I actually read this book months ago and meant to write a review but never did. Better late than never, and my thoughts about the book remain with me.
By Twenge and Campbell. Atria, 2009
This 300 + page book should have been a lot shorter! It could have easily been condensed to 175 pages in my opinion. The title and subtitle speaks for itself. It is a book of a “popular” nature written by two individuals with PhD’s who highlight the inflated view of self that permeates our culture. It is a secular book, not written from a Christian or religious viewpoint. (I only mention that because distinctly Christian books are usually what I review on my blog.)
In the various chapters, the authors give superfluous examples of the narcissistic tendencies in our society. Seriously, if they cut out 75% of the examples, they would still have plenty enough to make their point. Other parts of the book were also overly wordy. I can be a wordy person myself, and sympathetic to rambling, but this book needed some editing to condense it. There were also redundant graphs/charts. Usually a graph makes statistical info easier to understand, but the graphs highlighted stats that were already very easy to understand! What was the point?
I don’t usually jump into reviews with such criticism. I agree with the premises and concerns of the book, but it was unnecessarily long.
The book has 4 sections: The Diagnosis, Root Causes of the Epidemic, Symptoms of Narcissism, Prognosis and Treatment. Not just the final section, but various sections of the book, offer practical ideas for individuals/parents/schools to curb narcissistic and entitlement tendencies. But parents in particular can be very touchy about these things…their child is super special and wonderful, and you better not insinuate otherwise! The authors have been verbally attacked by parents for suggesting ways to raise less self-centered and humble children. Sad, really. What has society come to? Well, that is the point of the book!
But one more critique of this book…the book never addresses root historical causes. It does mention causes like changes in parenting methods and the influence of the media/celebrity culture. Well, of course. But where did it come from before that? What philosophies birthed it? What planted the seeds that changed our culture? This is not addressed at all.
How can this be?? Especially for a book written by two PhD’s?? This is a major problem for the book. It is hard for me to fathom that at minimum, Norman Vincent Peale was not reviewed and his “believe in yourself”, power of positive thinking/self-affirmation books and motivational sermons. Peale transformed American life in the mid 20th century. I review this history in the first chapter of my own book, and the history was not that hard for me to find as I researched my book. Peale was heavily influenced by a weird, new age type philosophy from the late 19th and early 20th century. That is where it all began.
But to cease my criticism, the authors did a good job in chapter 15 highlighting how religion should help counteract the narcissism epidemic – but unfortunately religion has fell under the influence of it too.
“Religion and volunteering to help others should, in theory, counteract the narcissism epidemic. But even these aspects of social life have been changed by the epidemic…Both have adapted to a new culture that favors a focus on the self….To compete, religions have to give people what they want.” (pages 245-246)
The authors bring in Joel Osteen, and quote from his book Become a Better You. They say his book is part of the trend of religious books crossing over into self-help. The title of this chapter, by the way, is “God Didn’t Create You to Be Average” – a succinct summary of the emphasis of Osteen’s book!
But they note a flip side to Osteen’s message. While the first half of Become a Better You promotes narcissism, the second half “is almost a course in anti-narcissism: praise people as much as you can, swallow your pride and apologize, build better relationships.”
And then authors Twenge and Campbell nail it! The anti-narcissism part sounds good, right? But there is a major problem.
“This sounds good, but to draw in Americans steeped in our self-focused culture, he begins with the contradictory premise that self-admiration must come first.” (page 248)
Osteen encourages us not to rush through our day in a self-centered way but to take time for others and to appreciate them. But as Twinge and Campbell further point out: “The problem is that it’s hard to be patient and friendly to everyone when you’re overly focused on your own success and think you are special.” (page 250)
So…the foundation laid in the first half of Osteen’s book is contrary to the second part. A self-focus is not going to lead to self-less behavior! (Duh!)
In my own book, I address this regarding sin. I evasively interact with Osteen’s book. Osteen says we should never speak a critical word against ourselves, and only speak positive affirmations at all times. Yet later in the book he says Christians need a sensitive conscience, should heed it, and not make excuses for their bad behavior. But the book’s overall approach makes this very hard to do! If you do nothing but positively affirm yourself, you’ll never be able to admit and face your sin.
Evading our sin makes it difficult to see our need of a Savior. An emphasis on self-help and self-affirmation feeds our natural weakness towards pride, and further makes it more difficult for us to see our need of a Savior. The way up is down in Christianity. We must realize our need and turn to Christ.
What saddens, disturbs, and puzzles me is the many secular people (like the authors of The Narcissism Epidemic) who clearly see the inconsistency with Osteen’s teachings — While far too many Christians fail to see it! And we have a positively powerless Christianity as a result! Oops, I am drifting into narcissism and self-promotion by making this about MY book.