With the rise of narcissists and other personality disorders, many wonder if the battle between self-esteem and narcissism has become an even stronger struggle. One possible indication that the battle is becoming more bitter and difficult is the increasing tendency for the “Sixties Left” to equate self-esteem or self-image with authenticity, resistance to authority, and free thinking. In their view, those who possessed high self-esteem were more critical, innovative, and open-minded while those with low self-esteem were closed-minded, self-critical, and insular. As a result, many on the “Sixties Left” associated with the struggle for true freedom and self-definition with the fight against narcissistic personality disorder.
As this debate became more prominent, the cultural debate surrounding self-esteem vs. narcissism began to heat up. Many social scientists, social psychologists, and political scientists argue that human social interaction and the formation of democratic norms are deeply influenced by self-esteem, and a persons’ level of self-esteem impacts profoundly on the quality and quantity of social contact they experience. Narcissistic individuals are not, by any means, the exception to this rule. Indeed, Narcissistic leadership is based on the assumption that the leader must know and trust his/her followers to a far greater degree than those whom they lead.
In light of this research, it is not surprising to find that the two psychological theories regarding narcissistic leadership are frequently at odds. Self-esteem, it is argued, is a psychologically learned construct that can be influenced by both environmental factors (e.g., trait autocorrelation) and external events (e.g., differential reinforcement of complimenting behaviors from other people). Narcissistic leaders, by contrast, are motivated by their sense of self-worth that derives principally from a distorted self-evaluation process-one that typically leads them to believe that they are more capable and entitled to control others and to do what they want than the others around them. It is this inflated perception of one’s self-worth that forms the basis for entitlement, vanity, and self-concealment.
Consequently, it would seem that a key distinction between self-esteem and narcissism lies in the way in which they relate to the self and others. Those with high self-esteem typically have higher levels of social dominance and are more confident and self-confident; conversely, those with low self-esteem tend to see themselves as lacking self-worth and are more socially inept. Interestingly, it has been shown that narcissists and sociopaths tend to have high levels of self-evaluation and social dominance-two traits that are related to self-esteem. It therefore seems that narcissists are more driven by their self-evaluation than the other personality types; indeed, narcissistic traits are correlated with high self-esteem ratings in research samples. In line with this is the observation that those who report that they have high social dominance have also been shown to have high self-esteem ratings.
In addition to having higher self-esteem than those with low self-esteem, narcissists are also known to have high self-discipline and to be more goal-oriented. Narcissistic personality traits are positively associated with alcohol use, cigarette smoking, and illegal drug use; all which are related to impulsivity and low self-control. Further research has shown that narcissists are also less satisfied with life than those with higher levels of self-esteem. By contrast, those with lower self-esteem are more satisfied with life and show greater emotional stability. Self-esteem/Narcissistic traits are also positively related to depression; however, those with higher self-esteem have been shown to be healthier when it comes to depression.
As an example, self-esteem has been shown to predict alcohol and drug use; yet those with higher self-esteem have been shown to be healthier when it comes to depression. A related study found that those with higher self-esteem were less depressed when it came to relationships. Finally, research has also shown that self-esteem/Narcissistic traits are positively related to risky behavior such as speeding, driving under the influence, and vandalism. However, there is a difference between narcissists and those with low self-esteem. Narcissistic individuals tend to focus on others too much and have little attention for their own behavior; whereas those with low self-esteem are more self-focused and don’t care about others’ behaviors.
The difference between self-esteem vs. narcissism can be a difficult concept to grasp. For someone who has high self-esteem, these traits seem to make the world go around them; however, those with low self-esteem have a different reality. With higher self-esteem, people see themselves as superior; however, when they compare themselves to those with lower self-esteem they have a lower opinion of their own abilities. They also think that others will have a negative reaction to their behavior. Whereas, those with narcissism tend to believe that they are superior to everyone; yet they do not believe that they would be negatively affected if something were to happen to them.
To conclude, self-esteem and narcissism can be difficult topics to discuss in a work environment or social setting. A better way to understand these concepts is through an example. If you find that a friend or co-worker is constantly paranoid about bacteria or other germs in the office, this person with higher self-esteem is likely to take their concerns seriously. However, that same person with lower self-esteem may worry about trivial matters such as mold and would much rather not discuss such issues with anyone. It is important that we all understand the difference between high self-esteem and narcissism and that everyone can both learn to be more self-confident rather than self-depreciative.