Is narcissism necessary?

As part of a current project on self-actualization for musicians, I’ve been reading a number of books by psychologists and therapists. So many of them referred to a  book called The Narcissism Epidemic by Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell that I felt moved to check it out of the library.

Talk about uncomfortable reading! Twenge and Campbell’s scathing descriptions of narcissism in the Millennial generation (a generation for which I just qualify) made me feel very sheepish indeed. The “self-esteem” movement of the 1980s was a huge part of my early education, and I remember singing a catchy little number at primary school that went “Tell yourself you’re beautiful, tell yourself you’re smart, tell yourself you’re wonderful, and say it from the heart!”

The further I read in Twenge and Campbell’s book, the more I became convinced that telling children to affirm “I am special! Look at me!” does far more harm than good. My husband and I agreed on a parenting plan where we would praise our daughter’s effort and persistence rather than tell her “You’re so smart,” and phrase our loving words to let her know that while she is unconditionally loved and important to us, she is not objectively more important than any other human being.

At the same time, I felt a twist of shame in my stomach when I thought of some of the more narcissistic behaviours I’d exhibited in my own life. I remember feeling hurt and confused when school friends used to tell me I was conceited, because I thought we were supposed to tell ourselves how special and wonderful we were. (Maybe not out loud?) I suppose I was symptomatic of a social movement that encouraged me to think of myself as a very important person to whom the usual rules didn’t apply, because I was just so, so special.

Professors see young people with this mindset all the time. In the biz, we call them “special snowflakes.” Social media groups for faculty tend to contain a lot of anecdotes about the entitled behaviour of their students. And yet, I’m not sure I believe Twenge and Campbell that this behaviour is entirely typical of the Millennial generation, because older people have been complaining since time immemorial that young people these days are so rude, self-important, and inconsiderate of the feelings and property of others. (You kids! Get off my lawn!)

And yet, I wonder if there might be a larger concentration of special snowflakes of all ages in the music profession. It takes a certain degree of courage to get up on a stage and perform music for others, and it helps if you have a certain exhibitionistic streak. There are a lot of rewards for narcissists in our society—reality TV shows, gossip magazines, and so on. I can’t point any fingers here: even though I tend to be quite shy and reserved around people I don’t know well, I’m also a terrible show-off and love to perform. I love being the centre of attention, and will do anything to get more of it. And maybe this is the problem too. I know from my own experience, and from that of many interviewees for my current research, that some of our worst moments of performance anxiety are correlated with this self-absorbed, “Look at me!” tendency.

Earlier this year, I had a brainwave about this while adjudicating a university concerto competition (“The other side of the adjudicator’s bench”). I saw performers make a mistake and then internally beat themselves up about it. They seemed to turn inwards on themselves, forgetting their good technique, and falling into the body language of frustration–scowling expressions, raised shoulders, hunched stances. I could see clearly who had practised instant self-forgiveness and who hadn’t. I concluded that we performers can only move on from a mistake if we are compassionate with ourselves at the split second we make it. Obsessing over it can make us mess up again and again.

Twenge and Campbell helped me realize that being compassionate towards ourselves and others may halt this tendency to turn inwards when a performance is going badly. Self-forgiveness, even though it contains the term “self,” isn’t narcissistic in the way that “self-esteem” is. What does self-esteem do for you when things go wrong? Nothing, because it evaporates instantly. Self-forgiveness, instant self-forgiveness, gets you through the ordeal.

Here’s what I’ve been doing in my own practice of performance. I’m trying to change the inner monologue of self-reproach to one of thinking about other people. The audience, for example. They have come out to see me, so as I walk out on the stage, I look directly at them and say under my breath “Hello! Thank you!”. Silently, I thank the composer, because I am so grateful that she or he has written this music for me, the performer, to share with the audience. The other people on the stage with me: I will listen intently to them, and consider at all times how I can make this as easy as possible for them with my cues, my counting, my tone, and so on.

Listening to someone even more intently than you listen to your own playing isn’t easy. It involves knowing their own part as intimately as you know yours. And perhaps that could be a metaphor for life in general, couldn’t it? Empathizing with others, trying to understand what they’re going through, trying to make it easier for them, finding things for which to be grateful.


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