Separating Narcissism From Self-Esteem

Separating Narcissism From Self-Esteem


Eddie Brummelman1, Sander Thomaes2,3, and Constantine Sedikides2

1Research Institute of Child Development and Education, University of Amsterdam;

2Center for Research on Self and Identity, School of Psychology, University of Southampton; and 3Department of Psychology, Utrecht University

Current Directions in Psychological Science

2016, Vol. 25(1) 8–13

© The Author(s) 2015 Reprints  and permissions: DOI:  10.1177/0963721415619737

Corresponding Author:

Eddie Brummelman, Research Institute of Child Development and Education, University of Amsterdam, P.O. Box 15780, 1001 NG Amsterdam, The Netherlands




Narcissism is a personality trait characterized by a sense of superiority and a desire for respect and admiration from others. A common belief, both in psychology and in popular culture, is that narcissism represents a form of excessive self-esteem. Psychologists, including ourselves, have labeled narcissism as “an exaggerated form of high self-esteem,” “inflated self-esteem,” and “defensive high self-esteem.” We review research that challenges this belief by showing that narcissism differs markedly from self-esteem in its phenotype, its consequences, its development, and its origins. Drawing on emerging developmental-psychological evidence, we propose a distinction between narcissism and self- esteem that is based on the divergent socialization experiences that give rise to them. This proposal clarifies previous findings, stimulates theory development, and creates opportunities for intervention to concurrently raise self-esteem and curtail narcissism from an early age.

The mythological figure Narcissus was a handsome, self- aggrandizing, and vain young man who fell in love with his own reflection in a body of water. He was unable to take his eyes off of himself and slowly pined away at the waterside. Psychologists have come to know  personali- ties like his as narcissistic. A common belief, both in psychology and in popular culture, is that narcissism rep- resents a form of excessive self-esteem. Psychologists, including ourselves, have labeled narcissism as “an exag- gerated form of high self-esteem,” “inflated self-esteem,” and  “defensive  high  self-esteem.”  The  media  have  por- trayed narcissists as individuals whose self-esteem is “too high” or “on steroids.” This belief presumably arose from early psychoanalytic work, which used the terms narcis- sism and high self-esteem interchangeably (Pulver, 1970/1986).

In this article, we challenge the belief that narcissism represents a form of excessive self-esteem. We review accumulating evidence showing that narcissism differs markedly from self-esteem in its phenotype, its conse- quences, its development, and its origins. What draws the line between narcissism and self-esteem, we argue, is the socialization experiences that give rise to them: Narcissism and self-esteem may be rooted in seemingly similar yet actually distinct perceptions of regard from others. This proposal clarifies previous findings, stimulates theory development, and creates opportunities for intervention to concurrently raise self-esteem and curtail narcissism from an early age.


Narcissism Versus Self-Esteem


Although well publicized for its extreme form as Narcis- sistic Personality Disorder, narcissism is a subclinical per- sonality trait on which individuals from the general population vary from one another. Narcissists (i.e., those scoring high on narcissism scales) feel superior to others, believe they are entitled to privileges, and crave respect and admiration from others. They are certain that the world would be a much better place if they ruled it. We focus  on  prototypical  narcissists:  the  grandiose types who feel superior to others on agentic traits (e.g., compe- tence, intelligence, uniqueness) rather than on commu-  nal traits (e.g., kindness, helpfulness, warmth; Campbell, Rudich, & Sedikides, 2002; for research on less prototypi- cal, vulnerable narcissists, see Cain, Pincus, & Ansell, 2008). By contrast, high self-esteemers (i.e., those scoring high on self-esteem scales) feel satisfied with themselves as a person but do not necessarily feel superior to others. As Rosenberg (1965) noted, “When we deal with self- esteem, we are asking whether the individual considers himself adequate—a person of worth—not whether he considers himself superior to others” (p. 62).

Thus, narcissism and self-esteem both entail positive views of the self, but these views are qualitatively differ- ent. Consistent with their distinct phenotypes, narcissism and self-esteem are only weakly to moderately correlated (Campbell et al., 2002; Thomaes & Brummelman, 2016). Indeed, many narcissists do not have high self-esteem. They see themselves as decidedly better than their fellow humans, but they are not happy with themselves.1 Con- versely, many high self-esteemers are not narcissistic. They value themselves, but they shy away from seeing themselves as better than others.



