Distinctions between Self-Esteem and Narcissism



Even though a vast quantity of theory, research, and commentary on the construct of self-concept has been produced since William James first introduced the notion more than one hundred years ago, the construct and its manifestations remain elusive. As Harter (1983) points out, constructs that are related to the construct of self-concept are also usually described by hyphenated terms such as self-worth, self-esteem, self-assurance, and self-regard.

Bednar, Wells, and Peterson (1989) define self-esteem "as a subjective and realistic self-approval" (p. 4). They point out that "self-esteem reflects how the individual views and values the self at the most fundamental levels of psychological experiencing" (p. 4) and that different aspects of the self create a "profile of emotions associated with the various roles in which the person operates...and [that self-esteem] is an enduring and affective sense of personal value based on accurate self-perceptions." According to this definition, low self-esteem would be characterized by negative emotions associated with the various roles in which a person operates and by either low personal value or inaccurate self-perceptions.

Furthermore, Bednar et al. describe paradoxical examples of individuals of substantial achievement who report deep feelings of low self-esteem. The authors suggest that a theory of self-esteem must take into account the important role of an individual's "self-talk and self-thoughts" as well as the perceived appraisal of others (p. 11). They conclude that "high or low levels of self-esteem...are the result and the reflection of the internal, affective feedback the organism most commonly experiences" (p. 14). They point out that all individuals must experience some negative feedback from their social environment, some of which is bound to be valid. Thus a significant aspect of the development and maintenance of self-esteem must address how individuals cope with negative feedback.

Bednar et al. suggest that, if individuals avoid rather than cope with negative feedback, they have to devote substantial effort to "gain the approval of others by impression management, that is, pretending to be what we believe is most acceptable to others" (p. 13; italics theirs). If individuals respond to negative feedback by striving to manage the impressions they make on others to gain their approval, they also have to "render most of the favorable feedback they receive [as] untrustworthy, unbelievable, and psychologically impotent because of their internal awareness of their own facade" (p. 13). This preoccupation with managing the impression one makes on others is a behavior characteristic usually included in definitions of narcissism.

Developmental Considerations

For very young children, self-esteem is probably best thought to consist of deep feelings of being loved, accepted, and valued by significant others rather than of feelings derived from evaluating oneself against some external criteria, as in the case of older children. Indeed, the only criterion appropriate for accepting and loving a newborn or infant is that he or she has been born. The unconditional love and acceptance experienced in the first year or two of life lay the foundation for later self-esteem, and probably make it possible for the preschooler and older child to withstand occasional criticism and negative evaluations that usually accompany socialization into the larger community.

As children grow beyond the preschool years, the larger society imposes criteria and conditions upon love and acceptance. If the very early feelings of love and acceptance are deep enough, the child can most likely weather the rebuffs and scoldings of the later years without undue debilitation. With increasing age, however, children begin to internalize criteria of self-worth and a sense of the standards to be attained on the criteria from the larger community they observe and in which they are beginning to participate. The issue of criteria of self-esteem is examined more closely below.

Cassidy's (1988) study of the relationship between self-esteem at age five and six years and the quality of early mother-child attachment supports Bowlby's theory that construction of the self is derived from early daily experience with attachment figures. The results of the study support Bowlby's conception of the process through which continuity in development occurs, and of the way early child-mother attachment continues to influence the child's conception and estimation of the self across many years. The working models of the self derived from early mother-child inter-action organize and help mold the child's environment "by seeking particular kinds of people and by eliciting particular behavior from them" (Cassidy, 1988, p. 133). Cassidy points out that very young children have few means of learning about themselves other than through experience with attachment figures. She suggests that if infants are valued and given comfort when required, they come to feel valuable; conversely, if they are neglected or rejected, they come to feel worthless and of little value.

In an examination of developmental considerations, Bednar, Wells, and Peterson (1989) suggest that feelings of competence and the self-esteem associated with them are enhanced in children when their parents provide an optimum mixture of acceptance, affection, rational limits and controls, and high expectations. In a similar way, teachers are likely to engender positive feelings when they provide such a combination of acceptance, limits, and meaningful and realistic expectations concerning behavior and effort (Lamborn et al., 1991). Similarly, teachers can provide contexts for such an optimum mixture of acceptance, limits, and meaningful effort in the course of project work as described by Katz and Chard (1989).

Many teachers feel compelled to employ the questionable practices described above as strategies to help children who seem to them not to have had the kind of strong and healthy attachment experiences in their early years that support the development of self-esteem. While such children may not be harmed by exercises that tell them they are special or by constant praise and flattery, the argument here is that they are more likely to achieve real self-esteem from experiences that provide meaningful challenge and opportunities for real effort.

