishments of loved ones if they have been taught that they are the ones who should be celebrated always. They lack empathy because they are always focused on their own needs, rather than tending to the needs of their loved ones. They will lose relationships if they have been taught that their preferences always take priority.
The realization that they are no more or less important or loveable than anyone else must be devastating to their sense of identity, in a way. If they aren’t the special one, who is better than everybody else, than who are they? On what can they base their self-esteem?
Some may choose to simply stay close to the adoring adults who raised them and never really venture out into the world because they have not been taught the skills to operate in environments where they are not the adored center of attention and beyond the reach of criticism. Others may simply surround themselves with people whose own self-esteem is too low to believe they could ever be special, never threatening the narcissist’s sense of self-importance.
When threatened by those who refuse to cooperate in their lie of self-importance, narcissists can retaliate with rage, commandeering their own worshippers to join in the attack. It is as if their own identity is at stake – because it is. They do not feel strengthened by truth but attacked, ironically, and so they attack in turn. They can act preemptively against others who will not support the lie they are living. They may try to minimize or sabotage others’ accomplishments, in an attempt to make themselves appear superior.
The way to avoid this is to strengthen one’s own self-esteem. I often wonder if there is a way out for narcissists, since in order to learn something new they must first admit that they don’t know something. That is difficult to do without their self-esteem being dashed – it must feel like being caught in a vicious cycle.
Mr. Rogers would remind these people that they are valuable – because they are. He would also remind them that everyone else is special, too – in their own unique way.