Self-Esteem vs. Narcissism

Agrowing volume of research appears to indicate that self-esteem might not be all it’s cracked up to be. Some studies have shown that both valedictorians and low-achieving students think quite highly of themselves. Violent criminals are no more likely to show evidence of self-image problems than are respectable high-achievers. Though this flies in the face of conventional wisdom, it fits with what I’ve been writing about for years.

Psychotherapists define self-esteem in the wrong way. For the last four decades, psychology has viewed self-esteem in entirely subjective terms, i.e., if you feel good about yourself, then you have good self-esteem; if you feel badly about yourself, then you don’t. Period. But if you define self-esteem subjectively, then it makes perfect 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, most will tell you that they feel good about themselves. Research by criminal psychologist Stanton Samenow has shown that criminals actually take pride in their criminal work in the same way law-abiding people take pride in their productive careers.

In the case of low-achieving students, many are told by their parents and teachers that they are wonderful even when they fail. While a few kids will always be ambitious no matter what they’re told, it seems reasonable that many will conclude, ‘Hey, if I’m so great, then maybe I don’t have to work so hard.’ The fact that therapists find failing students with high self-regard is proof that the now decades-old philosophy of telling kids they’re great regardless of how they perform is not working.

The mental health field is finally discovering the value of 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 he originally understood that self-control is a crucial component of self-esteem, he would not be damning self-esteem now.

Another therapist says: ‘Not everything is about ‘me.’ There are sometimes bigger things we should be concerned about.’ Baloney — if what she means is that children should ignore concern for themselves and replace it with a focus on others. However, I agree with her if she means that there’s more to life than the inner, subjective ‘me;’ that there’s also an objective ‘out there’ (reality) which is in all our interests to respect.

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

Neurotic people look at what others are doing and try to beat them, and the mental health profession labels them ‘narcissists.’ Healthy people determine what constitutes competence or excellence in a certain context and they then aim for it. They spend little time looking at what others are doing, other than perhaps for inspiration. Narcissists often come across as confident, but if you scratch beneath the psychological surface you’ll find nothing more than a compulsive concern for besting others. Genuinely confident individuals might enjoy beating others, but their primary goal is to live up to their own standard of excellence.

For example college freshmen who based their self-regard primarily on academic victory over peers spent more time on their studies than other students but did not perform any better in their classes. Interestingly, these same students had more conflict with teachers and focused more on grades than on actual learning. Does this prove that self-esteem is a meaningless? 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. And it supports what I’ve been telling people for years: If you concentrate on enjoying and excelling at your work, success will almost always follow.