No, No, Narcissism

I recently saw a question on a teaching forum from a music teacher saying that she has a student who is a genius and has a narcissistic personality. She fears he plays his instrument to get praise and wonders if she should feed into his narcissism by praising him.

I don’t know how this teacher decided her student is narcissistic, but even if he isn’t, any teacher is absolutely right to be concerned about this growing trend among our youth. Yes, research is documenting that narcissistic tendencies are constantly on the rise in our culture.* In an excellent article in “Psychology Today,” Dr. Peter Gray defines narcissism as “…an inflated view of the self, coupled with relative indifference to others. People who are high in this trait fail to help others unless there is immediate gain or recognition to themselves for doing so: often think they are above the law and therefore violate it; and readily trample over others in their efforts to rise to the “top,” which is where they think they belong.” Dr. Gray goes on to say that: “The characteristic that perhaps most distinguishes non-narcissists from narcissists is empathy.  Empathy refers to a capacity and tendency to experience life not just from one’s own point of view but also from that of others, to feel others’ joy and sorrow, and to care about others’ wellbeing.  Specialists in moral development consider empathy to be the foundation for human compassion and morality.”**

Wow! Does this sound like someone you’d like to live next door to? And yet research tells us that narcissistic tendencies are ever increasing in our young people. Why is this? While I haven’t found any documentation to back this up, one therapist mentioned to me  once that people with high IQ’s have more narcissistic tendencies. Is this true? Thus are we all getting smarter and more talented? Or is it that families tend increasingly to encourage highly intelligent or talented children to believe they are better than everyone else, and therefore should feel entitled, because they believe it, too? In an interesting article, Poncie Rutsch*** refers to research that links parental overvaluation of their offsprings’ talents and accomplishments to increased narcissistic tendencies in those children, whether or not the parents were narcissistic themselves. The article also talked vaguely about environment being an influence. Aren’t music teachers an important part of our students’ environment?

So what can we music teachers do to stem this tide – or least not make the situation worse?

First we have to see if we are helping feed into this phenomenon. Ask yourself a few questions:

  1. Do you feel that some students are better than others?
  2. Do you feel that some students are worth teaching more than others?
  3. Do you get excited when a talented or gifted student comes to you for lessons?

If you answer “yes” to any of these questions, then you may be helping your students on the path to increasing their narcissistic tendencies. After all, if you think a student is “better” than another and prize talent above all, what are you transmitting to your student and his parents? Do you think his parents won’t pick up on what you think and reinforce it? Notice the use of the word “think.” You, a teacher, are a transmitter and if you think something, even without saying it, your student and others (even your other students) will get it on some level. If you assign more intrinsic worth to one student over another, you can expect him to do that for himself. So, yes, you have to be careful about what you think.

Of course there is nothing wrong with having special or different qualities, i.e., gifts or talents. But different is just that: different. Red is different from green but isn’t better than green. Just better in certain circumstances for certain uses, but not intrinsically better. The same thing with students. There isn’t one who is better than another. There is however, one who practices better than another or plays in tune better, but that doesn’t make him better, just the way he plays. You play better – either because you work harder or you are more talented than someone else – therefore you are better just doesn’t and, above all, shouldn’t follow. And we teachers can try to make sure of this.

Here are a few basic rules:

  1. No matter how tempting, don’t see a talented student as “better.” (And it can be really tempting!) See him as another type of teaching challenge, a huge responsibility with problems different from your less talented pupils.
  2. Praise your student ONLY for what he does well and only when he deserves it, ie., has made a special effort to improve some technical or musical point.
  3. Don’t tell your student how talented he is. Never praise him for being talented. You may say, as most students realize they have talent all by themselves and sometimes with help from the family, that talent is a responsibility and not something to be proud of. It’s what you do with your talent and how much you help other people with it that’s important.
  4. Make sure all your students, narcissist-tending or not, know what it means to play with a group and do what’s best for the group instead of themselves, even if that means playing third violin (because the group needs a more experienced violinist there) instead of first.
  5. Remind your students that playing music is not to show how great they are (although a bit of that is necessary to get up onto the stage), but to do something positive for others and for the universe in general. Those sound waves go all over the place and you never know where they wind up. That doing your best to play well is a responsibility that a musician has to others.
  6. Try not to send your young students to competitions. Winning isn’t the point of playing music. Developing intuition, empathy and learning to play with others is. I have been forced (by parents) to send some students to these competitions and I have never seen a positive result even when they win. Being better or even playing better than someone else is not what young children should be thinking about. It’s too easy for a student to make the leap from “I did well” to “Gosh I’m good!” And therein lies the danger.
  7. Make sure the parents are on the same page. Most parents want to do what’s right for their children and take their cue from you. If you make a big fuss about talent, they will too. If you explain that it’s important for talented children not to get a swelled head, I have found that they will listen.

