Self-Esteem and Narcissism: Is It All About Me?

A growing number of research studies are showing that self-esteem might not be all that it’s cracked up to be. Low-achieving students, some studies show, think as highly of themselves as valedictorians. Violent criminals are no more likely to show evidence of self-esteem problems than are respectable high-achievers.

How can this be?

For years, I have been writing that psychologists define self-esteem in the wrong way. Psychology has for the last four decades viewed self-esteem in entirely subjective terms. This means: if you feel good about yourself, then you have good self-esteem; if you feel badly about yourself, then you have poor self-esteem. If self-esteem is defined subjectively, it makes sense that you will find criminals with high ‘self-esteem.’ First of all, criminals are liars—both to themselves and others. Consequently, if you survey them about their self-esteem they will tell you that they feel good about themselves. Research on criminal psychology by Stanton Samenow, in fact, has shown that criminals actually take ‘pride’ in their criminal work, the same way rational people take pride in their productive, legitimate careers.

As for low-achieving students, many of them are told by their parents and teachers that they are wonderful and great even when they fail. While a few kids will always be ambitious and try to do well no matter what they are told, it seems reasonable that a majority will tell themselves, ‘Hey, if I’m so great, then maybe I don’t have to work so hard.’ The fact that psychologists are finding ‘D’ students with high subjective self regard is simply proof that the now decades-old philosophy of telling kids they’re great regardless of how they perform is not working.

Slowly, psychologists are starting to discover the value of such qualities as personal responsibility, performance, and objective reality. Says one researcher: ‘My bottom line is that self-esteem isn’t really worth the effort. Self-control is much more powerful.’ Had this psychologist understood, in the first place, that self-control is a crucial component of self-esteem, he would not be damning self-esteem now.

Another psychologist says: ‘Not everything is about ‘me.’ There are sometimes bigger things that we should be concerned about.’ Baloney—if what she means is that children should drop concern about themselves and replace it with a focus on others. However, I would agree with her if she meant that there’s more to life than the inner, subjective ‘me’—that there’s also an objective ‘out there’ (known as reality) which it’s in my (and your) interest to respect!

Many psychologists, like most laypeople, are still quite confused over the distinction between rational self-esteem and narcissism. Two researchers have recently concluded that narcissism involves a conviction of superiority over others, while genuine self-esteem has more to do with a positive self-image in and of itself—without reference to others. They are hitting on an important truth: That there’s a difference between using others as your standard of good and using a rational, objective definition (such as competence, skill, and performance) as a standard of good.

Neurotic, unhealthy people look at what others are doing and try to beat them. Psychologists label them ‘narcissists.’ Healthy people determine, to the best of their ability, what constitutes ‘competence’ or ‘excellence’ in a certain context and then aim for it. They spend little or no time looking at what others are doing, other than as role models or for inspiration. Narcissists often come across as arrogant and confident, but if you scratch beneath the psychological surface you find nothing more than a compulsive concern with beating out others. Genuinely confident individuals might enjoy beating others in a competition, but their primary goal is to live up to some rational standard of excellence. There’s a difference between feeling this way: ‘I’m worthwhile because I beat Joe’ and feeling this way: ‘I’m worthwhile because I’m talented, I work hard, and I strive for excellence.’

College freshmen who based their self-regard heavily on academic victory over peers, for example, spent more time on their studies than other students but did not perform any better in their classes. These are the types of students who, research has shown, had more conflict with teachers and focused more on grades than on actual learning. Does this prove that self-esteem is a meaningless concept, as some suggest? No. It does suggest, however, that improving one’s mind and knowledge is superior to trying to get the best grade and beat everyone else out. It supports what I often advise: Concentrate on enjoying and excelling at your work, and success will usually follow.

Source: New York Times online, 10/1/02