Self-Esteem, Narcissism & Status Anxiety

Self-Esteem, Narcissism & Status Anxiety

Dr. Niall McElwee & Sarah Jane Gibson

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In this series of Clinic blogs, we look at some presenting issues both in research and in therapy rooms under the themes of self-esteem, narcissism and status anxiety. As is the way with the Clinic blogs, we use a writing style that is informed by research and theory, but attempt not to alienate the reader with an overly academic approach. Thus, we include references throughout but that’s to assist scholars and students who regularly access our Clinic material.

Bottom dollar? In our work, we are both seeing increasing numbers of persons with levels of poor self-esteem despite the fact that people now have access to so much technology, connectedness and immediacy. Why might this be? What might be behind it all?

Self-esteem can be defined as ‘the valence of feelings towards oneself’ (Campbell et al., 2003, p3). Social anxiety occurs when one believes that perception of others about oneself is different from self perception (Loudin, Loukas & Robinson, 2003). Narcissism is a term one hears on a daily basis but often without clarity. As a psychiatric construct, it dates back to Havelock Ellis (1898) who was the first to coin the “Narcissus-like” tendency to absorb sexual feelings into self-admiration. This theory was developed by Freud in “On Narcissism” (1914/1957) where he linked excessive self-love to the development of a pathological ego-ideal serving to maintain self-preservation and self-regard. Whew! ok. We’ve got the definitions out of the way…

It is well accepted in research that the foundations for all aspects of human development are laid in childhood (Marmot et al, 2011, p22). It is incredibly difficult to ‘unlearn’ learned behaviour as we soak up so much as infants; be it smells of our biological mothers, cues from siblings and adults and directions from those around us. We quickly learn rewarded and unrewarded behaviours and usually (although not always) modify our behaviour as we are, in essence, a pleasure seeking (as opposed to pain!) species. Imagine then how our self-esteem can grow and mature if we are praised, in whatever manner this may be. Imagine how secure we feel in the world. And, imagine how the reverse can be true; if we are not praised, if no one notices or if those who notice us are harsh and unforgiving to us. We can become incredibly anxiety driven and this can be in both private and public contexts. Imagine further if we do not have the most basic of things in life; food and a home.

And, finally, imagine if one tends to live out one’s life in the virtual world as is increasingly the case, if one continually seeks the approval of people one does not even know in the real world, if one sees life through the filtered lens of Snapchat, Instagram, Fb and the like. We are entering unchartered territory where the proverbial goalposts are constantly shifting and, we need to engage and respond to this.

Living in Hypermodernity

In the western world, we live in an era characterised by hypermodernity, hyper consumerism and hyper narcissism (Jenkins, 2004; 2006). That’s not to sound overly critical, but it is an observation we’ve made based in research we’ve been involved in. Perhaps the human species has always been this way and it is just technology that better facilitates the expression of ‘the everyday’. Indeed, we are used to smart phones and tablets recording events in real time and social media ensures ‘followers’ and virtual ‘friends’ get to share our experiences in nano seconds, but we believe that all of this ‘demand for expression’ has an effect on the development and expression of self-esteem and on the potential development of social anxiety for individuals. More, in this case, is not always a good thing.

The world’s population is understood to have grown to more than seven billion people in 2011 and is predicted to reach 9.3bn by 2050 (United Nations 2011), but there are vast differences in terms of standards of living between various regions of the world. Mass communication is now everyday reality and Ireland has the highest rate of smart phone usage per capita in Western Europe. Facebook, Linked In, and Instagram, to name but three platforms, are at our fingertips and we can upload and share photos, data and files in real time. You’ll either love this or find it incredibly annoying. It’s difficult to go into a café or restaurant without encountering multiple diners chatting, scrolling and taking selfies of their freshly brewed coffee!

The ‘plugged in’ generation is in the news on a daily basis.  A study performed by IPSOS in 2013, called ‘At Home and on the go with the millenials’, enquired from a group of 18-31 year old young adults what they felt would be easier to live without from a choice of products/services/items for 2 days and discovered the young “highly connected, plugged in and mobile generation” would rather not be without their smart phones for just two days. Perhaps even more worrying, the millennials would rather go without access to their car or home than give up or lose their smart phones (IPSOS, 2013; Harris & McElwee, 2015).

In our class and success conscious world, we might ask the question, how does net worth, or professional success determine one’s moral worth? Indeed, is there a correlation between these two concepts? We live in deeply ironic times. Research suggests that one third of the food that is produced ends up going to waste (Bond 2013). There remains, at the same time, 858 million people who are starving, which approximates to 1 in every 8 people. There are different levels of ‘food insecurity’ ranging from food insecure without hunger to food insecure with severe hunger (USDA Report 1995). The 858 million are described as ‘chronically under-nourished.’ How can people demonstrate high self-esteem if they cannot even have access to nutrient based foods? What is the good of owning a smartphone to surf the Internet if one does not even have enough food to eat? What does this do to one’s spirit?

