Me, myself & I

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Construction of the self is central to our existence and our identity is constantly evolving. The person you are now may not be the person you end up becoming. Sociologist Charles Cooley defines identity, or self, as learning to see ourselves as others do. The Oxford dictionary characterises the self as ‘the unique attributes and interests that distinguish us from one another’. How have the different versions of the self changed over time? What are the key influences on our identity? How do you view yourself?

A version of the self that is prevalent in the 21st century is narcissism, which has created a shift from collectivism to individualism. Social Philosopher Anne Manne recently drew parallels between narcissists, adulterers, cosmetic surgery fanatics and gym junkies. Manne discusses high self esteem as a mask for insecurity and pursuit of attention and argues narcissists lack a distinct sense of empathy. While some self confidence is definitely viewed as healthy, when a disregard for fellow citizens prevails it creates anti-social behaviour. Psychologists Delroy Paulhus and Kevin Williams define narcissists as vindictive, self-promoting, emotionally cold, deceitful and aggressive. Consider the impact on social cohesion of a society largely comprised of narcissists.

Givers or takers

Manne dictates the need for a shift from the pursuit of attention to giving attention, with the former evidenced by a recent Harvard study of youth with 80% primarily valuing achievement and 20% primarily valuing caring for others. Is a healthy focus on oneself vital before you can help others? If achievement were a central focus for all would less care be required as the majority of citizens would be financially and intellectually empowered? Examples of the inherently selfish culture visible today include the amount of nursing homes that occupy people who are never visited by their children and the proportion of citizens of wealthier postcodes that donate less to charity than those living in poorer ones. Dr Jeremy Moss reinforces that inequality of wealth provides an unfair advantage to many social actors which seemingly enables corporations to influence politicians. This in turn can lead to better health, educational and employment outcomes for the wealthy, thus impacting one’s discovery of a sense of self.

Me inc.

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The rise of digital media has contributed to an influx in personal blogs and cleverly crafted social media pages focusing on the ‘ideal’ self. Manne discusses social media as ‘a platform for selfish individualism, hyper competitive capitalism and a megaphone for narcissistic qualities’. The digital age has provided a platform to communicate, however it has also increased consumption of information which impacts our identity. New Philosopher editor Antonia Case recounts Neil Postman’s theory of ‘Technopoly – the surrender of culture to technology’ which highlights people’s needs of being continually on a quest to access information. The abundance of ubiquitous information has undoubtedly shaped the identities of citizens today; children in primary school are now educated about concepts thought to be irrelevant at that age not more than a decade ago. Digital media is perhaps inevitable and rather than trying to disarm the automaton it is, citizens should rely on it for constructive purposes such as education and communicating with loved ones across borders.

Philosopher Flora Michaels discusses the dominant cultural stories of different eras and their influence on selfhood and ones broader perception of who we are and who we want to be. For example, in the 16th Century the dominant cultural story was religious, however, now it is economic. Prior eras and some cultures today are of the collectivist notion that family, tradition, custom and caring for others reign supreme. The modern self is more individualistic focusing on the pursuit of happiness through self-indulgence. For example, working long hours to increase living standards and to also provide an abundance of pleasures such as eating out, holidays and shopping.

The self is also influenced by plans and goals. Case discusses the notion of seeking, ‘planning the next big thing, the latest business idea, money making scheme, dinner party, overseas trip or property purchase’. Interestingly, people are convinced that once they marry the one they love, buy a house and have a family it will be the end of seeking. Philosopher Patrick Stokes asks the question, ‘are we just a story? Are people getting married to live out a love story?’ However, this is not so and the search is replaced. Seeking via the internet is largely unproductive, people could harness this motivation to seek to ‘write operas, learn languages, paint and sing’. It is evident that those who self destruct are lacking the ability financial or otherwise to set goals and achieve them.

Globally acclaimed psychology professor Kenneth Gergen explains that we come to know who we are in different relationships in different ways and by undertaking different activities. He emphasises that “what we are doing right now is only a slice of what we are capable of.” The power of the mind is underestimated and so too is its ability to allow us to maximise our potential. Gergen discusses a need for people to break down ‘solidified realities’ so people bring about positive change for their society, families and people around them. Sharing good practices, peacemaking in communities, community building and flattening organisations creates collaboration. Gergen’s point reinforces Cooley’s earlier notion that the self is continually evolving, always growing and forever changing.


Healthy narcissism

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As abovementioned, self confidence and ‘healthy narcissism’ is surely beneficial in certain areas. Manne describes ‘healthy narcissism’ as occupying self-confidence, ability to get on stage, climb up again and feel just pride…’.The psychotherapist John Mitchell describes a stable self as ‘full of colour, vitality, cohesion, continuity and experience.’ Breakdown and falling apart refers to a lack of cohesion, fragile life experiences and a life seen as dull and pointless. Mental illness costs the economy billions each year; a healthy dose of narcissism can help.

