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The Fine Line Between Narcissism and Self Esteem

The fine line between narcissism and self-esteem has been hotly debated in recent years, and the discussion shows no signs of slowing down.

Between psychoanalysts, researchers, psychologists, and other experts, the idea of showcasing the difference has important implications, especially in today’s society.

But where, exactly, does the line between these two concepts lie?

The answer comes in understanding the role of self-esteem; an absence of genuine self-esteem can denote narcissism. Whether through societal standards or community expectations, the need to be seen as successful in all areas of life can lead to the rise of what we consider narcissism, or narcissistic personality disorder.

So what are the differences between self-esteem and narcissism? What factors play a role in the development of either concept? And is it possible to have a healthy dose of narcissism?

Let’s take a closer look.

Self Esteem – Definition and Implications

According to the University of California – Davis, self-esteem is defined as how we value ourselves and our accomplishments in the world. It is also a factor in how much we trust ourselves and our relationships to other people in our personal and public lives.

But the definition of self-esteem extends further than that. American psychologist William James in 1890 defined it as a fundamental human need, one that is as necessary for survival as fear.

Self-esteem is measured by high self-satisfaction, a neutral sense of self-importance when compared to others, and a need for intimate relationships. Other characteristics include optimism, a sense of personal limitations, and a healthy dose of confidence.

The implications of self-esteem can be seen through high and low self-esteem. People with high self-esteem rarely feel the need to pass the blame onto others and are able to apologize for mistakes while people with low self-esteem are pessimistic, unable to take responsibility for their actions, and actively fear being ridiculed.

The implications can be seen in society as well: people with high self-esteem are generally well-liked and make great leaders. Those with low self-esteem are generally viewed as manipulators and rarely make good role models.

The Rise of Narcissism Today

Narcissism is defined as an excessive love or interest in oneself. Characteristics of narcissism include extreme selfishness, an over-exaggerated view of one’s talents, and a dismissal of any undesirable traits, even if those traits are present.

Those who exhibit narcissism are often thought to need psychological help in order to determine the fear and low sense of self-esteem that has contributed to the rise of their selfishness.

However, narcissism can have its benefits, especially in early childhood development. Freud stated that narcissism can be healthy early on in childhood because it can foster the necessary “self-love” that will determine that child’s belief in themselves through adulthood.

With the advent of new technology, like social media, that makes puts our personal lives in the spotlight, there has been a sharp increase in diagnoses of narcissistic personality disorder, with nearly half of Americans suffering from ‘narcissistic abuse’. 

Narcissistic Personality Disorder

There is a point in which narcissism can develop into a personality disorder. While it is considered part of human nature to want to showcase talents and a love of oneself, it is possible to take that self-love to the extreme to damaging levels.

Narcissistic personality disorder is defined by irrational behaviors, such as consistent lying and a disregard for other people’s needs and feelings, that a person consistently exhibits.

A narcissist might consider themselves to be special, have erratic mood swings, exaggerate their own achievement, and consistently demand attention from others at the expense of the other person’s needs.

It is a fine line between narcissism and narcissistic personality disorder, one that psychologists and analysts are still trying to determine, but there is no denying that narcissism can be detrimental to a person’s well-being.

The Differences between Self Esteem and Narcissism

There are a variety of differences between normal self-esteem, or even high self-esteem, and narcissism.

One such difference is that self-esteem is built on a foundation of actual accomplishments and talents supported by practice and trial and error.

Narcissism is generally built on insecurity and the fear that one is not good enough; it can also develop when a person is giving praise for accomplishing simple tasks without much effort.

Another difference is that self-esteem supports compassion and cooperation, owing to the idea that a person has value within a system or process.

Narcissism supports dominance and rivalries with people who may indeed possess the talents the narcissist wishes they exhibited.

A major difference is that self-esteem can be boosted by constructive feedback, whereas narcissists can receive the same feedback and view it as a criticism.

This leads into the last difference, which is that self-esteem encourages building others up, while narcissism encourages pulling others down in order to stand in their place.

The Fine Line

There is a fine line between narcissism and high self-esteem. It can be found in learning how to differentiate between the idea of being special and the idea of using one’s talents to serve the community.

This is a simplistic way of looking at self-esteem, but because there are a variety of factors that play into self-love turning into high self-esteem or narcissism, it’s important to discuss them here.

Modern Viewpointss

Society has always played a role in fostering self-esteem; to that end, it can also play a role in creating narcissism.

Because societal standards differ from culture to culture, and even from community to community, there is no one set standard for every person to live up to.