Disparities between narcissism and self-esteem  often  emerge in the social realm. Narcissists do not have a  burning desire to establish deep, intimate  bonds  with  others; rather, they strive to surpass others, to dominate others, and to use others to attain social status (Campbell     et al., 2002). They aspire to get ahead rather than to get along. When  they  receive  the  respect  and  admiration  they crave, narcissists feel on top of the world, but when  they don’t, they feel like sinking into the ground (Tracy, Cheng, Robins, & Trzesniewski, 2009). Narcissists often externalize these feelings of shame by lashing out aggressively (Bushman & Baumeister, 1998; Thomaes, Bushman, Stegge, & Olthof, 2008). The so-called narcis- sistic rage turns the feeling “I am bad” into “You are bad.” Narcissists also commit more delinquent acts than their non-narcissistic counterparts (Barry, Grafeman, Adler, & Pickard, 2007). In sharp contrast,  high  self-esteemers  do not wish to surpass others, to dominate others, or to use others for their own good; rather, they desire to establish deep, intimate bonds with others (Campbell et al., 2002). They aspire to get along rather  than  to  get  ahead. They also do not typically explode in aggressive outbursts and   are unlikely to commit delinquent acts (Donnellan, Trzesniewski, Robins, Moffitt, &  Caspi,  2005).

Wouldn’t it at least feel good to be a narcissist? Perhaps it would. Narcissism is associated with subjec- tive well-being, such as happiness and low levels of depression,   anxiety,   and   loneliness.   However,   these associations are fully accounted for by self-esteem (Orth, Robins, Meier, & Conger, 2015; Sedikides, Rudich, Gregg, Kumashiro, & Rusbult, 2004). Thus, narcissism benefits subjective well-being only insofar as it is associated with high self-esteem.



Narcissism and self-esteem first emerge in late childhood, from about age 7 (Thomaes, Stegge, Bushman, Olthof, & Denissen, 2008). At that age, children have fully  acquired the cognitive capacities to form global self-evaluations (Harter, 2012), which underlie narcissism and self-esteem. Also, children this age readily use social comparisons to evaluate themselves (Harter, 2012), enabling narcissistic self-views such as “I am special” (“—and more special than everyone else!”). Although narcissism and self-  esteem manifest at the same age, they diverge in their normative  developmental  trajectories.   Narcissism   peaks in adolescence and then gradually decreases throughout adulthood (Foster, Campbell, & Twenge, 2003). By con- trast, self-esteem reaches its lowest  point  in  adolescence and then gradually  increases  throughout  adulthood (Robins, Trzesniewski, Tracy, Gosling, & Potter, 2002). Thus, over the life course, narcissism rises when  self-  esteem  falls,  and  vice versa.



Narcissism and self-esteem are moderately heritable (Neiss, Sedikides, & Stevenson, 2002; Vernon, Villani, Vickers, & Harris, 2008). Yet they are shaped by markedly distinct socialization experiences. Although several stud- ies have addressed this topic, most of them were cross- sectional and relied on adults’ recollections of their childhood socialization experiences (for overviews, see Horton, 2011; Thomaes & Brummelman, 2016). People often misremember their experiences, especially child- hood experiences. Overcoming these limitations, a recent study followed 565 children and their parents prospec- tively over four measurement waves (Brummelman, Thomaes, Nelemans, Orobio de Castro, Overbeek, & Bushman, 2015a). Narcissism was nurtured by parental overvaluation—how much parents saw their child as a special individual entitled to privileges. Overvaluing par- ents overclaim their child’s knowledge, overestimate their child’s IQ, and overpraise their child’s performances, while directing their child to stand out from others by giv- ing him or her an uncommon first name (Brummelman, Thomaes, Nelemans, Orobio de Castro, & Bushman, 2015). Over time, this socialization practice may lead chil- dren to internalize the view of themselves as superior individuals, which is at the core of narcissism. By contrast, self-esteem  was  nurtured  by  parental   warmth—how much parents treated their child with affection and appre- ciation. Warm parents express fondness for their child, share positive affect with their child, and foster in their child the feeling that he or she matters. Over time, this socialization practice may lead children to internalize the view of themselves as worthy individuals, which is at the core of self-esteem.