The Cyclic Nature of Self-Esteem

The relationships between self-evaluation, effort, and reevaluation of the self suggest a cyclic aspect to the dynamics of self-esteem. Harter (1983) asserts that the term self-worth is frequently used to refer to aspects of motivation and moods. High self-esteem is associated with a mood of cheerfulness, feelings of optimism, and relatively high energy. Low self-esteem is accompanied by feelings of doubt about one's worth and acceptability, and with feeling forlorn, morose, or even sad. Such feelings may be accompanied by relatively low energy and weak motivation, invariably resulting in low effort. In contrast, high self-esteem is associated with high energy, which increases effectiveness and competence, which in turn strengthen feelings of self-esteem and self-worth. In this way, feelings about oneself constitute a recursive cycle such that the feelings arising from self-appraisal tend to produce behavior that strengthens those feelings—both positive and negative.

The cyclic formulation of self-esteem is similar to Bandura's (1989) conception of self-efficacy, namely, processes by which perceptions of one's own capacities and effective action "affect each other bidirectionally" (p. 1176). In other words, effective action makes it possible to see oneself as competent, which in turn leads to effective action, and so forth. The same cycle applies to self-perceptions of incompetence. However, Bandura (1989) warns that a sense of personal efficacy [does] not arise simply from the incantation of capability. Saying something should not be confused with believing it to be so. Simply saying that one is capable is not necessarily self-convincing, especially when it contradicts preexisting firm beliefs. No amount of reiteration that I can fly will persuade me that I have the efficacy to get myself airborne and to propel myself through the air. (p. 1179)

This formulation of the dynamics of feelings about the self confirms the view that self-esteem merits the concern of educators and parents. Nevertheless, it also casts some doubt on the frequent assertion that, if children are somehow made to "feel good about themselves," success in school will follow. In other words, just because young children need to "feel good about themselves," telling them that they are special (e.g., because they can color) or that they are unique, and providing them with other similar flattery may not cause them to believe they are so or engender in them good feelings about themselves.

Dunn's (1988) view of the nature of self-esteem is that it is related to the extent to which one sees oneself as the cause of effects. She asserts that "the sense of cause [is] a crucial feature of the sense of self" and the essence of self-confidence is the feeling of having an effect on things and being able to cause or at least affect events and others. On the other hand, feeling loved by the significant others in one's environment involves feeling and knowing that one's behavior and status really matter to them—matter enough to cause them to have real emotion and to provoke action and reaction from them, including anger and stress as well as pride and joy.

Criteria of Self-Esteem

It is reasonable to assume that self-esteem does not exist in a vacuum, but is the product of evaluating oneself against one or more criteria and reaching expected standards on these criteria. These evaluations are unlikely to be made consciously or deliberately, but by means of preconscious or intuitive thought processes. It is likely that these criteria vary not only between cultures and subcultures, but also within them. The criteria may also vary by gender. Furthermore, the standards within a family, subculture, or culture that have to be met on these criteria may also vary by gender. For example, higher standards on a criterion of assertive-ness may be required for self-esteem in males than in females. In addition, the criteria against which the worth and acceptability of an individual are estimated may carry different weights across cultures, subcultures, and families, and for the sexes. Criteria may have different weighting for different families, some giving more weight in their total self-esteem to physical appearance, and others to personal traits or teacher acceptance, for example.

Criteria for self-esteem frequently employed in American self-concept research include physical appearance, physical ability, achievement, peer acceptance, and a variety of personal traits (Harter, 1983). As is indicated in the discussion below, Western and Eastern cultures vary in how the self is defined and the criteria against which the self is estimated. These sources of variation imply that some children are likely to have acquired criteria of self-esteem at home and in their immediate community that differ from those assumed valuable in the classroom and in the school.

One of the many challenges teachers face in working with young children of diverse backgrounds is to help them understand and come to terms with the criteria of self-esteem applicable in the class and school without belittling the criteria advocated and applied at home. While it is not appropriate for schools to challenge the criteria or standards of self-esteem of children's families, careful consideration of those self-esteem criteria advocated within the school is warranted.

To the extent that one's self-esteem is based on competitive achievement, it can be enhanced by identifying other individuals or groups who can be perceived as lower or inferior to oneself in achievement. If, for example, schools convey to children that their self-esteem is related to their academic achievement as indicated by the results of competitive grading practices, then a significant proportion of children, ipso facto, must have low self-esteem—at least on that criterion. In such a school culture the development of cooperation and intergroup solidarity becomes very problematic. Also, if competitive academic achievement is highly weighted among not only the school's criteria of self-esteem but also the criteria of the culture as a whole, a substantial proportion of school children may be condemned to feel inadequate. An adaptive response of children at the low end of the distribution of academic achievement might be to distance themselves from that culture and to identify and strive to meet other criteria of self-esteem, such as the criteria of various peer groups, that may or may not enhance participation in the larger society. To avoid these potentially divisive effects of such competitive and comparative self-evaluations, the school should provide contexts in which all participants can contribute to group efforts, albeit in individual ways. A substantial body of research indicates that cooperative learning strategies and cooperative goals are effective ways to address these issues (see Ames, 1992).

