Despite the widely held view that narcissists have extremely high self-esteem, a new study shows that the traits of narcissism and high self-esteem are far more distinct and unrelated than conventional wisdom has led us to believe.
After reviewing the research literature, investigators from several universities discerned the following differences between narcissists and those with high self-esteem: Narcissists feel superior to others but don’t necessarily like themselves. In fact, narcissists’ feelings about themselves are entirely based on others’ opinions of them. On the contrary, those with high self-esteem don’t think of themselves as superior to others, and in fact, tend to accept themselves regardless of what others think about them.
“At first blush, narcissism and self-esteem seem one and the same, but they differ in their very nature,” says lead researcher researcher Eddie Brummelman at the University of Amsterdam (UVA). “Narcissists feel superior to others but aren’t necessarily satisfied with themselves.”
Research also shows that narcissists have little need for warm, intimate relationships. Their primary aim in life is to show others how superior they are, and they constantly crave and seek admiration from others. When narcissists receive the admiration they desire so badly, they feel proud and elated. But when they don’t get the attention they crave, they feel ashamed and may even react with anger and aggression.
People with high self-esteem, on the other hand, are satisfied with themselves and do not feel a sense of superiority over others. Instead, they perceive themselves as valuable individuals, but not more valuable than others. They desire close, intimate relationships with other people and do not need to be excessively admired. Those with high self-esteem rarely become aggressive or angry towards others.
Furthermore, aside from the differences in nature and consequences, narcissism and self-esteem have remarkably distinct childhood origins, and they develop differently over the lifespan, the authors point out.
In summary, high self-esteem is a positive, life-enhancing quality, while narcissism is an unhealthy trait that ultimately leads to unhappiness. Intervention efforts should help those with narcissistic traits develop true self-esteem.
“The distinction between narcissism and self-esteem has important implications for intervention efforts. Over the past few decades, Western youth have become increasingly narcissistic. It is therefore important to develop interventions that curb narcissism and raise self-esteem,” says Brummelman.
Brummelman conducted the research with Sander Thomaes at Utrecht University and University of Southampton and Constantine Sedikides at the University of Southampton.
Their findings are published in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science.
Source: University of Amsterdam