This Is The One Difference Between Narcissism and High-Self Esteem

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In recent years, much work has been put in to open up conversations surrounding mental health and to destigmatize many of the old preconceptions that came with talking about it. Things like it being shameful to discuss struggles with mental illness or keeping therapy a secret, younger generations are doing away with all that baggage and openly sharing their experiences.

Due to this, the public is also learning a lot more about some disorders that previously weren’t given the time of day for those outside the field of psychology. With new knowledge comes new misinformation being spread, making some discussions a little muddied.

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Bringing To Light

The term ‘narcissism’ has had a significant spike in popularity over the last few years, with more and more people opening up about their experiences with narcissists. Be they parents, friends, or romantic partners, having a narcissist in your life can come with unique challenges. These challenges can manifest as abuse at the hands of said narcissist, which is why so many people are speaking out and helping others identify narcissists in their own lives.

A man pushing against a door as he's speaking.
Pexels / RODNAE Productions
Pexels / RODNAE Productions

It’s empowering for those who have struggled with this, but can sometimes be a bit misplaced.

Similar, But Mostly Different

Due to the prominence of the term, there are now people chomping at the bit to label someone in their life a narcissist when that really isn’t the case. Narcissism does still have a strict set of symptoms and behaviors that can’t be attributed to just anybody.

A woman looking at her reflection in a broken mirror.
Canva / Karpars Grindvals
Canva / Karpars Grindvals

The biggest mix-up that takes place is between actual narcissists and those who simply have high self-esteem. When you don’t know the differences between the two they can be hard to differentiate, so here’s what separates true narcissism from someone having a high opinion of themselves.

Official Business

To start, narcissism is more than just a collection of traits that make up a social label, it’s actually a full-fledged personality disorder. It’s most often characterized by unrealistic senses of grandeur and self-importance, self-centeredness, and a lack of empathy. They hold themselves to extremely high regard and often take little interest in the lives or feelings of others.

A woman crying as she speaks to her friend.
Pexels / RODNAE Productions
Pexels / RODNAE Productions

Though these aspects do sound negative, it’s important to remember that someone having narcissistic personality disorder doesn’t automatically make them a bad person. While some absolutely use these facets of their being to do harm, others are very conscious of these facts and tread carefully as not to completely disregard other people.

Low Effort

For narcissists, this extreme sense of self-worth and value is often founded on nothing but their mere existence. This isn’t to say that they have no redeeming qualities or other accomplishments to be proud of, but rather that they don’t need these things to consider themselves the most important person in the room. All they have to do to be worth more than other people is be there. Their value—in their mind—is intrinsic to their very being.

A woman holding a gold crown just above her head against a pink background.
Canva / Khosro
Canva / Khosro

For those who have high self-esteem without the narcissism attached, their confident view of themselves is more often something they worked to achieve.

Hard Work Paying Off

Sure, some people develop naturally high self-esteem as they grow older, but for many people, it takes years of working through doubts and uncertainties before they’re able to look at their accomplishments and be proud of what they’ve done. It can take even longer for them to realize that those accomplishments are what embodies them, it’s not just a temporary thing that wears off. They did something good and are allowed to carry that.

A woman lit in blue and red hugging herself and smiling.
Canva / Khosro
Canva / Khosro

It goes beyond accomplishments too. People are allowed to have high self-esteem about their appearance, a talent of theirs, or any other aspect of themselves.

More Than Mental

A 2022 study investigated early physiological indicators of both narcissism and high self-esteem in children, noting the differences in these budding traits.

A young girl holding a microphone, looking upwards.
Pexels / Pixabay
Pexels / Pixabay

The children (all four and a half years old) were invited to a lab to perform a song. For two minutes prior to their performance, they were instructed to sit on a podium. They would sing their song, then return to the podium to sit for another minute.

Researchers recorded the physiological responses these children had during these different phases, including their heart rate and electrocardiogram to measure feelings such as nervousness.

Heightened Emotions

The children then returned to the lab when they were seven and a half years old, which is when differences between self-esteem and narcissism begin forming more clearly.

A young boy writing on paper.
Unsplash / Santi Vedri
Unsplash / Santi Vedri

This time, they just completed questionnaires that assess narcissism and self-esteem. These questionnaires are what placed them in one category or the other when analyzing their physical responses from a few years earlier.

Results showed that children predisposed to narcissism “showed elevated skin conductance levels during anticipation of the [performance].” Meanwhile, children predisposed to high self-esteem “showed lowered skin conductance throughout the procedure.”

Skin conductance measures the skin’s ability to conduct electricity, an ability that gets heightened when experiencing fear and other ‘arousing’ emotions such as excitement. Higher skin conductance means more of that emotion is being felt.

Hidden Nerves

These results also supported the idea that narcissistic children are “more fragile and prone to social-evaluative concerns.” In contrast, children with high self-esteem are “more secure and able to feel comfortable in social-evaluative contexts.”

A man holding a small paper person over his heart.
Getty Images via Canva / strixcode
Getty Images via Canva / strixcode

To put it more simply, narcissistic children didn’t feel any more nervous when moving from the waiting period to the performance itself while children with high self-esteem did. The narcissistic children had already reached their baseline level of anxiety upon arrival.

It’s also possible that the narcissistic children considered the performance positive because it was a time that they were receiving attention and praise.

Nature And Nurture

Though their anxiety levels didn’t change, they were still there, showing that narcissists aren’t completely immune to such feelings even though they appear to be.

A sticker on a sign that said 'curb your ego'.
Unsplash / Orkun Azap
Unsplash / Orkun Azap

Narcissistic children are more likely to have parents who believe they’re inherently special, over-valuing them and thus placing extremely high expectations on them. This affects the child’s psyche not only by inflating their ego and allowing them to view other children as lesser than, but also by making them hypersensitive to rejection. Surely they couldn’t have failed, they’re special, they’re the exception!

Meanwhile, children with high-self esteem are more likely to have been raised with warm, responsive, supportive parents. They allow their children to explore their own interests and natural talents rather than placing them on a pedestal to be displayed.

Deeper Than It Seems

This study, along with a close analysis of narcissistic tendencies, shows that narcissists fear rejection even more than an average person might. Their façade is very high-and-mighty, but they’re not unlike the rest of us in that they also experience anxiety and nervousness.

A woman smiling as she stands outside against a railing.
Pexels / Vicky
Pexels / Vicky

This doesn’t excuse the harm they may cause as they grapple with those fears, though, and it doesn’t diminish the lens through which they view themselves. All it does is provide a little context and complexity to an often misunderstood group of people.

There are a million other factors that come into play with a condition this layered, and there are other causes for narcissism beyond parental expectations. Not to mention that those with high self-esteem are also capable of harm, but for the most part, high self-esteem is something more humble. You don’t automatically think of yourself as the best; you have enough confidence to know that you’re good, which you should never be ashamed of.

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Daniel Mitchell-Benoit

Dan is a content writer with three years of experience under their belt, having mostly covered viral media but now shifting toward spirituality and astrology. He’s a strong believer in using one’s beliefs as a means of self-improvement and being in touch with whatever messages the universe has to offer.

He can’t wait to share his insights with a[…]