The matter of what constitute appropriate criteria of self-esteem cannot be settled empirically by research or even theory. These criteria are deeply imbedded within a culture, promoted and safeguarded by the culture's religious, moral, and philosophical institutions.

Although, as stated earlier, it is important to value an infant simply for the fact that he or she has been born, if criteria for self-esteem that are applied later in the child's life include characteristics that are present at birth—such as one's nationality, race, or gender—then the ability of all citizens to achieve self-esteem in a society of diverse groups, especially when one group is culturally or otherwise dominant, is problematic. Furthermore, as suggested above, if children are taught to base their self-appraisals on favorable comparisons of themselves with others, then the identification of inferior others, whether individuals or groups, may become endemic in a society. When the two tendencies—to base self-esteem on characteristics that are present at birth and to elevate one's self-appraisal by identifying others who are inferior on any given criterion—occur together in a society, conditions develop which are likely to support prejudice and oppression.

If, on the other hand, the criteria address personal attributes that are susceptible to individual effort and intention, such as contributing to one's community, then all citizens have the potential to achieve feelings of self-worth, self-respect, and dignity. Thus, while a person's nationality might not be an appropriate basis of self-esteem, accepting responsibility for the conduct of one's nation in the world and contributing to the welfare of one's nation might be appropriate bases for positive self-appraisal. In any case, the designation of appropriate criteria is not primarily the responsibility of educators, but of the moral institutions of the community and culture at large that educators are duty-bound to support.

This view that nationality in and of itself may be a faulty basis for self-esteem is not to deny the value and desirability of love of country or patriotism, both of which contribute to involvement in the country's welfare. Nor should this view be interpreted as belittling civic and national pride, which can motivate and mobilize efforts to work on behalf of one's community and country.

A related issue is the role of reflected glory in self-esteem, which has both apparently inappropriate and potentially beneficial effects. Should individuals' self-esteem be influenced by the performance of their hometown football team or their country's Olympic teams? According to research on "basking in reflected glory" (BIRGing) reported by Cialdini (1974, 1976), Lee (1985), and Kowalski (1991), the tendency to strengthen one's association with those who are visibly successful and to distance oneself from those who have experienced obvious failures as means of self-enhancement is a common phenomenon. Inasmuch as a sports fan makes no real contribution to the team's performance, that performance would seem to be an inappropriate source of either pride or shame and of fluctuations in the fan's self-esteem. On the other hand, the capacity to experience reflected glory and reflected shame might provide powerful motivation for community action. Action on behalf of one's community would seem to be a legitimate basis for self-esteem.

While the issues are complex, the main argument here is that if personal attributes that are present by virtue of birth alone, without individual effort and contribution, are a source of self-esteem beyond the first few years of life, individuals born without these attributes must see themselves as lacking or low in self-worth; therefore, such attributes seem to be inappropriate criteria for self-esteem.

Situational Determinants of Self-Esteem

Bednar, Wells, and Peterson (1989) state that there may be a "situated" as well as a "general" self-identity (p. 39), suggesting that self-esteem may vary from one interpersonal situation to another. In other words, although the overall context of experience may remain constant, changes in interpersonal situations can cause reassessments of the self. For example, a teacher might have a fairly high estimation of herself in the context of teaching her own class, but when the interpersonal situation changes by the entrance of a colleague or the principal or a parent, she may shift her estimation or self-rating—probably downward! Although the teacher is exactly the same person five minutes before the intrusion as she is five minutes afterwards, the change in self-esteem is created by the teacher herself when she attributes greater significance to the other's assessment of herself than to her own assessment. On the other hand, if the other person's assessment is based on greater knowledge, experience, and expertise, the teacher could consider herself informed or instructed by that assessment rather than simply accorded lower esteem.

Shifts in self-estimation based on the assessments of significant others may be developmentally appropriate for young children. In an adult, however, revision of self-estimation based on the perceived or imagined assessments of another adult that are at variance with one's own requires placing oneself in the role of child with respect to the other adult. The essence of self-esteem for mature adults is to take seriously the assessments of others, but not to take them more seriously than they take their own self-assessments.