Instead, societal standards are introduced to children at a young age with the express expectation that those children will grow up to fit the roles society has set up for them.

In America, societal standards dictate that a man needs to be rich and successful, and a woman needs to be beautiful and thin, in order to be accepted by society as a whole.

These standards can be difficult to match, even if all the resources are laid out in front of a person, and it can create stress in those who feel as though they are lacking in the fight to develop “the dream life.”

Those that fit these societal standards often end up with high self-esteem, while those that don’t are left to develop narcissistic tendencies to make up for their insecurity in not measuring up.

Family and Community— The Origins of Self Love

Family and community both play roles in self-love. Because children often look to immediate family members, such as parents, or other adults in their community for a sense of appreciation and validation, a person’s community can shape how they view themselves.

For example, if a child shows little talent in playing the piano and yet their parents shower them with praise for their work, they may develop a sense of insecurity because they do not feel worthy of the affection.

If a child shows incredible talent and their parents choose to encourage them to continue but don’t heap undue praise on them, the child will develop self-esteem because of their confidence in their ability.

Children who are neglected by their parents are also susceptible to developing narcissism, although it is not as common as some would think.

In this case, they grow up with a sense of self-love cultivated by their own needs and goals and, if left unchecked, can develop into narcissism later in life.

Behaviors and Consequences

Behaviors and the consequences delivered by those behaviors can also play a role in finding the fine line between narcissism and self-esteem.

Narcissism is characterized by consistent lying, whether to pass the blame onto others or to exaggerate self-importance.

This can begin to develop at a young age if a child feels neglected or is praised beyond belief and they feel as though they must continue to lie in order to receive a modicum of attention.

Self-esteem does not have this characterization because high self-esteem, even at an early age, is earned by a child’s ability to be honest about mistakes and their own talents.

Adults often continue the pattern of behavior from childhood that garnered the same result, so the need to monitor the reactions to behavior from a young age is especially necessary in order to distinguish between narcissism and self-esteem.

When is it Narcissism and When is it High Self Esteem?

Self-esteem is inherent; it is delivered to those who maintain their standards and their own ideas of what is expected of them. Narcissism is often delivered by external sources, such as social media, family, friends, or even imagined sources.

So, how do we tell the difference?

It’s simple: if self-esteem is coming from a source outside of oneself, it’s most likely narcissism. If a person believes that a boost to their self-esteem is coming from an accomplishment or goal, then it’s high self-esteem.

The answer is: it depends on where you’re coming from.

Could Narcissism Just Be High Self Esteem?

It’s important to note that too much narcissism, even if it’s helpful in early childhood, can be a bad thing. Because narcissism develops through behaviors that are hurtful, such as anger, lying, and putting down others, it can lead to devastating effects if left unmonitored.

But it is possible that some levels of narcissism could actually just be high self-esteem. Adaptive narcissism, which is currently being studied, is a level of narcissism in which people are self-sufficient, can be leaders, are self-confident, and can adapt to anxiety.

Adaptive narcissism can be good because it builds a healthy sense of self and can lead people to aim higher with their goals, whether it’s personal or in the business world.

They are capable of empathy, can lead teams, and better able to protect their self-love because they understand that self-love starts with the self and can’t be gained by outside sources.

High self-esteem, or adaptive narcissism, is perhaps the only level of narcissism that can be beneficial to people. While it is important to be confident in one’s abilities in order to be successful, it is equally critical to not develop habits that hurt other people in the process of building one’s best life.

Self-esteem is as widely debated as narcissism itself, and for good reason: society works best when people find value, both in themselves and the world around them.

Although it is easy to believe that high self-esteem and narcissism are the same concepts, both showcase how important the journey to self-love is.

Only by carefully differentiating between the two can we see the subtle — but important — differences between them.

The Fine Line Between Narcissism and Self Esteem

Dan Fries

Dan Fries is an entrepreneur and writer. He is the co-author of three highly-cited papers in the field of translational oncology research. Dan’s diverse background includes positions as a research associate at OSI Pharmaceuticals, an associate scientist at Medtronic Cardiovascular, and research scientist at both the Michigan Center for Translational Pathology and the Meyerson Lab at Dana Farber of Harvard Medical School. He currently writes about the responsible use of nutrition and supplementation as a means for treatment. To learn more about Dan and his current research you can visit his website, Corpina Nootropics.

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APA Reference
Fries, D. (2017). The Fine Line Between Narcissism and Self Esteem. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 26, 2019, from


Last updated: 21 Aug 2017
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Aug 2017
Published on All rights reserved.