Are We More Self-Absorbed Nowadays?

In my old post called You Have to Make People Give a Shit, I wrote:

[In school] you know your classmates and professor are going to read your writing — no matter what. It’s their job. … School, then, might breed a bad habit for aspiring writers and thinkers: the illusion that people will always read your entire essay just because it’s you.

The so-called real world is super competitive. Nobody will read your stuff (well, other than your mom) just because it’s you. The real-world reality is: No one cares what you think. It’s up to you make people give a shit.

From the Joseph Epstein essay on Kinderarchy, he also discusses the dangerous levels of self-importance of an over-parented generation:

So often in my literature classes students told me what they "felt" about a novel, or a particular character in a novel. I tried, ever so gently, to tell them that no one cared what they felt; the trick was to discover not one’s feelings but what the author had put into the book, its moral weight and its resultant power. In essay courses, many of these same students turned in papers upon which I wished to–but did not–write: "D-, Too much love in the home." I knew where they came by their sense of their own deep significance and that this sense was utterly false to any conceivable reality. Despite what their parents had been telling them from the very outset of their lives, they were not significant. Significance has to be earned, and it is earned only through achievement. Besides, one of the first things that people who really are significant seem to know is that, in the grander scheme, they are themselves really quite insignificant.

In other words, his students think that just because they have a thought it’s important.

I want to pile on, a little bit. It’s remarkable how many conversations in college are not conversations at all but rather the participants taking turns sharing their own opinion or experience, as opposed to probing on or advancing the prior point. For instance, the other week I had lunch with a college student. I raised the topic of education. I said that I’m not sure formal schooling is for everybody. She responded, "Well, see, I love school, and I’m thinking about graduate schools in these areas…" Off she went. Again. It was totally self-involved, and I’m afraid by now an unconscious, well-ingrained habit to immediately seize any opportunity to present a personal reflection and exploration.

Epstein focuses on youth, but it’s not just adolescents who suffer from everything-I-think-is-important syndrome. Adults similarly afflicted mask it with a whiff of social grace. The other day I met a professional, successful woman who overvalues her own airtime. After her monologue she said, "Enough about me. Tell me about yourself, Ben, where are you from?" She interrupted my answer to begin yet another self-centered philosophical session, an act which revealed the emptiness of her socially polite question. We all encounter these types of people.

The question is, do we encounter them more often? Is anything new? Is all that Epstein says and that I echo above unique to the current moment? I have no idea if now is a more narcissistic age, but if it is, I can think of a couple reasons why.

Some argue technology is a culprit in the sense that new technology can help a person enact an echo chamber around them that magnifies their own views. Or that technology facilitates, for example, twice or thrice daily phone calls between teens and parents, a frequency which — when aided by the over-parenting instincts of today’s boomers — nurtures self-obsession on the part of the teen. Or that blogs, such as the one I’m writing on right now (a noted irony!), enable a level of public disclosure that’s unhealthy because it can create a micro-celebrity effect. And when was the last time you met a celebrity (micro or macro) who wasn’t an egomaniac?

Some argue the rise of therapy culture contributes to the rise of self-centeredness. In 1980, Americans spent $2.4 billion on professional psychotherapy services; by 1997 the figure was an eye-popping $44.5 billion. It’s no secret that much of these services involve talking about yourself (often, it seems, to a point of circular misery).

Those seeing therapists a bit more serious than mere "counselors" — namely, therapists of the psychoanalytic Freudian tradition — indulge in themselves even more, as they embark on a twisted quest to re-interpret childhood events and draw connections between the most bizarre of symbols that Freud concocted with zero scientific basis. (For a fascinating screed on therapists and particularly Freudian ones, see the book Therapy’s Delusions: The Myth of the Unconscious and the Exploitation of Today’s Walking Worried by Ethan Watters and Richard Ofshe.)

To be clear, I respect and value a strong sense of individuality and admire people who think they have ideas worth sharing. Self-knowledge and reflection and a rich interior life: I respect all these things as well. And I’m not a technology cynic or against all forms of therapy. I’m just wondering aloud whether we’re witnessing increased levels of self-absorption nowadays, as Epstein suggests, and if so, why.

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