Let’s look at these two terms: self-esteem and narcissism. The word “narcissistic” seems to have become a catchall for all of the disorders regarding low self-esteem, including sadistic personality disorders, such as depression, social anxiety disorder, and bipolar disorder; as well as rage and other violent behaviors, such as anti-social behavior and exhibitionist art. By the way, we’re not talking about those who are depressed, mentally ill, or adolescent. We’re talking about right-wing authoritarianism, or severely anti-social behavior in young adulthood, pre-teen, and teens. And self-esteem is the perception of your own worth.
Now let’s examine what causes this deterioration in self-esteem with right-wing authoritarianism, along with other psychologically normal deviant behaviors. In human development, from childhood to adolescence, the left side of the personality spectrum typically becomes more dominant. It pushes the right-wing authoritarianism over the top. This happens because the left brain is responsible for organizing information, visualizing the world around you, and analyzing behavior, on the whole. Meanwhile, the right brain is focused on instinctual behaviors, group affiliation, power, and norms; and social dominance, which includes people taking ownership of personal responsibility for their actions.
Now, let’s examine self-esteem and narcissism in the context of this development cycle. First, the person with a higher self-esteem and less narcissistic tendencies – in this case, a person with a more democratic orientation – will be more likely to develop healthy emotional intelligence, and a high degree of self-valuation. Consequently, they will have better interpersonal relationships and be less likely to display narcissistic traits. They will be more likely to express genuine caring, concern, and a desire in others, and to make trustworthy and responsible choices. Conversely, the opposite is true in the opposite direction – the person with a lower self-esteem and greater narcissistic tendencies will be less likely to develop a higher emotional intelligence, a healthy emotional intelligence, and the emotional intelligence to make reliable and responsible decisions. They will instead be more likely to show signs of psychopathy, and demonstrate less concern, compassion, love, and respect for others.
Of course, the two concepts of self-esteem and narcissism are not mutually exclusive. A person can have high self-esteem but lack narcissism; in fact, many extremely happy people – most of them, in fact – fall between these two ends of the spectrum. Still, the two concepts are usually related. For instance, someone who is extremely confident and secure might display signs of narcissism, but she would not have high self-esteem. Similarly, someone who was extremely lonely and isolated might exhibit narcissistic tendencies, but not high self-esteem.
The problem, then, is that people think of self-esteem and narcissism as mutually exclusive concepts. In reality, though, they are very much alike. A person who lacks self-esteem is likely to act in a rather self-destructive way – he or she would be arrogant, vindictive, show little concern for others, and show little regard for his or her own feelings and needs. A narcissist, on the other hand, would have a deep need for admiration, a need that can be only satisfied by extolling the virtues of others. Both of these traits make the narcissist much more self-centered and prone to deceit. As these two traits are so closely related, it is important to recognize their potential toxicity if we are to protect our children from such individuals.
Sadly, many schools and parents have not been able to recognize the dangerous effects of narcissism in children. In my experience, the tendency to engage in dangerous behavior – rather than seek help – are often left unchecked. This makes it more likely that these young people will engage in criminal activities and act in dangerous ways. A lack of self-esteem can lead to an inclination toward criminal activities; and, in fact, criminal activity is one of the most common causes of teenage pregnancy.
But self-esteem and self-respect do go hand-in-hand. The first thing a child needs in order to gain a healthy self-respect is to feel that he or she is worthy of love and consideration. This starts before a person is even born. When a child sees his or her mother expressing genuine caring and concern for him or her, this early self-image development helps prepare a person for the demands of adolescence – for example, a person needs to be understood and cared for when he or she reacts negatively to someone or something. A parent who shows little concern for his or her child’s feelings shows a lack of self-respect.
A parent with high self-esteem and high self-respect treats his or her children as though they are of no value and does everything in his or her power to make sure the child knows and respects him or herself. Narcissistic behavior on the other hand, occurs when a person devalues himself or herself in a way that’s usually not felt by the person. The result can be angry or hostile behavior and the child knows that acceptance of his or her self will result in these actions. It is rare that a narcissist ever feels appreciation for his or her self. Thus, the parent’s efforts to build a self-respect and self-esteem in their children help prevent the narcissistic parent from using rejection or criticism as a way of either controlling or hurting a child.