Narcissism is a mental health disorder, also known as antisocial personality disorder, in which the person suffering it experiences a grandiose image of their own self. This normally results in an inflated sense of self-importance and ego. And, that often results in a deflated sense of the importance and worth of others. As a result, narcissists engage in manipulative, abusive, and antisocial behavior without properly weighing the consequences of their actions on others – because they often truly believe they are in the right.
Unfortunately, in popular discourse, narcissism is often conflated with and confused with high self-esteem. So, a person expressing a good opinion of their looks, their skills, or their decision-making might be accused of being narcissistic. That’s both not true and often harmful to people who work very hard to build self-esteem back up. That’s especially true for those recovering from substance use disorders and mental illnesses, in which low self-esteem can be detrimental to your physical and mental health.
Learning the differences between self-esteem and narcissism can help you to understand when expressions of self-esteem are healthy and when they aren’t.
Symptoms of Narcissistic Personality Disorder
Narcissistic Personality Disorder is a diagnosable mental health disorder. In fact, you can also treat narcissistic personality disorder, providing the individual is motivated and willing to participate. In addition, there are multiple types of narcissistic personality disorder recognized under the DSM-5. This means you may have one of many expressions of the disorder, meaning symptoms vary.
Feelings of Superiority – Nearly all narcissistic personality disorders are characterized by feelings of superiority. This means the person experiences their own ego as aggrandized over that of others. They may feel that they work harder. They may feel they look better. They may feel they experience more stress, more emotions, more negative life situations. They may also feel that their good position in life is a result of hard work. Largely, this feeling of superiority is un-earned, though that is not always the case. This can extend to feelings of jealousy or anger when someone else gets something they thought was “their due” or “their right”. E.g., “Steve got my job promotion, I hate him”
Denial – Persons with narcissistic personality disorder often easily deny claims brought against them. For example, they might respond to accusations of manipulation and abuse with counterclaims. They might fabricate stories of how things happened. They might simply brush off a real problem because believing it would force them to lower their opinions of themselves. Narcissists don’t engage in this behavior on purpose, but they do engage in it. Most importantly, they actually believe the denial.
Manipulative Behavior – Most narcissists engage in manipulative behavior such as lying, manipulating the truth, using people, and using emotional pleas and coercion to get what they want. Again, most narcissists don’t actively recognize what they are doing. If confronted, they’ll likely deny it. But, they are often very quick to engage in behavior like blackmailing, resorting to tears to get their way, turning a conversation around to reflect how another person is in the wrong, etc.
Histrionics –Histrionics may fall under manipulative behavior. However, they also fall into an exaggerated need for praise, admiration, and affection. Histrionics also extend to larger shows of discontent, discomfort, and pain when bad things happen. Narcissism creates an exaggerated sense of self-worth and importance, so that person will obviously make a bigger deal of anything that does happen to them.
Most importantly, these symptoms have almost no overlap with high self-esteem. In fact, in one study, it was shown that while narcissists can have high self-esteem, there is virtually no overlap between “narcissism” and “high self-esteem”.
High self-esteem is characterized by the recognition of the self as being valuable and worthy. Someone with good self-esteem:
Is able to acknowledge faults and failures by looking to potential improvement rather than feeling bad about it them
Is able to listen to criticism and praise in an equally evaluative fashion and take it where it is correct
Is able to correctly evaluate skills and capabilities and to be honest about them without fear of being judged
Spends little time worrying about what others think or how they are perceived. This can extend to looks, intelligence, performance, behavior, etc.
Is able to recognize that other people are worth just as much as they are, their traits and skills are just as valued, and they are equally prone to making mistakes. This often results in treating others like the self – in that the self-confident person evaluates and helps the people around them.
The result of high self-esteem is normally assertiveness, awareness of personal value, refusal to be manipulated, ability to accept compliments, ability to accept criticism, and ability to self-evaluate and improve. These traits are historically mixed with narcissism through the idea that anyone who appreciates or is confident in how they look is a narcissist.
So, What are the Differences Between Self-Esteem and Narcissism?
To some extent, high self-esteem is outward-facing while narcissism is inward-facing. On the other hand, they are quite often opposites:
A person with high self-esteem is not concerned with how most people think they look; they know how they look to them. A narcissist expects to look good to others and may be upset if this is not shared or appreciated.
A person with high self-esteem will often work to lift others up, a person with narcissistic personality disorder may deliberately sabotage others out of jealousy
A person with high self-esteem will acknowledge faults and attempt to improve, a person with narcissistic personality disorder will often deny the problem to begin with or shift the blame to someone else
These and other differences are considerable. Put side by side, the narcissist is primarily interested in themselves at the expense of other people. The person with high self-esteem is aware of who they are and is willing to work to improve that.
Narcissism is a behavioral disorder. It’s also treatable. But, for many people, it’s a side-effect of a substance use disorder or another mental health disorder. Some people are “born” narcissists. Others take on a more narcissistic worldview as a coping mechanism, especially as a result of drug or alcohol abuse, severe mental health problems, or similar stressors.
That’s why many mental health treatment centers and substance use treatment centers offer treatment and help with narcissism during mental health treatment. Narcissistic personality disorders also interfere with treatment, making it more important to tackle the ego, senses of self-worth, and self-esteem during treatment. And, conversely, narcissism can hide significantly low esteem – meaning that self-esteem must be treated in order to get anywhere with mental health treatment.