In the ’90s, when I was growing up, self-esteem was treated by adults like a magical invincibility shield. Self-confidence could protect you from all of life’s horrors, the thinking seemed to be. In one excruciating episode, my 10-year-old classmates and I were forced to list qualities we liked about one another as a narcotics officer looked on grimly. Self-esteem would keep us from doing drugs, teachers told us; self-esteem would keep us from having premarital sex. (The first time I had sex with a confident stoner, I was very confused.)
In recent years, however, self-esteem’s reputation has soured. Efforts to combat teen pregnancy and drug abuse by building up self-esteem were a flop. The recession happened, and the peppy message of you-can-do-it-ism rang hollow. Certain researchers found that young people were becoming more self-absorbed. All those participation trophies and songs about specialness were, in part, blamed. In working so hard to boost Millennials’ self-esteem, some feared, society actually turned them into entitled narcissists.
Some psychology researchers have speculated that narcissism is an inevitable dark side of self-esteem. Narcissists—or people who are arrogant, impulsive, low in empathy, aggressive, and dominant—were thought to be just those who felt too good about themselves. But now self-esteem might be getting a reprieve. New studies hint at the possibility that it and narcissism are fundamentally different personality traits.
In a study published this month in the Journal of Research in Personality, researchers assessed the levels of self-esteem and narcissism of 158 Polish workers. They asked the workers three times over the course of a year to rate their levels of self-esteem. The researchers also measured the workers’ levels of narcissism by asking them to rank how much statements such as “I deserve to be seen as a great personality” or “I want my rivals to fail” relate to them.
One analysis the authors performed showed that self-esteem was indeed correlated with narcissism. But a second type of analysis painted a more nuanced portrait. Self-esteem was associated with one of the two elements of narcissism: narcissistic admiration, or the desire to be loved by others. It was not, however, associated with another element: narcissistic rivalry, or the wish to dominate others.
The reason for any association between the two traits, the authors suspect, is simply that both people with high self-esteem and people with narcissism tend to evaluate themselves positively. The researchers also found no evidence that higher levels of self-esteem lead to increased narcissism over time. “Self-esteem and narcissism within the same person do not seem to go hand in hand,” the study’s lead author, Aleksandra Cichocka, a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Kent, told me. “They seem to be quite separate states.”
Other researchers have reached similar conclusions. Narcissists and people with high self-esteem appear to relate in totally different ways to other people, for example. People who have high self-esteem think of their social relationships as collaborative, while those with narcissism see the world as a zero-sum game. Only one person can be the best, they think, and it must be them.
“Self-esteem is about being satisfied with yourself as a person and accepting yourself for who you are, regardless of how you compare to others,” said Eddie Brummelman, an assistant professor at the University of Amsterdam, who was not involved with the study. “Narcissism is very much about feeling superior to other people.” Though they may seem similar, in this view the two conditions are as different as happiness and sadness.
Brummelman has even found that narcissism and self-esteem are the result of two very different approaches to parenting. Both narcissism and self-esteem emerge at about age 7 or 8, he told me. Parents who treat their children like they’re more special and entitled than others might nurture the children’s narcissistic tendencies. Meanwhile, parents who appreciate kids for who they are and emphasize that they don’t have to stand out in order to earn approval are likely to foster high self-esteem. One reason some of those ’90s-era attempts to build self-esteem might have failed, Brummelman speculates, is that they actually did tell kids they were special. The approach inadvertently caused narcissism, not self-esteem.
This would be great news for sex-ed teachers who would rather talk about self-image than condoms. Self-esteem, if this research is right, could be as great as it sounds. Break out those “everyone’s a winner” ribbons and tell your B- student that he’s perfect just for trying.
Alas, this matter is not entirely settled. Contrary to this uplifting message, Roy Baumeister, a social psychologist at the University of Queensland, has taken a dimmer view of high self-esteem. He told me via email that a weakness of Cichocka’s study is that the authors used few measures to gauge self-esteem and narcissism. Baumeister said that the sample size was relatively small, and that the average age of the subjects, 40, was a little too old for a study on self-esteem. Typically, kids are the target of self-esteem-boosting efforts.
In response to these criticisms, Cichocka said both self-esteem and narcissism can change as we get older, so, in fact, a study of adults could be clarifying. She added that a single study can never provide a very firm conclusion on anything.
Brummelman, the University of Amsterdam professor, said the trick to increasing your self-esteem without risking becoming a self-obsessed jerk is developing high-quality social relationships. There’s a theory that self-esteem evolved not because people want to feel good about ourselves, but because we want assurance that our relationships with other people are strong. Self-esteem, Brummelman posits, isn’t really about you; it’s “a reflection of how we think other people appreciate us.”
The old adage is that no one will love you until you love yourself. Perhaps it’s more like you can’t love yourself until others love you.