The Fine Line Between Self-Esteem and Narcissism

In the ’90s, when I was growing up, self-esteem was treated by adults like a magical invincibility shield. Self-confidence could protect you from all of life’s horrors, the thinking seemed to be. In one excruciating episode, my 10-year-old classmates and I were forced to list qualities we liked about one another as a narcotics officer looked on grimly. Self-esteem would keep us from doing drugs, teachers told us; self-esteem would keep us from having premarital sex. (The first time I had sex with a confident stoner, I was very confused.)

In recent years, however, self-esteem’s reputation has soured. Efforts to combat teen pregnancy and drug abuse by building up self-esteem were a flop. The recession happened, and the peppy message of you-can-do-it-ism rang hollow. Certain researchers found that young people were becoming more self-absorbed. All those participation trophies and songs about specialness were, in part, blamed. In working so hard to boost Millennials’ self-esteem, some feared, society actually turned them into entitled narcissists.

Some psychology researchers have speculated that narcissism is an inevitable dark side of self-esteem. Narcissists—or people who are arrogant, impulsive, low in empathy, aggressive, and dominant—were thought to be just those who felt too good about themselves. But now self-esteem might be getting a reprieve. New studies hint at the possibility that it and narcissism are fundamentally different personality traits.

In a study published this month in the Journal of Research in Personality, researchers assessed the levels of self-esteem and narcissism of 158 Polish workers. They asked the workers three times over the course of a year to rate their levels of self-esteem. The researchers also measured the workers’ levels of narcissism by asking them to rank how much statements such as “I deserve to be seen as a great personality” or “I want my rivals to fail” relate to them.

This would be great news for sex-ed teachers who would rather talk about self-image than condoms. Self-esteem, if this research is right, could be as great as it sounds. Break out those “everyone’s a winner” ribbons and tell your B- student that he’s perfect just for trying.

Alas, this matter is not entirely settled. Contrary to this uplifting message, Roy Baumeister, a social psychologist at the University of Queensland, has taken a dimmer view of high self-esteem. He told me via email that a weakness of Cichocka’s study is that the authors used few measures to gauge self-esteem and narcissism. Baumeister said that the sample size was relatively small, and that the average age of the subjects, 40, was a little too old for a study on self-esteem. Typically, kids are the target of self-esteem-boosting efforts.

In response to these criticisms, Cichocka said both self-esteem and narcissism can change as we get older, so, in fact, a study of adults could be clarifying. She added that a single study can never provide a very firm conclusion on anything.

Brummelman, the University of Amsterdam professor, said the trick to increasing your self-esteem without risking becoming a self-obsessed jerk is developing high-quality social relationships. There’s a theory that self-esteem evolved not because people want to feel good about ourselves, but because we want assurance that our relationships with other people are strong. Self-esteem, Brummelman posits, isn’t really about you; it’s “a reflection of how we think other people appreciate us.”

The old adage is that no one will love you until you love yourself. Perhaps it’s more like you can’t love yourself until others love you.

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