Narcissism or Self-Esteem?
Contrary to common belief, self-esteem and narcissism are not the same thing. They are, in fact, polar opposites of each other.
Narcissism is really just a fancy word for self-absorption, for being concerned with oneself to the exclusion of other people’s needs and feelings. It is the state of being undeveloped, the state we are born into. It may seem odd to equate narcissism with being small and helpless, but it’s really the perfect analogy. An infant is completely narcissistic in the sense that he has no capacity to empathize or consider how his actions affect other people. As he develops, he becomes aware of the world around him. He begins to understand that people don’t exist solely to fulfill his needs, that the world does not revolve around him (perhaps the first existential crisis a person experiences). As he develops still more, he learns how to relate to other people, how to share, listen, and make friends. As he grows, so does his world. He realizes he is part of a community, perhaps of many of them: school, sports teams, a family, a neighborhood. Growing up is, in a very real way, the process of outgrowing narcissism.
If narcissism is our natural, undeveloped state, then self-esteem is the opposite. Self-esteem is not a natural state at all. It is the result of the effort, ideally made by one’s parents and oneself (but if necessary, by self alone), to reach a more developed state of being. Self-esteem is the product of an evolution, a metamorphosis, which we undertake in an attempt to better our lot, to improve our lives, to find meaning, serenity, and happiness. It is the lifelong adventure of discovering and affirming our human potential over and over and over.
Narcissism or self-esteem is sort of the psychological version of fat or fit, although vastly more complicated. That is, narcissism is easy, while self-esteem can be a struggle, especially for those of us who didn’t get the best start in life. Part of getting a bad start usually involves having narcissistic parents (in myriad forms!), so we don’t learn the difference between narcissism and healthy self-esteem. Or worse, are unconsciously attracted to narcissism because it feels oddly familiar. This can result in a lot of confusion. Many personality traits that might look like self-esteem at first glance–needing to be right, needing to be admired, and needing to win arguments, for example–are much more likely to be rooted in narcissism. Not knowing the difference can mean making a lot of bad decisions, and it can take many painful years to learn how to make different ones; sadly, some of us never do.
With all this in mind, I did a comparison between the two. These aren’t set in stone, and they should not be applied without careful consideration of circumstances and motivation, as behavior is not always what it seems. But mostly they fit, particularly when the behavior follows a long-term pattern. At the very least, you can consider them a “guideline of discernment” to help differentiate between the two ideas and eliminate some common confusions about them.
Narcissism: a state we are born into
Self-esteem: a state we achieve by effort
Self-esteem: interested in other people
Narcissism: needing the approval of others
Self-esteem: wanting the approval of others, but ultimately finding it internally
Narcissism: has little interest in other people’s feelings
Self-esteem: is aware of other people’s feelings
Narcissism: seeing yourself as a victim of other people’s shortcomings
Self-esteem: taking responsibility for your own shortcomings
Narcissism: being annoyed at other people’s shortcomings
Self-esteem: feeling compassion for other people’s shortcomings
Narcissism: thinking the world owes you something
Self-esteem: wanting to give back
Narcissism: needing to think you’re the greatest
Self-esteem: accurate self-assessment
Narcissism: denying your faults
Self-esteem: seeing your faults and liking yourself anyway
Narcissism: afraid to ask questions or look foolish to other people
Self-esteem: more interested in learning than in avoiding embarrassment
Narcissism: self-admiration dependent on the admiration of others
Self-esteem: self-admiration an inside job
Narcissism: fragile ego, defensive and easily hurt or offended
Self-esteem: solid ego, willing to hear opinions and even criticism
Narcissism: jumps to conclusions
Self-esteem: weighs the evidence
Narcissism: out to get what he can regardless of consequences
Self-esteem: considers how his actions will affect other people
Narcissism: win/lose is more important
Self-esteem: win/win is more important
Narcissism: self-love results in contempt for others
Self-esteem: self-love results in love for others
Narcissism: delights in the failings of others
Self-esteem: feels compassion for the failings of others
Narcissism: avoids introspection like the plague
Self-esteem: embraces introspection
Narcissism: avoids intimacy
Self-esteem: desires intimacy
Narcissism: operates from a deficit
Self-esteem: operates from a surplus
Narcissism: refuses to admit mistakes
Self-esteem: may not like admitting mistakes, but does so
Narcissism: has to win an argument at all costs
Self-esteem: cares more about coming to an understanding
Narcissism: places blame
Self-esteem: accepts responsibility
Self-esteem: willing to learn
The process of growing up is ongoing, never quite finished, and never as smooth as we hope for. Between the complexities of the human psyche and all the external things that can go wrong, we’re all a messy mix of child and adult, good and not-so-good, self-esteem and basket case. We all have occasional bouts of self-centeredness, particularly when feeling threatened or anxious; this does not make us narcissists. But being able to recognize when and why they occur can be helpful in forgiving ourselves and moving past them. Just as importantly, such recognition can help us make more informed decisions about other people’s behavior, and what is and is not worth tolerating.