Millennial 'Narcissism': A Reactionary Survival Mechanism In An Age Of Anxiety

Millennial 'Narcissism': A Reactionary Survival Mechanism In An Age Of Anxiety

I believe that our "narcissism" is a symptom of our generation's need to react and rebel in the most quickly moving and anxious age in history


On May 20, 2013, Joel Stein of Time magazine published an article titled "Millennials: The Me Me Me Generation," an attack on the narcissistic tendencies of the millennial generation, a calling out of my generation as "lazy, entitled, selfish, and shallow." Stein's analysis of millennials, the generation born from 1980 to 2000, goes beyond a cookie-cutter use of statistics to support his point, but analyzes why we have become the most narcissistic generation ever: "They are the most threatening and exciting generation since the baby boomers brought about social revolution, not because they're trying to take over the Establishment but because they're growing up without one."

Stein couldn't label millennials simply the "Me" generation, because that title is taken by our predecessors, the baby boomers. He points to the invention of the concept of self-esteem in the 1970s, and the problem with that is "when people try to boost self-esteem, they accidentally boost narcissism instead." He later quotes researcher Sean Lyons in saying that we are in "a crisis of unmet expectations."

The only thing worse than our narcissism is what arises from it: entitlement. We have less civic engagement and lower political participation than any group, according to Stein. Our narcissism has become our generation's mortal sin.

In a response to the Stein article, Emmett Rensin labeled the millennial generation, instead, the "We Generation" in an August 13, 2013 column in USA Today. Stein labels us the "Me Me Me Generation" when millennial levels of giving to charity and political engagement are on pace to surpass all previous generations, despite an era of crippling youth unemployment and student debt.

Of course, the narcissism that our generation shows is most often on full display on social media, on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat. But is social media truly a "vanity project" when we spend far more time browsing our Facebook feeds rather than fine-tuning our profiles and posts? Is social media an assertion of independence when we spend far more time reading Tweets of our friends, celebrities, and politicians than tweeting on our own?

According to Rensin, "for a millennial, heaven is other people. Hell is becoming an island, cut off from others by an iPhone left at home." We are not the "Me Me Me" generation, but a "We" generation, one that desires a "pure, interdependent society," an innate incompatibility with isolation.

But Rensin, in this piece, does not defend against the criticisms of the older generations as much as he seeks to understand where the sentiment comes from. "Beneath the mutual something noble: the genuine desire to understand. This is a new crop of Americans, after all. What do their hearts look like?" It's no secret that scrolling our Facebook or Instagram feeds is a lesson in anxiety, a terror that is the "anxiety of seeing everything."

The circumstances of our generation aren't too different from our predecessors. What sets us apart, however, is "how uniquely aware" we are of what everyone else is doing, and particularly how much everyone else is succeeding. "The irony of the 'We generation' is that by giving everybody a voice, everybody has seen just how many voices there are." The fact that we see everything means that "it's impossible to digest them all." Instead, "we just feel the visceral weight of output. We say this is something to be cherished, but we know it is the thing that crushes, too."

The "Me" generation is actually something we strive for. It is no secret that social media is an unhealthy mechanism for comparison - look to a Facebook friend's latest hardship and think "oh, my life isn't that bad" or see your friend's latest accomplishment or job offer and realize your presence is relatively insignificant. "We know it might be nice to have a 'Me Generation," if only we could."

The world is made smaller by our advances in social media and our digital era - and sometimes being so fundamentally aware of what almost everyone is up to makes it claustrophobically overwhelming. Sometimes, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are, for better or worse, arenas of one-upmanship to see whose personal brand is superior to the next, is more popular than the next. The fundamental paradox of the millennial generation is this: how can we stand out when seemingly everyone stands out?

Although a mirage, wouldn't we be better off as a generation of narcissists, one that is self-assured of our independence and self-worth that we wouldn't have this need for comparison? "It might be nice to have a selfish space or blindness to the odds. We might like to be narcissists, if it weren't so hard in a world made small by those damn iPhones." Wouldn't it be nice to have life finally slow down.

Stein misunderstands the millennial generation, but started the conversation on what is in the hearts of millennial generation. The most egregious examples of our "narcissism," from Facebook profile pictures that change every other day to Instagram photos that conveniently staged - what is behind them?

I believe that our "narcissism" is a symptom of pir generation's need to react and rebel in the most quickly moving and anxious age in history. Life moves too fast - only yesterday we were two years younger, and tomorrow we will be five years older. And yet there is so much to do, catch up on, and become. I have 18 tabs open in the writing of this article of things I could check out and read. How many tabs of possibilities do you have open in your life, and what does it say about us that we aren't satisfied with just one?

