Self-Esteem: How Much is Too Much?

Is it possible to have too much self-esteem? It’s commonly thought “yes,” and the definition of “too much” self-esteem is labeled narcissism.

This may be well and good, but the question remains: How do we quantify the “right” amount of self-esteem? In scientific terms, self-esteem is a qualitative variable, not a quantitative one. It’s not like reading your cholesterol level, your sugar level or taking your blood pressure.

A reader writes, for example:

Do you think it’s possible for someone (like a narcissist) to think too highly of himself or do you think that narcissism always conceals low self-esteem? From what I’ve read, narcissism seems almost like mania, although it is not psychotic. I don’t see why a person couldn’t think too highly of himself just as some people think too low of themselves.”

This question points out something often overlooked about self-esteem. Self-esteem refers to a deep-seated conviction that one is competent and deserving. Competent and deserving of what, exactly? To function in reality. “Fit for existence” sums up the dominant and ever-present mental and emotional state of a person with self-esteem.

In a narcissist, you’re witnessing the behavioral and emotional machinations of a person going through the motions of having self-esteem. By definition, such a person does not have the “fit for existence” mindset. If he or she did, then he or she would not have any incentive or perceived need to go through those machinations, in the first place. It would simply flow.

The question now is: What kind of specific attitudes, ideas and beliefs create, reinforce or generate self-esteem? At root is a sense of the power of one’s own reasoning. Reasoning is our means of apprehending, coping and ultimately surviving and flourishing in the world where we find ourselves. On a certain basic level, you either feel like you’re fit for existence, or not. If you’re confident in (a) the power of rational thought and (b) your own capability for engaging in it, then you’re at least on your way with respect to self-esteem.

This is precisely what most children almost never get from their school experiences (where instead they get the group-think conformity of public schools, or are otherwise taught in groups or herds); from their parents (most of whom display varying degrees of irrationality and who, even when well-intentioned, teach unsound or distorted/contradictory moral values); nor from the culture as a whole (where, at least outside of sports, the wrong things are praised and rewarded and the right things are punished or mocked all the time).

Each young mind is under relentless attack almost from day one. The only thing to ground a person is what starts out as something like “common sense” or “street smart” and, in a best case and within the limits of one’s capacity, evolves into rational, independent, objective reasoning about the profound as well as the ordinary aspects of daily life.

The emotional state of a person with self-esteem is, “I can think. I’m therefore fit for existence.” It won’t likely take this literal expression, but this is the dominant feeling in a person with self-esteem.

Do you think a narcissist has this state of mind? A narcissist, as we’re talking about one here, thinks more of himself than he really deserves. I agree with that. He comes across as if he believes he’s automatically and always right, or that he can gain objective truth by some method other than reason. It’s as if he thinks his reasoning is somehow superior to yours, simply because it’s his. It’s as if being right is his, by birthright, rather than having to prove it or grasp it logically and factually (like the rest of us).

The error of the narcissist is what some (Ayn Rand, Leonard Peikoff, others in philosophy) have called rationalism. Rationalism refers to the false belief that abstract, conceptual knowledge can come automatically or effortlessly, as it does on the sensory or perceptual level. Some people think in rationalistic terms and, as a result, become frustrated or very low in self-esteem, always berating themselves for not knowing things as easily and perfectly as they think they should. Human reason takes work, and its benefits tend to accumulate over time. A person thinking in rationalistic terms does not see it this way. He wants it all now, and suffers emotionally for this expectation.

However, rationalism can take a different form. In the narcissistic version, the person who thinks like a rationalist concludes or perceives, “I’m right. I can know things easily and automatically.” No, it’s not this blatant in the person’s mind, most likely. But this is something like what the narcissist feels. As a result of these feelings and the premises giving rise to them, you get the behaviors of a narcissistic person who comes across as if of course he’s right and all you need to do is, “Listen to and trust me, and all will be well.” Right there the implication is clear: I know what’s true, my own reasoning is superior, and objectivity is not required. It’s all but spoken.

A lot of people make the mistake of thinking a rationalist narcissist has “too much” self-esteem. That’s not quite it. He doesn’t really have self-esteem, because self-esteem involves confidence in one’s ability to grasp reality via reason. A narcissist is trying to get to the finish line (of knowing things, being capable of things) by pretense and bravado, and these things — involving social/interpersonal relationships with other people — become his primary thrust, over and above simply grasping what’s true and running with it throughout one’s productive, fulfilling life. A lot of these people are attracted to careers like politics (surprise, surprise), but you’ll also find them in business. They’re either the second-handers riding on the accomplishments of genuine achievers, or perhaps they possess authentic talent in one area, but mistake this as automatic knowledge or superhuman status on the whole, which nobody — not even a genius — possesses.

In short: Yes, it’s possible to think too highly of yourself. But no, this is not the manifestation of self-esteem, not at all.



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