A Blog by Araminta Jonsson

We probably all know people who believe themselves to be superior to everyone else. They exist in all walks of life. They are often very successful, in roles that demand others to look up to them and allow them to bask in their own spotlight.

However, do these people who believe themselves to be so great, really have higher self esteem than others? Do they seem happier with who they are than the rest of us? This article seeks to argue that although psychologists and lay people alike often tell us that narcissism and self esteem are intrinsically linked, we believe that they are in fact two very separate dimensions of the self.

Traditional Narcissism

The term narcissism was derived from the Greek myth, where Narcissus fell in love with his reflection in water. The concept was then used in psychoanalytic theory popularised in Freud’s 1914 essay “On Narcissism”. In his essay Freud wrote that ‘“self-regard appears to us to be an expression of the size of the ego”[1]'.

The Cambridge English Dictionary defines narcissism as “too much interest in and admiration for […] your own abilities”, and it defines self esteem as “confidence in your own ability”. Using purely these two definitions it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that today’s society views narcissism essentially as “too much” self esteem. As far as the traditional view of narcissism goes, many people from lay to academics have previously prescribed to this view. Media reports have even ‘labelled narcissism as “self-esteem on steroids” or “blown-up self- esteem.”[2]'

However, there may be a much bigger distinction between narcissism and self esteem than most people believe. If narcissism and self esteem go hand in hand, then it stands to reason that every narcissist will have an exceptionally high level of self esteem. However, according to W. Keith Campbell and Eric Rudich there isn’t much of a correlation between the two[3]. In fact Nelemans et al state that ‘there are about as many narcissists with low self-esteem as there are narcissists with high self-esteem[4]’.

The Development of Narcissism and Self Esteem

According to Thomaes & Brummelman, the development of both narcissism and self esteem begins at around the ages of 7 or 8[5]. This is the time when children begin to evaluate themselves according to how they perceive others. Although narcissism and self esteem come partly down to genes, they are also impacted by the environment. If a child grows up with loving, warm and supportive parents who take an active interest in what the child does and in their life as a whole, the child is much more likely to conclude that they are innately worthy - their primary caregivers certainly seem to think so.

However, if a child is bought up by parents who over-exaggerate the child’s qualities - praising them for everything superficial that they do, the child will deduce that in some ways they are superior to others - a core belief of all narcissists. If, at the same time, the parents don’t connect properly, or engage with the child they will also be dealing with a major attachment dysfunction which can result in a traumatic rupturing of the child’s psyche. The culmination of these experiences can result in narcissistic traits developing within an individual.

What is the Difference between Narcissism and Self Esteem?

What truly differentiates narcissists from those with high self esteem are their core beliefs about themselves, others, and the relationship that they can have between themselves and others. It is these core beliefs that shape them as people. Narcissists believe that they are superior to everyone, including God. That’s why narcissism has also been known by the term, “God Complex”. ‘Narcissists see themselves as superior on agentic traits such as competence and intelligence, but not on communal traits such as warmth and kindness[6]'. Narcissists hold this belief of being superior, even when it is not true. They would believe themselves to be the most intelligent person in the room regardless of whether it was filled with far more eminent scholars and academics than themselves. The same can be said of their views of their own aesthetic beauty - they believe themselves to be the most beautiful human on earth, regardless whether others think it or not.

People with high self esteem do not consider themselves to be superior to others, although they do credit themselves duly. Also, unlike narcissists, those with high self esteem value both their ‘agentic [traits] and their communal traits[7]', but their understanding of their worth is realistic.

When it comes to viewing others, narcissists deeply desire the admiration of other people in spite of the fact that they believe them to be inferior to themselves. In their desperation to be admired, narcissists will stop at nothing to stand out, ‘even in settings where such behaviour is inappropriate[8]’. Therefore whether a narcissist has a sense of high self esteem or not, is often dependant on how they perceive others see them. This is not the case for people with real high self esteem, they believe it innately and do not seek praise or their sense of worth from others. Whereas narcissists can turn nasty if they are not given the approval and respect that they demand, those with high self esteem ‘are unlikely to feel ashamed or to lash out; rather, they tend to forgive others and seek reconciliation[9]’ with those that they don’t eye to eye with.

Narcissists struggle to maintain long lasting successful relationships and this is often because narcissists believe that only one person within the relationship can be on top, and that person is obviously them. Therefore when the other person in the relationship fails, the narcissist will use the failure to propel themselves forward: ‘Only one of us can be the best, so your failure is my success, and my success is your failure[10]’. If it is a working business relationship between a narcissist and a non narcissist, the narcissist will take the credit for any success, but blame the other for all failures. They will also walk over others to achieve what they want, regardless of the consequences their actions may have on the business, the relationship or the wellbeing of his partner. Although a narcissist may appear to be an exceptionally charming individual when you are getting to know them, they are often unable to continue this external charming appearance, especially if they are not getting what they want and believe they deserve - unadulterated admiration.

On the other hand, people with high self esteem find it much easier to maintain healthy lasting relationships. This is because they ‘desire to get along rather than get ahead[11]’. Instead of hindering others in order to succeed, they are more likely to help others achieve their goals, believing that they are as worthy as themselves to thrive.

Conclusion

We have argued that narcissism is in no way correlated to self esteem. In fact each one develops from distinct relationships and situations that occur in childhood and both are ‘underpinned by distinct core beliefs: beliefs concerning the nature of the self, of others, and of the relationship between the self and others[12].’ It is therefore our belief that, contrary to popular public misconception, narcissism has nothing to do with having high levels of self esteem. In fact, it is just as likely for a narcissist to have low self esteem as it is for them to have “self esteem on steroids”.