Although sometimes high self -esteem and narcissism get mixed up by the way people perceive others, there are distinct differences between the two concepts.
Self-esteem represents the sense of worth and value one has for the overall components of the self e.g. characteristics, accomplishments, values, skills, roles we play in others’ lives etc. Bednar, Wells and Peterson (1989) defined self-esteem as” a subjective and realistic self-approval…self-esteem reflects how the individual views and values the self at the most fundamental levels of psychological experiencing”(p. 4) .
Narcissism is expressed in “a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration and an exaggerated sense of self-importance.” (Oltmanns, Emery & Taylor, 2006) Narcissism is based in deep-seated insecurities, fears of failure and underlying belief of inadequacy and weakness that drive one to want to be seen as superior to others be it in material possessions, status, knowledge etc.
Narcissists crave and depend on praise, power and the possession of status markers (external factors) to feel good about themselves, whereas a positive and healthy self -esteem is dependent more on one’s own perception of stable internal factors to feel loved and worthy. The core belief of narcissists is of being unworthy or inadequate influences and motivates their behavior tendencies, the emotion intensity and thoughts to overcompensate and hide it from others. Allot of effort is invested in the exposed image of the self , maintaining the mask and preoccupation with others’ perceptions rather than in finding meaning, love, self -acceptance and improving the feelings about the self, which are more the focus of someone with a positive or high self-esteem.
Narcissism thrives on dominance, manipulation, arrogance, showing off and putting others down, where as having high self- esteem and confidence in own self- worth demonstrate the expression of more humility and compassion. There is no need to be better than others in order to feel worthy; hostile or putting others down in order to feel good about yourself. It is futile because the self-esteem is based on the personal evaluation of own worth not on how others think of you.
Instead of extreme competitiveness and destructive criticism, which is characteristic of being narcissistic, there is more constructive feedback and collaboration. Others are not perceived as a threat to the self worth but as individuals with their own separated individual uniqueness and value.
Part of the way in which we value ourselves is influenced by the perception of self in relation to others be it as friends, parents, family members, role models in the community. How we value the way we function in a relationship,friendships or in the community shapes our perception of our worth too thus not only on the perception of the self as a independent and separate being. We value how we as individuals add to the life of others. That implies finding importance and value in our ability to give, care, help, support, empathize, love, be compassionate and share with others.
Narcissists do not see the added value in building the self –esteem on these factors. There is a sense of entitlements and lack of reciprocity within the relationships. The main goal in relationship is not so much intimacy, warmth, love and connection but the fulfillment of need of admiration, attention ,power and superiority, as well as, the fulfillment of own wishes and personal goals.
The last difference between having high self -esteem and narcissism is in the perception and coping with failures, mistakes and problems. Individuals with high self –esteem accept it as part of the growth process and as challenges. They also can easily admit lack of skills or knowledge. There is thus a recognition that one is not perfect and has room for improvement, learning and further development, which implies that criticism or negative feedback are not immediately nor automatically perceived as extremely threatening to the self-worth.
Narcissists, on the other hand, who are more preoccupied with grandeur will deny that a failure occurred due to internal causes and will find it intolerable to publicly state or admit that there is something about them that needs changing or a weakness that needs strengthening. Their reactions will be more defensive or aggressive when confronted with criticism. Mistakes, shortcomings or failures of others will , however, be perceived and utilized as confirmation of own self-esteem. Emmons stated this tendency as unique part of the definition of narcissism “…accept responsibility for successful outcomes and deny blame for failed outcomes” (p. 11).
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