What Underlies Narcissism and Self-Esteem?

Knowledge of the origins of narcissism and self-esteem provides insight into their similarities and differences. Symbolic interactionism holds that children come to see themselves as they believe they are seen by significant others (Harter, 2012). Consistent with this view, narcis- sism and self-esteem are similar in that they arise, in part, from the internalization of regard from significant others. They are different, however, in that they arise from dis- tinct forms of regard—parental overvaluation versus parental warmth. Experiences of overvaluation may lead  to the core belief underlying narcissism: “I am superior to others.”  Experiences  of  warmth  may  lead  to  the  core belief underlying self-esteem: “I am worthy.”

Thus, narcissism and self-esteem may represent dis- tinct perceptions of regard from others. Unlike previous theorizing, this view is based on empirical knowledge of the origins of narcissism and self-esteem. Some theorists have proposed that “self-esteem rests on qualities which a person actually possesses, while [narcissism] implies presenting to the self and to others qualities or achieve- ments for which there is no adequate foundation” (Horney, 1939, p. 99). We argue that individuals largely derive narcissism and self-esteem not from their qualities, but rather from their perceptions of others’ regard for them. Other theorists have proposed that high self-esteem means thinking well of oneself, whereas narcissism  means passionately wanting to think well of oneself (Bushman & Baumeister, 1998). We propose, instead, that narcissists and high self-esteemers both think well of themselves. But they do so in drastically different ways: Narcissists think of themselves as superior to others (reflecting a vertical, hierarchical view of themselves in relation to others), whereas high self-esteemers think of themselves as worthy (reflecting a horizontal, nonhierar- chical view of themselves in relation to others).

Questions arise. Narcissists crave respect and admira- tion. If narcissists truly feel superior, why would they so desperately want others to validate their superiority? One popular view is that narcissists crave such validation because, deep down inside, they dislike themselves. How- ever, there is no consistent evidence that narcissists harbor such implicit self-loathing (Bosson et al., 2008; Gregg & Sedikides, 2010). We suggest, instead, that narcissists crave

validation because their sense of superiority is precari- ous—much more precarious than high self-esteemers’ sense of worth. Although everyone can be worthy, not everyone can be superior. Indeed, the quest for superiority is a zero-sum game: For every winner there is a loser, and for every loser there is a winner (Back et al., 2013; Crocker & Canevello, 2008). Thus, narcissists may need continuous validation from others to believe that they are still the win- ner and not yet the loser.

Do narcissists succeed in attaining external validation? Because they are charming at first sight, they receive vali- dation at the early stages of acquaintance. Yet unlike high self-esteemers, narcissists have an antagonistic orienta- tion toward others: They are disagreeable, arrogant, and manipulative, and they also look down on others (Miller, Price, Gentile, Lynam, & Campbell, 2012; O’Boyle, Forsyth, Banks, Story, & White, 2014). As relationships grow closer, these traits come to the surface, and narcis- sists gradually lose the very validation they crave (Leck- elt, Küfner, Nestler, & Back, 2015). This loss, in turn, may fuel narcissists’ initial craving for external validation, thus creating a self-sustaining spiral of validation seeking.

Over the past few decades, several scholarly debates have focused on the promises and perils of self-love, with narcissism and self-esteem often being conflated (Swann, Chang-Schneider, & McClarty, 2007). Thus, from a basic- research standpoint, we encourage researchers to demar- cate clearly narcissism from self-esteem and to investigate their shared and unique phenotypes, consequences, development, and origins. We specifically encourage researchers to deepen their involvement in the origins of narcissism and self-esteem, as this topic can further clar- ify the fundamental differences between the two con- structs. From an applied-research standpoint, we encourage psychologists to rethink their intervention efforts. Psychologists have feared that widespread efforts intended to raise self-esteem might inadvertently create a generation of narcissists (Baumeister, Campbell, Krueger, & Vohs, 2003; Twenge & Campbell, 2009). However, a precise understanding of the distinct roots of narcissism and self-esteem might enable interventions to raise self- esteem while simultaneously curtailing  narcissism.


