High self-esteem is frequently mistaken for narcissism, but scientists say the two are distinctly different personality traits that evoke opposite responses in similar situations. Principally, narcissists meticulously guard their self-imposed status of superiority to the point of isolating themselves. Even when the narcissist is surrounded by others, any perceived threat to his or her superiority has the potential to evoke a crude, self-serving response, according to research. Such reactions are typically interpreted by friends and acquaintances as boring behavior. Researchers say the defensive mechanism of narcissists too often involves going on offense when their fragile egos take a hit. New psychological findings indicate narcissists more often battle a deep sense of dissatisfaction with themselves rather than with others.
The study published yesterday in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science takes issue with the widely held view among psychologists that narcissists have inflated, excessive or extremely high self-esteem. Instead, current research by Brummelman and fellow researchers Sander Thomaes (Utrecht University and University of Southampton) and Constantine Sedikides (University of Southampton) shows narcissism and self-esteem are two fundamentally different things.
‘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.’
The new research suggests that narcissists have little need for warm, intimate relationships. It is literally their primary mission to show others that they are superior to them and perhaps all others. It’s why narcissists constantly crave not only attention but admiration from others. When they are praised and admired they feel proud and elated. However, when they don’t get the admiration longed for, they often respond aggressively and with anger.
Conversely, people who have high self-esteem develop a sense of self satisfaction but do not feel that they are superior to others. Instead, they value themselves but not necessarily more than they value others. Persons with high self-esteem generally form close intimate relationships with other people and don’t feel a need to be admired. Research finds that those with high self-esteem are less likely to become aggressive or angry towards others. Early in life, high self-esteem makes those who develop it comfortable in their own skin and less needy than their narcissistic counterparts. Persons with high self-esteem are less likely to self-aggrandize over accomplishments or use baited language to attract compliments.
Brummelman says ‘The distinction between narcissism and self-esteem has important implications for intervention efforts. A narcissist personality often begins in childhood as does positive self-esteem. However, the progression of narcissism is not only potentially harmful to the narcissistic individual. Narcissism can negatively impact friends and family members as well as society at large.