A recent study revealed that people with high-arousal narcissistic traits are not only more self-confident (i.e., they think they are better than others), but they also have significantly lower self-esteem than those with low-arousal Democratic norms. In essence, they believe that they deserve to be where they are – in a high-paid, high-powered career, with plenty of material possessions. Those with lower-arousal norms are more likely to feel resentment and anxiety about being pushed down the status ladder, and to try to build their self-image and value system based upon what they think their job is like. It is no wonder that they express so much resentment toward those who rise to the top in their profession: The only ones who really deserve to be there are the leaders.
Why does this pattern exist? It may be because higher social dominance causes people with high self-esteem to feel threatened when lower-earning individuals move up the corporate ladder. In hierarchical organizations, the position of CEO usually represents an extremely high value. For folks who feel threatened by that, their feelings of worthlessness are magnified in proportion to their organizational role. Thus, the threat of losing one’s job can cause them to act in ways that are not appropriate to their personality type. If, for instance, they are very sensitive to criticisms and rejections and are not used to receiving them, they will exhibit all sorts of social dominance – from overly assertive behavior to openly hostile social interactions.
In contrast, people with low self-esteem are typically low in social Dominance, so it is not surprising that they would also be relatively immune to the corrosive effects of high social status. They may express anger and hostility in response to what they perceive as unwarranted criticism, but these expressions do not threaten their ego or their self-image as much as the aggressive and controlling behavior of a CEO would. As a result, they are less susceptible to narcissistic personality disorder than the CEO. And it may also be possible that people with high self-esteem and low social dominance are more motivated to get things done, which might account for the fact that some of the most successful people in the world are also leaders with very high self-esteem and self-confidence.
One thing to note here is that high self-esteem is closely correlated with high self-image. Many people have high self-image, but may lack high self-esteem. To take another example, Bill Gates was not a highly admired computer genius as a child, nor was he widely admired as a computer whiz when he grew up. However, Gates was a very bright computer engineer and business innovator who created a great many successful companies. Self-esteem therefore correlates very strongly with self-image.
Now let’s look at narcissism. People with high self-esteem are typically people who believe that they are superior to others. They have an inflated sense of their own importance and believe that they deserve all that they have. This might not seem to be very far-fetched – after all, it’s been drilled into all of us from an early age that we will never amount to anything unless we are a superstar. That sort of self-fulfilling prophecy then becomes the main motivational force behind the rise of narcissists like Trump and Gates.
However, just because someone is a narcissist doesn’t mean that they possess high self-esteem. There are people who have a low self-image but who are also successful in other aspects of their lives. In these cases, it is not the lack of self-esteem that causes them trouble, but the conflicting messages that they receive about who they are and what they deserve.
So you might be wondering how you can know whether a person has a high self-image or a low one. You can’t just ask them to describe their own self-image in plain language, because they won’t be able to tell you truthfully. Instead, what you need to do is pay attention to the words that they speak about themselves and how they see themselves. For instance, if you ask them how they feel about their appearance, don’t be surprised if they say that they feel very proud. In fact, some people with very low self-esteem will even say that they look forward to going out in public just to feel their “self-esteem.”
A high self-image and a high level of self-esteem are two different things, though they are often paired together because both build on the same psychological foundation. If you are looking for ways to deal with self-esteem vs. narcissism, try rereading that famous quotation by Norman Vincent Peale: “I had high self-esteem; my only regret was not having higher self-esteem.” Keep in mind that the only way to grow your self-esteem to a positive level is to stop comparing yourself to others and to develop your inner belief that you are unique and special. Self-esteem building along these lines will go a long way toward making you feel positive about yourself, your life, and your relationships.