Of course, to own smartphones, laptops and tablets one requires money or financial credit. We experienced our own period of ‘renewal’ referred to by economist and media commentators as the ‘Celtic Tiger’. The Celtic Tiger in Ireland was a period of unprecedented economic growth for us, and it has resulted in profound effects on Irish society and people living in this country. For decades, unemployment had affected our population and during the 1990’s it started to fall dramatically falling from a peak of 17% in the 1980’s to under 4% in 2001’’ (Clinch, Convery, & Walsh, 2002, p. 27). However, this was artificial and by late 2008, the Irish economy entered a period of deep recession after a decade of sustained annual growth, to a point where “the employment level in 2015 is expected to be lower than in 2008 by 77,000 or 3.8%’’ (FÁS/ESRI, 2010, p. 43).

Mental and Physical Health

There is increasing recognition in recent decades that mental health must be understood as an integral part of improving overall health and well being (Department of Health and Children, 2006; O’ Connor, 2005). Indeed, the WHO (2011, p1) defined positive mental health as a ‘state of well-being in which the individual realises his or her own abilities, copes with the normal stresses of life, works productively and fruitfully, and makes a contribution to his or her community.’ This is easier stated than achieved. And, this is particularly the case when one lives in a world of ‘filters’ where one can change, literally in the swipe of one’s fingers, reality. From darkness to light, from green to gold etc.

Of course, not everyone will experience good mental health and over fifteen years ago, the WHO noted one in four people globally will likely experience a mental health problem at least once in their lifetime (WHO, 2010. Of the ten leading causes of disability worldwide, five are labelled as mental health conditions and by the year 2020 it is predicted that neuropsychiatric problems will constitute the second largest cause of ill-health burden globally.

Different countries tend to have very varying public expenditure on their mental health services with Ireland having a shockingly low 7% (see O’ Shea and Kennelly, 2008). Perhaps the most important finding across research is that there is increasing evidence of a direct relationship between physical and mental health. And, in all of this, self-esteem can take quite a dumping.

Let’s present a brief case study from Sarah Jane’s counselling practice to illustrate the prevalence of social media use for a client.

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Case Study 1

Chloe contacted my counselling service through our Facebook page. She was experiencing anxiety and depressive symptoms, of low mood, low self-esteem, and social withdrawal. She described herself as anxious. When I asked her to share further she said she felt she had always been anxious for others approval, however her anxiety about what other’s thought of her had increased significantly. Chloe explained she was avoiding social gatherings and missing college lectures, as she was extremely self-conscious about her appearance. She instead spent the majority of her time in her room on Facebook, and Instagram, checking posts from friends and comparing herself to others. When asked how much time she would spend using social media, Chloe answered, “about 8-9 hours a day”. It was the first thing she checked in the morning and the last thing at night.

Chloe spent hours taking “selfies” and manipulating the images by filtering to create picture perfect impressions, then posting and waiting. Her mood and daily esteem was determined by the amount of likes and positive comments each picture received.

During Chloe’s therapy sessions we explored her dependence on social media and focused on her core self beliefs. Chloe discovered social media was increasing her anxiety and she experimented by allowing herself one hour a day to search social media. The initial hours and days were difficult, however by the third week Chloe had resumed her college course and was observing her own personal attributes and discovering new perceptions on others opinions. With therapy Chloe’s self-esteem grew and she was aware of triggers to her anxieties and she began to master her critical inner voice, and instead of berating herself is now beginning to love herself. She describes her period of reliance on social media as her addiction and has deleted her accounts for her best interest. She has joined sports groups on campus and believes she does not need picture perfect filtering any longer.

Concluding Commentary

Over this and the next two blogs on this theme, we propose to demonstrate to the reader that self-esteem is closely linked to status anxiety with a myriad of consequences and ramifications when certain criteria are unmet or, insufficiently met. We discuss the development of self-esteem in the context of narcissism and social anxiety and look at how this is linked to both internal and external phenomena. Finally, we concentrate on the connections between the virtual and the real worlds, as we tend to navigate between the two with increasing familiarity.

References & Useful Reading

Barry, C. T., Grafeman, S. J., Adler, K. K., & Pickard, J. D. (2007). The relations among narcissism, self-esteem, and delinquency in a sample of at-risk adolescents. Journal of Adolescence, 30(6), 933-942. doi: 10.1016/j.adolescence.2006.12.003

Bauman, Z. (2011). Collateral Damage: Social Inequalities in a Global Age. Cambridge: Polity.

Botton, A. (2004). Status anxiety. New York: Pantheon Books.

Bond M et al. (2013) Food waste within global food systems. Global Food Security Programme, Swindon.

Butler, G. (2008). Overcoming social anxiety and shyness: A self-help guide using cognitive behavioral techniques. New York: Basic Books.