Implications  for Intervention

Since the early ’70s, Western society has become increas- ingly concerned about children’s self-esteem. In their well-intended efforts to boost self-esteem, parents, educa- tors, and interventionists have heavily relied on praising children for being special and extraordinary. Rather than raising self-esteem, such “overvaluing” practices may breed narcissism (Brummelman, Thomaes, Nelemans, Orobio de Castro, Overbeek, & Bushman, 2015a). Thus, what  seems  like  common  sense  may  have  led  people astray. Over the past few years, several proof-effective self-esteem interventions have been initiated (O’Mara, Marsh, Craven, & Debus, 2006), but their impact on nar- cissism  remains unknown.

A priority for research is to develop interventions that concurrently raise self-esteem and curb narcissism by precisely targeting their roots. One promising approach is to address the socialization practices that give rise to narcissism and self-esteem (Brummelman, Thomaes, Nelemans, Orobio de Castro, Overbeek, & Bushman, 2015b). Interventions can teach parents and educators to express affection and appreciation to children without proclaiming them to be superior to others. By doing so, parents and educators may help children feel happy with themselves without seeing themselves as better than oth- ers. Such an approach would require existing parent- training and educational interventions to be refined, because many of them focus on providing children with regard (e.g., praise, encouragement) without carefully distinguishing between different types of regard.

Another promising approach is to address directly the core beliefs underlying narcissism and self-esteem: the belief that one is superior to others versus the belief that one is worthy. Psychologically precise interventions can effectively change individuals’ core beliefs, which may feed into changes in more stable traits (Dweck, 2008). Experimental work has begun to explore this approach. For example, nudging individuals away from their supe- riority beliefs (e.g., by having them think about what makes them similar to others) reduces narcissism levels (Giacomin & Jordan, 2014). Helping people internalize others’ appreciation (e.g., by having them describe the meaning and significance of others’ kind words) raises self-esteem levels, especially among those who need it  the most: low self-esteemers (Marigold, Holmes, & Ross, 2007).

These approaches may be most effective when timed  in late childhood. At  that  age,  children  readily  evalu- ate themselves from others’ perspective (Harter, 2012), thus creating leverage for intervention. Also, their self- views are relatively unstable (Trzesniewski, Donnellan, & Robins, 2003), rendering them more susceptible to  change. Indeed, from adolescence onward, children’s self-views may be more resistant to socialization influ- ences (Harris et al., 2015).



Ever since Narcissus wandered into the psychological lit- erature, scholars have attempted to uncover his true per- sonality. One of the most common beliefs—that narcissism is an extreme manifestation of high self-esteem—is as intuitive as it is incorrect. By demarcating narcissism from self-esteem,  and  by  identifying  their  distinct  roots, we

hope to provide researchers and practitioners with a framework to guide their further inquiries into the mys- teries of self-love.


Recommended Reading

Brummelman, E., Thomaes, S., Nelemans, S. A., Orobio de Castro, B., Overbeek, G., & Bushman, B. J. (2015a). (See References). The first longitudinal study to disentangle the origins of narcissism and  self-esteem.

Campbell, W. K., & Miller, J. D. (Eds.). (2011). The handbook of narcissism and narcissistic personality disorder: Theoretical approaches, empirical findings, and treatments. New York, NY: Wiley. A handbook that covers recent advances in research on narcissism, including grandiose versus vulner- able narcissism.

Morf, C. C., & Rhodewalt, F. (2001). Unraveling the paradoxes of narcissism: A dynamic self-regulatory processing model. Psychological Inquiry, 12, 177–196. An influential model that casts narcissism as a self-regulatory process that strives toward the overarching goal of creating and maintaining a grandiose self.

Orth, U., & Robins, R. W. (2014). The development of self-esteem. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 23, 381–387. An accessible overview of research on the development and consequences of self-esteem across the life  span.

Thomaes, S., & Brummelman, E. (2016). (See References). A comprehensive review of theory and research on youth narcissism, including early research on the link between socialization experiences and narcissism.


Declaration of Conflicting  Interests

The authors declared that they had no conflicts of interest with respect to their authorship or the publication of this article.



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