The debate between self-esteem and narcissism is one that has preoccupied psychologists, academics and laymen for decades. However, a clearer picture of the situation may be uncovered when we explore why the two are often misunderstood. Simply put, self-esteem can be compared to a physical or mental health. It is the state or condition of one’s ability to appraise oneself objectively over time and to compare one’s own performance with that of others. Narcissistic personality disorder, on the other hand, is the abuse of this ability.
Let’s look first at narcissism. Narcissistic personality disorder is characterized by grandiose self-evaluation and an absence of any social norms – primarily interpersonal, but also interpersonal. It’s a faith in one’s own self-worth and an unquenchable thirst for admiration. Because it relies on admiration as its only source of support, narcissists always feel that they are above others and they have little regard for the feelings or needs of others. Because narcissists lack any concern for other people’s feelings or welfare, their grandiose self-image enables them to isolate them from the feelings of others and from the criticism that could lead to rejection and depreciation.
When we contrast narcissism self-esteem with self-evaluation, the picture gets much clearer. To have any reasonable chance of maintaining a healthy self-esteem, a person must have a reasonable level of self-evaluation in the right-wing authoritarianism range. In short, someone who views themselves as worthy of being taken seriously and who believes that they deserve appreciation, praise or attention must have a reasonable level of self-esteem. Narcissistic personality disorder, on the other hand, hinges on the constant invalidation of another person’s right to self-evaluation and attention. A person with narcissistic personality disorder thinks little of himself and, as a result, never experiences any meaningful sense of self-worth.
A healthy self-esteem is based upon a healthy self-image. People with narcissistic personality disorders cannot self-image, because their self-image is entirely dependent upon their narcissism. To have any self-respect, to feel like a worthwhile person or to feel worthy of human attention, a person with narcissism must believe that he or she is worthy of these things. For these reasons, people with narcissism are perpetually anxious about how they look. And this anxiety can drive a person into unhealthy self-destructive behavior patterns, such as lying, blame-jumping, exaggerating accomplishments, and pursuing dangerous partners, friends, and activities.
So, what about self-esteem in the case of narcissism? People with narcissistic personality disorder are not, by nature, concerned with their own image. Their self-evaluation is completely unrelated to their real (and imagined) value and significance in the world. They live in a constant state of self-denigration and even self-loathing, believing that every day is a narcissistic nightmare.
It’s a good idea to keep a positive and healthy self-image, however. The problem comes when people confuse healthy self-esteem with self-esteem and feel that healthy self-esteem is somehow inferior to narcissism. People with narcissistic personality disorder are not self-esteem-concerned at all. Their self-evaluation is unrelated to anything. Their achievements, attractiveness, intelligence, and personality are not important to them. They are not striving for any kind of “good” or “normal” above all.
The only way to deal with self-esteem vs. narcissism is to treat each type differently. One needs to look at narcissists and their self-evaluation as normal and positive – even desirable – behavior, while understanding that it stems from a deep flaw. Narcissistic people view themselves as superior and do everything in their power to demonstrate this fact. That’s not normal behavior, but it’s also not a sign of self-worth, deprivation, or irresponsibility. Those behaviors are signs of pathological narcissism and should be challenged and stopped.
On the other hand, those who have normal or healthy self-esteem don’t believe themselves to be superior. When you ask someone if they think they’re happy, the answer isn’t always “no.” Instead, people say things like “I feel great” or “I’m very grateful.”