If I were to ask you to define self-esteem, what would you say? Well, aside from telling me to do my own homework! And how would you define narcissism? Would you associate narcissism with an abundance of self-esteem? In other words, would you say that narcissism is the equivalent to “inflated self-esteem” or that narcissists have “defensive high self-esteem”? 1
Though Dr. Eddie Brummelman and colleagues observed that “A common belief, both in psychology and in popular culture” is that “narcissism represents a form of excessive self-esteem,” they suggest that narcissism differs from self-esteem in many ways, including in its origin, development, observable characteristics, and consequences.
Doesn’t that sound intriguing? It did to me, which is why I read the study “Separating narcissism from self-esteem” as soon as I came across it and reached out to the lead author for an interview.
Dr. Brummelman holds a PhD in developmental psychology and is currently the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow at University of Amsterdam and Stanford University. His research focuses on socialization processes that shape the views of the developing self in children. His published and forthcoming work focuses on narcissism in children and the differences between narcissism and self-esteem.2
EMAMZADEH: Thank you very much Dr. Brummelman for agreeing to do this interview. Before discussing their differences, may I first ask you to define both self-esteem and narcissism?
BRUMMELMAN: Self-esteem and narcissism are both part of the self-concept. They refer to how people see and evaluate themselves. High self-esteemers see themselves as worthy individuals, neither better nor worse than others. Narcissists don’t necessarily see themselves as worthy individuals; rather, they see themselves as superior to their fellow humans. They think that they’re better than others. As Morris Rosenberg put it: “When we deal with self-esteem, we are asking whether the individual considers himself adequate — a person of worth — not whether he considers himself superior to others.”
EMAMZADEH: It was difficult for me to read your paper and not assume connections between self-esteem and narcissism. Such as when you say that narcissism entails “positive views of the self”, but that “many narcissists do not have high self-esteem,” or that narcissists “see themselves as decidedly better” than others and yet “are not happy with themselves.” It is hard to imagine someone who thinks s/he is better than others and yet is not happy with who s/he is. Can you elaborate a little more on the relationship between self-esteem and narcissism?
BRUMMELMAN: People intuitively infer that narcissism and self-esteem are intimately linked. Psychologists have defined narcissism as a form of “excessive self-esteem,” “inflated self-esteem,” “exaggerated self-esteem,” “unwarranted self-esteem,” or “defensive high self-esteem.” Media reports have labeled narcissism as “self-esteem on steroids” or “blown-up self-esteem.” The conclusion seems obvious: Narcissists like themselves a little too much.
Yet, research refutes this conclusion. Narcissism and self-esteem are only weakly related, and there are about as many narcissists with high self-esteem as there are narcissists with low self-esteem. Narcissism and self-esteem are two fundamentally distinct parts of the self-concept.
EMAMZADEH: In terms of the consequences of narcissism, you note that “when they receive the respect and admiration they crave, narcissists feel on top of the world, but when they don’t, they feel like sinking into the ground,” and that narcissists sometimes also externalize their shame in a rage, turning the feeling “‘I am bad’ into ‘you are bad.'” Here I find myself again thinking of narcissism in terms of self-esteem, not a low or high one but a fragile one — one founded on inadequate grounds. But I have a feeling you disagree. If so, why?
BRUMMELMAN: Everyone has an average tone of self-esteem that remains relatively stable over days, weeks, months, and even years. Narcissists’ average tone of self-esteem is neither higher nor lower than that of others. Yet, self-esteem can rise and fall momentarily, in response to events that are important to one’s identity. Narcissists crave admiration from others. When they don’t get the admiration they crave, their self-esteem falls momentarily. In that moment, they may feel ashamed, and direct these feelings outward by lashing out against others.
EMAMZADEH: In several of your papers you have cited research that suggests both narcissism and self-esteem originate later in childhood. At what age do they emerge and why specifically then? And what are your thoughts on some earlier psychological views (mostly psychoanalytical ones) that suggest narcissism emerges much earlier in a person’s life?
BRUMMELMAN: Some psychologists believe that children are born into a state of narcissism. However, at birth, children don’t have the cognitive architecture to form a self-concept, let alone the belief that they’re superior to others. Children are able to form narcissistic views of themselves from the age of 7, when they develop two critical abilities. They become able to form global evaluations of themselves, and to use social comparisons in arriving at those evaluations. For example, they can form evaluations such as: “I am special — and more special than everyone else!”
EMAMZADEH: In your article, you elaborate in some detail on the role of parenting. Could you please discuss the different parenting styles and how they contribute to the development of both high self-esteem and narcissism?
BRUMMELMAN: Research shows that narcissism and self-esteem arise from distinct socialization experiences. Narcissism is nurtured by parental overvaluation — how much parents see their child as a special individual entitled to privileges. Overvaluing parents overclaim their child’s knowledge, overestimate their child’s IQ, and overpraise their child’s performances, while directing their child to stand out from others by giving him or her an uncommon first name. Over time, this socialization practice may lead children to internalize the view of themselves as superior individuals, which is at the core of narcissism. By contrast, self-esteem is nurtured by parental warmth — how much parents treat their child with affection and appreciation. Warm parents express fondness for their child, share positive affect with their child, and foster in their child the feeling that he or she matters. Over time, this socialization practice may lead children to internalize the view of themselves as worthy individuals, which is at the core of self-esteem.
EMAMZADEH: I want to thank you again for allowing me this opportunity to interview you about this fascinating subject, Dr. Brummelman. I would like to end the interview with a question about the applicability of your research to our world. You have stated that “Although everyone can be worthy, not everyone can be superior. Indeed, the quest for superiority is a zero-sum game: For every winner there is a loser, and for every loser there is a winner.”
To want to be the best seems to be a common desire. But when we create hierarchical work settings that reward superiority while valuing nothing else, are we not encouraging more narcissistic behavior?
BRUMMELMAN: It’s a self-reinforcing spiral. Narcissists seek out hierarchical settings, such as jobs where they can rise to the top. And doing so could reinforce their narcissistic traits.
- Brummelman, E., Thomaes, S., & Sedikides, C. (2016). Separating narcissism from self-esteem. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 25, 8-13.
- Brummelman, E., Gürel, C., Thomaes, S., & Sedikides, C. (2017). What separates narcissism from self- esteem? A social-cognitive perspective. In A. D. Hermann, A. Brunell, & J. Foster (Eds.), The Handbook of trait narcissism: Key advances, research methods, and controversies. New York, NY: Springer.