The "we" generation exists in a condition of fundamental anxiety - because, for better or worse, we largely grow up with unmet expectations of institutions, from our government, economy, press, and even families and local communities that were supposed to be there for us but fell short, time and time again. And I'm not talking about mental health anxiety (which, conveniently, millennials do also have a problem with), but an anxiety knowing and experience, time and time again, things change faster than we'll ever be comfortable with, faster than we'll ever expect, faster than we'll ever be ready for.

And if we strive for narcissism and vanity because they are spaces that won't let us down, defense mechanisms we've donned to condition ourselves to survive, why wouldn't we try to turn to them in times we don't have much else?

Popular Right Now

30 Things I'd Rather Be Than 'Pretty'

Because "pretty" is so overrated.

Nowadays, we put so much emphasis on our looks. We focus so much on the outside that we forget to really focus on what matters. I was inspired by a list that I found online of "Things I Would Rather Be Called Instead Of Pretty," so I made my own version. Here is a list of things that I would rather be than "pretty."

1. Captivating

I want one glance at me to completely steal your breath away.

2. Magnetic

I want people to feel drawn to me. I want something to be different about me that people recognize at first glance.

3. Raw

I want to be real. Vulnerable. Completely, genuinely myself.

4. Intoxicating

..and I want you addicted.

5. Humble

I want to recognize my abilities, but not be boastful or proud.

6. Exemplary

I want to stand out.

7. Loyal

I want to pride myself on sticking out the storm.

8. Fascinating

I want you to be hanging on every word I say.

9. Empathetic

I want to be able to feel your pain, so that I can help you heal.

10. Vivacious

I want to be the life of the party.

11. Reckless

I want to be crazy. Thrilling. Unpredictable. I want to keep you guessing, keep your heart pounding, and your blood rushing.

12. Philanthropic

I want to give.

13. Philosophical

I want to ask the tough questions that get you thinking about the purpose of our beating hearts.

14. Loving

When my name is spoken, I want my tenderness to come to mind.

15. Quaintrelle

I want my passion to ooze out of me.

16. Belesprit

I want to be quick. Witty. Always on my toes.

17. Conscientious

I want to always be thinking of others.

18. Passionate

...and I want people to know what my passions are.

19. Alluring

I want to be a woman who draws people in.

20. Kind

Simply put, I want to be pleasant and kind.

21. Selcouth

Even if you've known me your whole life, I want strange, yet marvelous. Rare and wondrous.

22. Pierian

From the way I move to the way I speak, I want to be poetic.

23. Esoteric

Do not mistake this. I do not want to be misunderstood. But rather I'd like to keep my circle small and close. I don't want to be an average, everyday person.

24. Authentic

I don't want anyone to ever question whether I am being genuine or telling the truth.

25. Novaturient

..about my own life. I never want to settle for good enough. Instead I always want to seek to make a positive change.

26. Observant

I want to take all of life in.

27. Peart

I want to be honestly in good spirits at all times.

28. Romantic

Sure, I want to be a little old school in this sense.

29. Elysian

I want to give you the same feeling that you get in paradise.

30. Curious

And I never want to stop searching for answers.
Cover Image Credit: Favim

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Don't Forget About Self-Love

It's been a long winter, don't forget to put yourself first.


For most people, spring break still isn't for another few weeks and let's be honest - it's very needed at this point. January felt like five months just by itself and it feels like winter has been going on for years. So amidst midterms, jobs, events, and everything else going on remember that sometimes you need to put yourself first.

It doesn't help anyone for you to be constantly busy and beating yourself up when one thing goes wrong. This especially doesn't help you. Everyone is feeling pressure from something, and no one is going to blame you for using some of your free time to get yourself back on track. You're much more useful when you're cup is full than when you're completely drained from trying to do everything at all times.

In college, we learn to be people-pleasers whether we want to or not. You want to impress your professor, your boss, and even your friends. You want everyone to think that you are having the most amazing time at all times. Sometimes a lot of negative feelings come up when you can't be doing something for everyone and then you feel liked you've failed.

This pressure is especially true for graduating seniors. We're all so focused on what's next and how we can maximize all our time left that we forget to take care of ourselves. We take on every project we can to prove we can do it. We try to hang out with everyone we know because we may never see them again after graduation. We constantly worry that we're just running out of time to do everything. Sometimes we forget that if we burn ourselves out now, we're not going to be able to do much later.

While the solution isn't to just give up and become a hermit, we need to realize that sometimes the best thing to do is to take a step back. If you have thirty different projects going on ask for help on some of them. Collaborating is much easier than drowning in endless work. If you have free time and you've been busy all week take a night off instead of committing to seeing every friend you have. Self-breaks are sometimes the best breaks.

In the end, remember that you're not alone by any means when it comes to anything you're feeling and sometimes it just takes getting away to get better.

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