Clinch, P.,Convery, F. and Walsh, B. (eds)(2002) After the Celtic Tiger. Dublin: O’Brien Press.

Department of Health and Children (2006) A Vision for Change: Report of the Expert Group on Mental Health Policy. Dublin: Stationery Office.

FÁS/ESRI. (2010). Manpower Forecasting Studies Report No. 13. Occupational Employment Forecasts 2015. Ireland: FÁS/ESRI.

Harris, B. & McElwee, N. (2015). ‘Smartphones, Social Media Access and Anxiety’.

Jenkins H (2004) ‘The Cultural Logic of Media Convergence’, International Journal of Cultural Studies 7(1): 33–43.

Jenkins H (2006) Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York University Press.

Kernis, M.H. (2005). Measuring self-esteem in context: The importance of stability of self-esteem in psychological functioning. Journal of Personality, 73(6), 1569- 1605.

Loudin, J. L., Loukas, A., & Robinson, S. (2003). Relational Aggression in College Students: Examining the Roles of Social Anxiety and Empathy. Aggressive Behavior, 29(5), 430-439.

Marmot, M. et al, (2010), The Marmot Review – Fair society, Healthy Lives: Strategic Review in Health Inequalities England post-2010, London, University College London.

Marmot, M. (2015). The status syndrome: How social standing affects our health and longevity. New York: Times Books.

Mental Health Commission (2008) Mental Health Commission Annual Report, Dublin: MHC.

Mental Health Commission (2009) Mental Health Commission Annual Report, Dublin: MHC.

O’Connor, J (2003). Homeless and the problem of containment. European Journal of Psychotherapy, Counselling and Health. 6:2 pp. 111-128.

O’Connor, J (2005). Between the street and the consulting room: The role of therapeutic frame in working with homeless clients, European Journal of Psychotherapy, Counselling and Health, 7 pp. 217-233.

O’Leary, E., O’Sullivan, K., O’Sullivan, D. & Gallagher, J. (2003). The Psychological Experience of Homelessness. Cork: Tower Books.

O’Neill, A., Casey, P. & Minton, R. (2007) The Homeless Mentally Ill – An Audit from an Inner City Hospital. Irish Journal of psychological Medicine, 24, (2): 62-66.

O’Sullivan, E (1997) Homelessness, Housing Need and Asylum Seekers in Ireland. Dublin Homeless Initiative.

O’Sullivan, E. (2008.) Researching homelessness in Ireland: explanations, themes and approaches. Dublin: Homeless Agency.

O’Sullivan, E. (2012) Ending homelessness: A Housing-led Approach. Dublin: Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government.

O’Shea, E. and Kennelly, B. (2008) The Economics of Mental Health Care in Ireland. Dublin: Mental Health Commission. Available at: pdf (accessed August 12h 2016).

United Nations (1948) Universal Declaration of Human Rights. United Nations.

United Nations (1976) International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, United Nations

United Nations (1999) The right to adequate food (Art 11) 12/05/99. Geneva, United Nations.

United Nations (2013), Water for Food. World Water Day 2013. United Nations.

Wilkinson, R. and Marmot, M. (2009), 2nd edition, Social determinants of health: the solid facts.

World Health Organisation (2001) World Health Report 2001. Mental Health: New Understanding, New Hope. Geneva: World Health Organization.

World Health Organisation (2002) Prevention and promotion in mental health. Evidence and Research, A report by the Department of Mental Health and Substance Dependence. Geneva: World Health Organization.

World Health Organisation (2003) Investing in mental health, A report by the Department of Mental Health and Substance Dependence, Non-communicable Diseases and Mental Health. Geneva: World Health Organization.

World Health Organisation (2005) End human rights violations against people with mental health disorders, Geneva: World Health Organisation.

World Health Organisation Europe (2005) Mental health: facing the challenges, building solution; Report from the WHO European Ministerial Conference, Helsinki: World Health Organisation.

World Health Organisation (2001) Mental health: New Understanding, New Hope, Geneva: World Health Organisation.

World Health Organisation (2010) Mental Health and Development: Targeting People with Mental Health Conditions as a Vulnerable Group: World Health Organisation.

Wu, C. (2009). The relationship between attachment style and self-concept clarity: The mediation effect of self-esteem. Personality and Individual Differences, 47, 42- 46. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2009.01.043

Wu, J., Watkins, D., & Hattie, J. (2010). Self-concept clarity: A longitudinal study of Hong Kong adolescents. Personality and Individual Differences, 48, 277-282. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2009.10.011

*Our Clinic guest blogger, Sarah Jane Gibson, is Counsellor at Equilibrium Counselling and Psychotherapy, which is a professional service, offering a warm, empathic, safe, confidential environment to help you explore any difficulties you are experiencing in your life. Offices in Blessington and Naas. Contact: 0876533942 Email:

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