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How “You Do You” Is Leading To Narcissism and a Mental Health Crisis

By: Akos Balogh

We’re the first generation in human history in which ‘You Do You’ is the default way of doing identity formation. ‘You Do You’: it’s all about finding your purpose and identity by looking within.

It’s fed to us by Disney, our schools and universities, our sporting athletes, and just about every part of secular culture. We’re swimming in a ‘you do you’ world.

And we’ve been on this path for at least twenty years now.

But the consequences for individuals and society of implementing this idea will take decades to uncover and assess. And Australian Christian author Brian Rosner attempts to start doing that in his forthcoming book, How To Find Yourself: Why Looking Inward Is Not The Answer. [1] So, what has Rosner uncovered?

A lot, as it turns out.

While I’ve yet to finish his book, Rosner points out that we can be thankful for the increasing freedom we have to make choices about how we live our lives. But the ‘you do you’ way of doing identity comes at an enormous cost, including an increase in Narcissism and a growing mental health crisis:

1) You Do You Is Leading to An Increase in Narcissism

A narcissist is preoccupied with himself and constantly craves the approval of others. In 2013, Time magazine reported that “the incidence of narcissistic personality disorder is nearly three times as high for people in their 20s as for the generation that’s now 65 or older, according to the National Institutes of Health; 58% more college students scored higher on a narcissism scale in 2009 than in 1982.” [2]

As Rosner points out:

Today, “Be your biggest fan” is actually a clothing brand, which unapologetically “pays homage to self love.” And given the new profession of influencer, “self-promotion” coaches are not hard to find. [3]

Psychologist Ross King claims that “studies show those with [narcissistic] traits have jumped from about 3 per cent to 10 per cent of the population over the past three decades.” [4] Indeed, some health professionals speak of an epidemic of Narcissism in our society. [5] And in numerous studies psychologists warn that addiction to social media is strongly linked to narcissistic behavior and low self-esteem. [6]

Because of our fallen human nature, we all have narcissistic traits to some degree. But the rapid rise in narcissistic behaviour needs a further cultural explanation.

girl taking Selfie
Image: Photo by Mateus Campos Felipe on Unsplash

And that explanation, according to Rosner, is that ‘you do you’ mixed with social media has become a toxic brew reshaping how we think of ourselves. After all, if our identity is determined by looking within us, how do we measure our accomplishments? By comparing ourselves to others, especially on social media. [7]

But becoming more narcissistic isn’t just bad for society as a whole: it’s also bad for individuals:

According to the Centre for Public Christianity’s Simon Smart, the widely reported rise in mental illness among young people suggests that “the generation brought up on an endless diet of their own specialness appears to be struggling with the hard truth that most of us are just ordinary.” He notes that “according to a [recent] survey by the National Youth Mental Health Foundation, university and TAFE campuses [in Australia] are reporting epidemic levels of mental health issues, with 70 per cent of students reporting high to very high levels of psychological distress.” [8]

And that takes us to the next concern with ‘You Do You’: a lack of resilience.

2) You Do You Is Leading to Less Resilience and More Mental Health Problems

Despite the amazing advances in medical science in our lifetime, all human lives remain marked by things like serious illness, heartbreak, tragedy, loneliness, and grief.

However, Rosner argues, the self-made self is not suited to cope with such adversity because it cultivates unrealistic expectations for life. And there’s solid research to back this up. According to social researcher Hugh Mackay, many young people in the West today are in the grip of what he calls “the utopia complex, a world we dream of and think we are entitled to with outcomes that are always positive.” [9]

New York Times Columnist David Brooks reports that in a recent survey, “around 96% of eighteen- to twenty-nine-year-old Americans agree with the statement ‘I am certain that someday I will get where I want to be in life.’ [10]

But are those sky-high expectations about life realistic, even in this materially prosperous and peaceful West?

Not at all: we’re still in a broken and fallen world.

As Rosner points out,

Since we exist precariously on this planet, in a world characterized by futility and frustration, then utopia is unattainable, and despite our fear of missing out, we all miss out in the end. The self-made self, formed by looking only inward and inflated by unrealistic expectations, is ill-equipped to cope with life’s struggles and will likely be crushed under the weight of its disappointments. [11]

We saw this come to a head in the last two years when much of the world went into months-long lockdowns. Here in Australia, mental health problems increased so much that the Australian government increased the number of Medicare subsidised Psychologist visits from six to ten. Psychologist waiting lists have grown. And mental health problems increased.

The former head of the American Psychological Association, Martin Seligman, sums up much of these concerns about the You Do You way of doing identity when he writes:

[O]ne truth about meaning is this: the larger the entity to which you can attach yourself, the more meaning you will feel your life has. While some argue that generations that lived for God…were misguided, these same generations surely felt their lives imbued with meaning. The individual, the consuming self, isolated from larger entities, is a very poor site for a meaningful life. However, the bloated self is fertile soil for the growth of depression.’ [12]

The bloated [You Do You] self is fertile soil for the growth of depression. 

And we see the fruit of that ‘You Do You’ self in our Western world today.

An Unsurprising Finding

Christians shouldn’t be surprised by this finding.

We weren’t designed to find our identity by looking within but by looking to our Creator God. Unfortunately, humanity is instinctively repelled by any thought of looking for our identity in Him (Rom 1:18-30), and so, left to ourselves, we look for identity anywhere but the living God.

And in the modern secular West, that search for identity has turned inwards.

Even though it’s starting to bear bitter fruit..


Article supplied with thanks to Akos Balogh.

About the Author: Akos is the Executive Director of the Gospel Coalition Australia. He has a Masters in Theology and is a trained Combat and Aerospace Engineer.

Feature image: Photo by Marija Zaric on Unsplash  

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