Distinguishing Narcissism and Self-Esteem

Everyone wants to feel good about themselves. But when does feeling good about yourself cross the line into feeling better than other people?

There are different ways of thinking about the difference between narcissism and high-self esteem. We can say that self-esteem is about valuing yourself while narcissism is about feeling superior. Or that self-esteem is about seeing yourself as good, narcissism about seeing yourself as perfect.

In practice, narcissism and self-esteem can be hard to tell apart from the outside. As I wrote about last year, mistaking narcissism for self-esteem may be part of the reason people are drawn to narcissists.

This problem shows up in psychology research, too. Questionnaires intended to measure self-esteem can’t necessarily separate narcissism from a healthy sense of self-worth. So a team of researchers decided to develop the Narcissistic Grandiosity Scale, which is designed to capture traits that are related specifically to narcissism, rather than self-esteem.

In the process of developing their questionnaire, the researchers found that certain traits tended to be more closely tied either to self-esteem or to narcissism.

For example, the traits of entitlement and competitiveness were related to narcissism but not to self-esteem. To put it another way, people with high levels of narcissism are apparently more likely to be competitive and have a sense of entitlement while people with high self-esteem are neither more nor less likely to have those traits.

Similarly, aggression of both the physical and verbal varieties was related to narcissism but had no apparent relation to self-esteem. Unlike people with high self-esteem, people with high narcissism tended to overreport their height, suggesting that narcissism also involves an inflated sense of self.

On the other hand, optimism was more closely related to self-esteem. Interestingly, having high scores on self-esteem made people both less likely to view others as worthless and less likely to see others as superior. High self-esteem also decreased people’s levels of anger and hostility.

It’s tempting to see narcissism and self-esteem as having nothing to do with each other, but that’s not the case. Several traits were related both to narcissism and to self-esteem.

Both narcissists and people with high self-esteem tended to like themselves, see themselves as competent, and have higher levels of life satisfaction. They were also less prone to depression. However, these positive outcomes were more closely tied to self-esteem than to narcissism.

Altogether, these findings show that the differences between narcissism and high self-esteem can be hard to spot, even for psychology researchers in a laboratory setting. Despite that fact, narcissism is more directly related to traits like competitiveness, aggression, and an inflated view of one’s self while self-esteem has more to do with the positive mental health effects that come from valuing one’s self.