As the mythology goes, Narcissus fell in love so much with his own reflection in a pool of water that he was unable to do anything else but admire himself. Eventually, he withered away and died staring at his reflection. Did Narcissus have excessively high self-esteem? Was that his main issue? Or was it something else?
For many years, psychologists and the media alike have treated narcissism as representing "inflated self-esteem", or "self-esteem on steroids". In the past few years, however, there have been some serious challenges to this view. The latest research suggests that narcissism differs significantly from self-esteem in its development, origins, consequences, and outcomes. This has important implications for our understanding of narcissism, and for interventions to increase healthy self-esteem.
Both narcissism and self-esteem start to develop around the age of 7. At this age, children draw heavily on social comparisons with others and start to evaluate themselves along the lines of "I am a loser", "I am worthy", or "I am special". Children come to view themselves as they perceive they are seen by others.
Whereas self-esteem tends to be at its lowest in adolescence, and slowly increases throughout life, narcissism peaks in adolescence and gradually declines throughout the lifespan. Therefore, the development of narcissism and high self-esteem show the mirror image of each other throughout the course of human development.
The development of self-esteem and narcissism are also influenced by different parenting styles. Narcissism tends to develop in tandem with parental overvaluation. Parents who raise children who exhibit high levels of narcissism tend to overclaim their child's knowledge (e.g., "My child knows everything there is to know about math"), overestimate their child's IQ, overpraise their child's performances, and even tend to give their children a unique name to stand out from the crowd. Eventually, the child internalizes these self-views, and they unconsciously drive the child's interactions with others.
In contrast, high self-esteem develops in tandem with parental warmth. Parents who raise children who exhibit high levels of self-esteem tend to treat their children with affection, appreciation, and fondness. They treat their children as though they matter. Eventually, this parenting practice leads to the child internalizing the message that they are worthy individuals, a core aspect of healthy self-esteem.
The prototypical grandiose narcissist is characterized by arrogance, superiority, vanity, entitlement, exploitativeness, exhibitionism, and the incessant need for acclaim from others. Those scoring high on measures of self-esteem, however, tend to feel satisfied with themselves but do not necessarily see themselves as superior to others.
For instance, the most widely administered test of self-esteem-- the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale-- has items such as, "On the whole, I am satisfied with myself", "I feel that I have a number of good qualities", and "I am able to do things as well as most other people." These items are not about being superior to others, but about having a healthy level of self-worth and self-competence. As Rosenberg put it, "When we deal with self-esteem, we are asking whether the individual considers [themselves] adequate-- a person of worth-- not whether [they] consider [themselves] superior to others."
While narcissism is positively correlated with self-esteem, the association is actually small. This suggests it's possible to think you are superior to others, but still not view yourself as a worthy human being. On the contrary, it's possible to think you are worthy and competent without thinking you are better than others.
A very interesting paper further sheds light on the similarities and differences between narcissism and self-esteem. Self-esteem and narcissism were both related to agency, assertiveness, positive emotions, and a drive for rewards. But that's essentially where the similarities ended. In fact, narcissism and self-esteem differed on 63% of the other traits that were assessed.
Self-esteem was much more strongly linked to conscientiousness and perseverence than narcissism. Also, whereas narcissism was negatively associated with agreeableness (i.e., narcissists were more antagonistic), the relationship between self-esteem and agreeableness was small but positive.
In regards to interpersonal functioning, narcissism and self-esteem differed on 75% of the measures. Narcissism, but not self-esteem, was associated with experiencing and expressing anger, and confrontational responses such as yelling, threatening, and physical aggression. Narcissism, but not self-esteem, was also related to a drive for acquisition of disproportionate resources as well as greater relationship problems.
Narcissism was related to feeling central to one's social networks, and also perceiving others in one's network as narcissistic, neurotic, disagreeable, and disinhibited. Narcissism was also related to more frequent arguing and social comparisons than self-esteem. The opposite was true for self-esteem. Self-esteem was related to feeling close to others in one's social network, and perceiving others in one's social network as attractive, high status, high in leadership, intelligent, likeable, and kind.
There were also clear differences in terms of psychopathology. Narcissism and self-esteem differed on 100% of the measures relating to internalizing psychopathology. Whereas self-esteem was strongly related to lower levels of anxiety, depression, and global distress, narcissism was only weakly related to these outcomes. Narcissism was much more associated with externalizing behavior, including alcohol/substance abuse, antisocial behavior, and aggression.
In terms of pathological traits, narcissism was related to a higher score on every single pathological trait, whereas self-esteem showed negative correlations with all 30 pathological traits. Self-esteem was particularly negatively associated with detachment, disinhibition, and psychoticism, whereas narcissism showed substantial positive relations to these traits. Narcissism also showed a strong relationship to histrionic personality disorders, whereas self-esteem was either unrelated or unrelated to histrionic behaviors.
It's very clear from this analysis that narcissists are much more driven to get ahead than to get along. Narcissism is associated with the need to dominate others and the need to achieve superior resources. In contrast, high self-esteem is much more associated with the desire to establish deep, intimate relationships with others.
Should We Be Trying to Raise Self-Esteem?
What are the implications of these findings for the way we think about raising self-esteem? In order to answer this question, I think it's important to look at history. For a good 20 years in U..S history (from the 70s to 90s), the self-esteem craze was definitely a thing. There was such a focus on feeling good about yourself as the answer to all of life's problems.
Rightly so, there was a backlash against this simplistic view. Roy Baumeister and colleagues did a systematic review of the self-esteem literature and found that the effects of self-esteem aren't as pervasive as generally thought: self-esteem was most strongly correlated with enhanced initiative and happiness. But correlation doesn't equal causation, and they found little evidence that interventions designed to boost self-esteem actually cause benefits. So what should be the status of self-esteem in our psychological interventions?
On the one hand, I think we can relax our fears that efforts to raise self-esteem in children will inadvertently create a generation of narcissists. The real concern isn't with raising healthy self-esteem. If anything, we could do a MUCH better job making all students feel valued and respected. The real problem is with "overvaluing", and praising children for being special in a way that far exceeds their actual accomplishments. As Eddie Brummelman and colleagues put it,
"Interventions can teach parents and educators to express affection and appreciation for children without proclaiming them to be superior to others. By doing so, parents and educators may help children feel happy with themselves without seeing themselves as better than others."
I view self-esteem boosts like taking a vitamin. If you are very deficient in self-esteem, there are really important consequences for health outcomes. For instance, low self-esteem is a significant risk factor for depression, regardless of whether or not one is narcissistic. However, once a person has a basic level of healthy self-esteem, the constant pursuit of self-esteem can be very costly. When our goals are to validate our self, or to constantly feel good about ourselves, rather than to learn and grow, we actually undermine our learning, relationships, authenticity, ability to self-regulate our behavior, and mental and physical health.
It seems that a better alternative, once you have a sufficient belief in your self-worth, is to focus on accomplishing challenging, valued activities and fostering your relationships. Let authentic pride and strong positive feelings about oneself be the natural outcome, instead of driving force. To get you through the difficult times and self-doubt, work on increasing your self-compassion, not self-esteem.
Hopefully through our understanding of the different pathways of narcissism and self-esteem, we can have a more realistic understanding of the impact of raising self-esteem, and can target practices to help people make sure they are increasing their self-esteem in the most healthy, productive, genuine, and authentic fashion.
© 2017 Scott Barry Kaufman, All Rights Reserved
The views expressed are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.