Doing something for praise is fine – often that’s how we convince our small students to practice. It’s the conclusions our students draw from the praise we give and the value we give their talent that can be a problem. We have to help our students see their place in the world as part of it: that their talents and capacities are responsibilities and possibilities to do good for others and to value more what they do than what they are. We have to try anyway or we risk contributing to a growing lack of empathy that will have serious consequences for society in general.

Post author: Eloise Hellyer

* Take this test yourself. It can be illuminating. Also there are some graphs at the end and other resource information that show the statistics of increasing narcissistic tendencies.

**Peter Gray, PhD.

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8 September 2016

5 thoughts on “No, No, Narcissism

  1. gipsika

    Wonderful post!

    I use praise and crit as a combination tool in the lessons. It’s like a chisel and a saw. Or possibly like the steering wheel. But one needs to be very specific what one is praising. For instance, I’ll praise a student for having practised well; I’ll shout “good!” or “that’s right!” when they get a difficult bar or technique right. I’ll say “that was better” much more easily than “that was good”, because even “good” can usually be improved.

    To praise a child for being musical is like praising a child for being tall, or pretty. It’s unfair and makes the kid uncomfortable. Only achievements that have cost effort, can be praised in such a way that the child feels good about the praise.

  2. Virgil T. Morant

    This is a fitting complement to your recent essay where you discussed the perils of parents trusting their children’s teachers too much in matters parents should be more intimately aware of. The parents are indeed the primary persons in a child’s upbringing (and even education: or they should be), but a teacher who is thoughtful and aware can nevertheless be a good guide. We don’t all know exactly what to do all the time. It’s good if those whom we trust can help up make up for our deficits.

    Nice post.

  3. Pingback: About talent, egomania and the music | Violin Tricks

  4. Cynthia Faisst

    This is so much closer to the questions we should be asking about Talent. I am always equating Talent with responsibility. I am often asking students to share their talent in opportunities for community service.

    When I get a young child who is needy in terms of praise it is more about safety. Sometimes it is the emotional neediness of the parent in some way. It makes such a difference when you can get a parent to see things in a different way so they can address the real needs of the child and not something imposed on them.
    Even here it is about helping the child see the separation between his behavior and his identity.
    How do we give children that safety so we can teach them to take a deep breath and reflect on their results without taking themselves too seriously? I am always looking for ways to solicit their sense of humor and curiosity.

    1. Eloise Hellyer Post author

      One of the problems is that we all take ourselves too seriously. Once a mother was telling me how hard she is on herself for her perceived faults. I pointed out to her that this is another form of egotism – an excuse to think about herself. She was, of course, shocked and then thanked me. But if you think of it, the best way to live is when we do something good, congratulate ourselves and move on trying to do ever better. And when we make a mistake, say to ourselves “oops” and promise ourselves to try to do better next time, perhaps analyzing why we made that mistake, but no orgies of self pity or overweening pride in whatever we do. Your point is well made: we are not so gosh darned important. What we DO is important but what we really are, instead of what we perceive ourselves to be, is something sages spend lifetimes meditating on. So it’s a good idea to just get on with whatever it is we have set out to do without making either positive or negative considerations about who or what we think we are or should be. This is what I try to get across to my students. Sometimes we do get children who are particularly needy for praise and of course we should give it to them, deciding on a case by case how to handle the situation (that’s what makes teaching interesting). But, generally speaking, building up childrens’ ego and self-esteem by praising them for their gifts and overvaluing their accomplishments creates a lot more problems than it resolves. Therefore it is important for teachers to think carefully about their own attitudes toward talent itself and talented children. It is never good to make a child identify with his talent, to make him feel that he is a part of it instead of it being a quality he just so happens to have and can develop to help others. Some years ago I interviewed a internationally super famous violinist who told me that he saw his job as trying to bring a little beauty into the lives of people so that it brightens their day. And he meant it. I hope we can inspire all our students to have the same attitude, no matter the magnitude of their talent. In any case, in your comment you brought up so many good points that I cannot respond to them all here. Thank you for taking the time to make this comment. Your students are lucky to have such a thoughtful teacher.


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