Upon examining theorists and examples of life in the modern era a focus on individualistic pursuits is prevalent, and is centred on the dominant cultural theory of economics. This shift, along with a rise in digital media, has fuelled a larger breed of narcissists who seem to lack empathy for fellow citizens. The impact of narcissism is far reaching and includes a widening gap between social classes which results in less social cohesion and increased anti social behaviour.  As Gergen suggests, narcissists could engage in more collaborative activities creating positive change within their communities. It is acknowledged that healthy narcissism does exist and helps combat societal challenges such as depression, which limits ones ability to construct the view of a favoured self and achieve self actualisation. It could be argued that economics has influenced personal values of achievement and financial independence, enabling development of a productive, safe and sociable self.

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Loves of our lives

Inspired by Hanna Rosin’s debate on ‘The end of men’ at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas that was focused on the changing role of women in society. Her discussion on ‘the hook up culture’ was of particular interest so I have completed a brief comparison on relationships a few decades ago and those we see now.

Rewind back to our grandparents era…(Early-mid 1900’s)

Most men and women claimed to be straight (or didn’t have the courage to defy social norms?), sex before marriage was not commonplace, you often dated only 1 or 2 people before marrying and in many instances married quickly.  Both my grandparents were married for 50 years+

Fast forward to today

A variety of relationships exist in society: straight, gay, bi, transgender, de facto as well as numerous options to conceive and nurture children through IVF, surrogacy, adoption, foster care. Abortion rates are increasing (in Australia this is high at 70K p.a.) and divorce rates have been on the increase for a while.

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An interesting transition that could explain relationships over time is through the integration of science and education. Education has created technology which has created more educated people through accessibility, ubiquity and real time answers to questions (where would we be without Google!).

As people become more educated they realise they don’t need to rely or ‘follow’ a popular life journey. In the developed world at least it seems obvious this typically involves… school, work full time, get married by 30, buy a house, have children by 40 and the rest is history.  This is a common pattern and certainly one that I have seen develop with numerous friends getting engaged by the age of 29 to then be married by 30.  Is it a race to the popular life journey finish line? I’m not sure but seems coincidental at least.  Perhaps the biological clock plays a role but with all of the technological advances that have created options above to conceive / nurture children it seems the biological clock isn’t as crucial as once thought.

 Changing patterns of relationships

There is a culture out there (tinder users you know who you are!) where people are quite happy to ‘hook up’ and move on to the next person they choose.  No strings attached.  No hanging out.   The freedom to choose what you want when you want and meet a whole heap of interesting (and probably not so interesting people) along the way.  Perhaps also a valid mechanism for the busy, not so social or shy people out there who are looking for their other half.  News.com.au recently reported that ‘The average female now has eight partners during her lifetime, up from four in the 1990s – and catching up with men, whose average is 12….’.

In last week’s Sunday Life one of the articles I read was by a lady who after ‘years of child rearing, is now smugly single‘.  Dianne Blacklock notes that by 2020 the number of single person households is expected to increase by reaching 16%.  A very interesting read as she discusses her requests by people to rationalise her relationship status.

“Apparently I have a problem. You see, years after getting divorced, I’m still single, and I’m not actively doing anything about it. I am told, repeatedly, that I’m supposed to be putting myself “out there”. Out where? Where is this mythical place? And why is everyone so insistent that I “put” myself there?”

This lonely london lady is so keen on finding a boyfriend she has set up lost boyfriend posters!

Disbanding the ‘nuclear family’

While Australia is a wage earner welfare state focused on the assumption that most members of society form a ‘nuclear family’ with a male breadwinner, stay at home wife and 2.5 children.  (How can you have half a child anyway???).  Clearly this needs some revising as women are starting to combine the roles of caregiver and career woman – igniting their intellect and reclaiming their role as equal to men with 45% of women now comprising the workforce. (Ungerson) 31% of women versus 17% of men will require care in institutions as women are considered to be overworked due to the two roles.

Hanna Rosin states that the income of women is increasing while our male counterparts is decreasing.  This could be due to our prior ‘underdog’ status and therefore increased ability to adapt or ‘hustle’ as Hanna calls it and change.  Did you know that for every 3 degrees women earn men earn 2?  We can even see the role of women changing by watching sitcom episodes in the 70s compared to now. Domestic violence is decreasing with divorce increasing partly due to women now being less financially dependent on men. Women are what could now be considered the apple computers of humanity as Hanna eloquently put it!

It’s clear that society will evolve how society wants to evolve and policies developed by the State particularly those relating to the Market need to be progressive.  For example, policies relating to work, corporations, child rearing, relationships, welfare benefits, marriage laws (including gay marriage) and support services.  Policymakers should have concepts in mind like Hanna’s description of women, with their ability to ‘adapt and change’.

http://news.com.au/money/investing/the-perfect-time-to-start-a-family/story-e6frfmdr-1226757189749

http://www.businessinsider.com.au/nate-bagleys-best-relationship-advice-2014-2