Narcissists feel superior to others but aren’t necessarily satisfied with themselves. After reviewing the research literature, Universiteit van Amsterdam (UVA) researcher Eddie Brummelman and his colleagues conclude that narcissism and self-esteem are much more distinct than conventional wisdom has led us to believe.
Despite the widely held view among psychologists that narcissists have an inflated, excessive or extremely high self-esteem, Brummelman and fellow researchers Sander Thomaes (Utrecht University and University of Southampton) and Constantine Sedikides (University of Southampton) show that narcissism and self-esteem fundamentally differ from each other.
“At first blush, narcissism and self-esteem seem one and the same, but they differ in their very nature”, says Brummelman. “Narcissists feel superior to others but aren’t necessarily satisfied with themselves."
Research reveals that narcissists have little need for warm, intimate relationships. Their primary aim is to show others how superior they are, and they constantly crave admiration from others. When narcissists receive the admiration they crave, they feel proud and elated.
But when they don’t, they feel ashamed and may even respond angrily and aggressively.
Distinct Childhood Origins
People with high self-esteem, on the other hand, are satisfied with themselves and do not feel superior to others. They see themselves as valuable individuals, but not more valuable than others.
They want to form close, intimate relationships with other people and do not necessarily want to be admired. Moreover, they rarely become aggressive or angry towards others.
Narcissism and self-esteem don’t only differ in their nature and consequences. They also have remarkably distinct childhood origins, and they develop differently over the life span, the authors point out.
“The distinction between narcissism and self-esteem has important implications for intervention efforts. Over the past few decades, Western youth have become increasingly narcissistic. It is therefore important to develop interventions that curb narcissism and raise self-esteem."
Many early theories suggested that self-esteem is a basic human need or motivation. American psychologist Abraham Maslow included self-esteem in his hierarchy of human needs. He described two different forms of “esteem”: the need for respect from others in the form of recognition, success, and admiration, and the need for self-respect in the form of self-love, self-confidence, skill, or aptitude.
Respect from others was believed to be more fragile and easily lost than inner self-esteem. According to Maslow, without the fulfillment of the self-esteem need, individuals will be driven to seek it and unable to grow and obtain self-actualization. Maslow also states that the healthiest expression of self-esteem is the one we take deserve from others. It is more than just renown or flattery.
Modern theories of self-esteem explore the reasons humans are motivated to maintain a high regard for themselves.
E. Brummelman, S. Thomaes, C. Sedikides Separating Narcissism From Self-Esteem Current Directions in Psychological Science, 2016; 25 (1): 8 DOI: 10.1177/0963721415619737