This research review explores the similarities and differences of high self-esteem and narcissism. In particular, the question whether these traits originate from and develop as a result of the same mechanism is examined.
Eddie Brummelman is a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow at Stanford University and a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Amsterdam. His research primarily focuses on how social processes shape children’s self-views and how these processes can be altered to help children flourish. As such, his research lies at the intersection of social, developmental, clinical, and educational psychology where he works to make a difference by developing novel interventions that bring about positive change in children’s real-world lives.
A brief description of the study
There is a common belief in psychology and popular culture that narcissism is characterized by an excessive self-esteem. The study challenges that belief, instead arguing that the development, origins, and consequences of self-esteem are materially different from narcissism. The emerging developmental-psychological evidence is reviewed to define a distinction between self-esteem and narcissism that is underlain by different socialization experiences. The objective is to use this understanding to inform interventions that can be used to raise self-esteem and curtail narcissism at the same time from a young age.
What would be the most important take-home messages from the study?
The study concluded that, although self-esteem and narcissism both arise, in part, from an internalization of how children believe they are seen by significant others, the mechanism is different. Narcissistic traits develop because of an overvaluation by parents and others of a child, while self-esteem is linked to warmth and a positive, but realistic regard. Overvaluation leads the child to form the belief that they are superior to others. Kindness and acceptance, on the other hand, may lead to the core belief underlying self-esteem: “I am worthy.”
Therefore, in a sense, where self-esteem is based on qualities or achievements that a person actually possesses, narcissism relies on assuming a value for which there is no adequate foundation other than the overstated perceptions of others. Both self-esteem and narcissism mean that people think well of themselves, but the primary perception differs. High self-esteemers think of themselves as worthy in a horizontal, noncomparative relation to others. Narcissists see their value as superior in a vertical comparison with others.
Furthermore, narcissists crave respect and admiration and seek constant external validation. This may be because their sense of superiority is more precarious that the self-worth of a person with high self-esteem. While everyone can develop and have self-worth, not everyone can be superior. It is essentially a zero-sum game where there are winners and losers, and the narcissist requires constant confirmation that they are still viewed as a winner. Such need for external validation shapes the behavioral tactics of the narcissist as they charm and manipulate others to get the validation they require.
How are these findings important to differentiate between narcissism and a healthy self-esteem?
Whereas high self-esteemers have a stable sense of self-worth, the efforts of a narcissist to gain approval often eventually have the opposite effect, which fuels an intensified need for validation and becomes a self-sustaining spiral. As those with a healthy self-esteem are inwardly focused and not dependent on others for approval, they are not shunned in the same way, ending with disappointments and broken relationships. Therefore, although self-esteem and narcissistic traits are often conflated, each is unique and should be treated as such.
The ideal is to develop approaches that encourage self-esteem while suppressing narcissism. This does not mean relying on praising children for being exceptional and extraordinary, which tend to be overvaluing processes that enable narcissism rather than self-esteem. This means expressing affection and appreciation for children without proclaiming that they are superior to others. As such, the encouragement is not based on a comparison to other children. By taking this approach, children can be helped to feel happy about and satisfied with themselves without the need to see themselves as better than others. Furthermore, narcissists can be nudged away from their core beliefs of superiority to a sense of being worthy, which raises self-esteem without feeding into narcissism.
What future studies could be recommended to increase our knowledge regarding curbing narcissism?
These interventions are best applied in late childhood when children can evaluate themselves from others’ perspectives. As a study has found that egos have been inflating over the past few generations, which implies that the need to manage the development of narcissistic traits among young people has become increasingly necessary. Attention in research is now focused on the consequences of this trend and what may have caused it to implement interventions and adjust current school and other programs that may be contributing to the issue.
Building self-esteem may be the key to success and well-being, but it is not best accomplished by telling children that they are unique and exceptional. Take care when raising a child’s self-esteem so that narcissistic traits are not the unintentional result is vital. They will then feel satisfied with themselves as a person without needing to be better than others. It is only by recognizing the distinction between self-esteem and narcissism that children can be shaped in the appropriate way.
Link to the primary paper
Brummelman, E., Thomaes, S., & Sedikides, C. (2016). Separating narcissism from self-esteem. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 25(1), 8-13. DOI: 10.1177/0963721415619737
The first author can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on LinkedIn.