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Tom Purcell: ​Narcissism and the Republic ... ‘Me the People?’

Boy, is narcissism getting out of hand with younger generations.

San Diego State psychologist Jean Twenge examines the trend in two books: Generation Me and The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement.

Twenge says the self-esteem movement — in which everybody gets a trophy — has produced many “me-centered” young adults, whose opinions of their own skills and talents are often out of sync with reality.

Why is this an issue? Because, says Psychology Today, “true narcissists can only see things from their own perspective.” They are incapable of the civility and thoughtful deliberation a representative republic requires to address the many challenges ours is facing.

Lucky for me, I grew up in the 1970s when it was impossible to become self-centered.

Unlike many modern parents, who often give their children unique names to demonstrate how “special” they are, I was given the biblical name Thomas, after my father. I never took myself too seriously, because thousands of other kids had names — Bill, Bob, Tim, Joe — just as common.

Families were bigger in the ’70s. Growing up as the only boy with five sisters was awfully humbling.

When I was 12, Bobby Grebber, the neighborhood bully, began roughing me up. Well, I didn’t have older brothers to teach me how to fight; my sisters taught me. I looked Grebber dead in the eyes and said, “You are sooooo immature! Get a life!”

Even though I had five sisters, my father, always pinching pennies, made me wear hand-me-downs. It wasn’t too bad most of the year, but Easter Sunday was unpleasant. Do you know how hard it is to outrun a bully with your pantyhose bunching up and your bonnet flopping in the wind?

We never experienced a self-esteem movement at St. Germaine Catholic School. The nuns didn’t worry about making us feel good about ourselves. They focused on pounding values into us and making sure we mastered math, science, reading and writing. Any narcissistic tendencies were wacked out of us with a hard wooden ruler.

I attended a public high school, where I was finally able to attempt a little narcissism — until my parents saw a slip in my grades. That resulted in a temporary loss of every privilege. No B grade or better meant no car, friends or the freedom to leave the house.

I made it to Penn State University, where I gave narcissism a full go. It was there that I was introduced to my first love: Rolling Rock Beer. By the time I was a junior, I had attained, to quote comedian Frank Nicotero, a “3.2” (blood-alcohol level).

But my parents intervened and humbled me yet again. No B grade or better meant no more cash.

What’s worse, my father, worried that my liberal-arts major would fail to land me a job, persuaded me to sign up for more practical courses. I’m the only person ever to graduate from Penn State with a major in English and a minor in air conditioning and heating.

In any event, unlike older generations that had little choice but to be humbled out of their narcissistic impulses, newer generations are getting too self-centered.

Twenge tells NPR that millennials score higher on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory than prior generations. She says narcissism is evident in pop songs, which focus on the self, as well as in books that frequently use phrases such as “I am special” and “all about me.”

And obsessive use of social media, home of the “selfie,” certainly nurtures a narcissist’s worst tendencies.

Perhaps parents should re-embrace some of the harsh child-rearing techniques of prior generations, so that we may reverse today’s Narcissistic Personality Inventory scores.

Because today’s growing narcissism is hurting an entire generation of our children, which is not good for our country.

Tom Purcell, author of Misadventures of a 1970s Childhood and Wicked Is the Whiskey: A Sean McClanahan Mystery, is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review humor columnist, syndicated by Cagle Cartoons. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter: @PurcellTom. Click here for previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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