While adults can seek contexts and interpersonal situations that maximize their self-esteem and can strive to avoid those that minimize it, children are at the mercy of the situations in which adults place them. Inasmuch as young children vary in background, abilities, culture, and so forth, a wide rather than narrow range of interpersonal situations should be provided for them. In other words, an early childhood program is most likely to enhance children's self-esteem and their capacities to deal with inevitable fluctuations in self-esteem when a variety of types of interpersonal situations is available to them.

Rosenholtz and Simpson (1984) addressed this issue in terms of the variety of dimensions of children's behavior to which teachers assign importance in a classroom. They define classes in which a limited range of child behavior is accepted, acknowledged, and rewarded as unidimensional. Multidimensional classes are those in which teachers provide a wide range of ways for children to contribute to and participate in the classroom life and in which a range of behavior is accepted, rewarded, and acknowledged. Rosenholtz and Simpson suggest that the unidimensional classroom limits opportunity for self-enhancement, and the multidimensional classroom makes it possible for many if not all pupils to find ways to enhance their feelings of self-esteem and self-worth. Multidimensionality in the classroom can be fostered when teachers include as part of the curriculum the kinds of projects described by Katz and Chard (1989) in which a wide range of activities of intellectual, social, aesthetic, and artistic value is included.

Cultural Variations

Markus and Kitayama (1991) point out that the construal of the self varies among cultures and that Americans and other Westerners typically construe the self as an independent, bounded, unitary, stable entity that is internal and private. On the other hand, they assert that in non-Western cultures such as those in Asia and Africa the self is construed as interdependent, connected with the social context, flexible, variable, external, and public. Westerners view the self as an autonomous entity consisting of a unique configuration of traits, motives, values, and behaviors. The Asian view is that the self exists primarily in relation to others, and to specific social contexts, and is esteemed to the extent that it can adjust to others, maintain harmony, and exercise the kind of restraint that will minimize social disruption.

According to Markus and Kitayama (1991), these contrasting culture-bound construals of the self have significant consequences for cognition, affect, and motivation. Asian children must learn that positive feelings about the self should derive from fulfilling tasks associated with the well-being of relevant others. On the other hand, Western children have to learn that the self consists of stable dispositions or traits and that "they must try to enhance themselves whenever possible...taking credit for success...explaining away their failures, and in various ways try to aggrandize themselves" (p. 242). Eventually American children must learn that "maintaining self-esteem requires separating oneself from others and seeing oneself as different from and better than others" (p. 242). According to this formulation, Americans cannot perceive themselves as better than others without describing the others as worse than themselves. When one's own self-esteem is the result of comparison processes, its maintenance may contribute to constant wariness of the risk of coming out poorly in such comparative assessments of self-worth. At worst, such sources of self-esteem may contribute to a need to identify lesser or inferior others—either individuals or groups. At best, they may contribute to excessive competitiveness and may distract individuals from giving their full attention to the tasks at hand, thereby depressing their learning and effectiveness. Developmental studies reviewed by Markus and Kitayama (1991) indicate that self-enhancement and self-promotion are perceived negatively in Japan and that, although not apparent in the early years, by fifth grade Japanese children have learned that it is unwise to gloat over their accomplishments or to express confidence in their own ability. Research indicates that as children are socialized in an interdependent cultural context, they begin to appreciate the cultural value of self-restraint and, furthermore, to believe in a positive association between self-restraint and other favorable attributes of the person not only in the social, emotional domains but also in the domains of ability and competence. (p. 242)

The distinctions between the Western independent and the non-Western interdependent construal of the self indicate that the sources of self-esteem are also distinctive. For Westerners, independent self-esteem is achieved by actualizing one's own attributes, having one's accomplishments validated by others, and being able to compare oneself to others favorably. In Asian and other non-Western cultures, self-esteem is related to self-restraint, modesty, and connectedness with others. Stevenson and his colleagues (Stevenson, Lee, Chen, Lummis, Stigler, Fan, & Ge, 1990; Stevenson, Lee, Chen, Stigler, Hsu, & Kitamura, 1990) have noted that American children appear to have more positive conceptions of their mathematical abilities than Asian children do, even though the latter actually perform much better than the former. Such findings must be interpreted in light of the cultural differences of the two groups. Asian children apparently learn early that pride in one's strengths is interpreted as gloating and is unacceptable; American children are encouraged to be proud of their accomplishments. Frequent exhortations to "feel good about oneself" and to see oneself as "special" may contribute to the unrealistic self-appraisals reported by Stevenson and his colleagues.

Along similar lines, Trafimow, Triandis, and Goto (1991) distinguish between private and collective aspects of the self, arguing that the private self is emphasized more in individualistic cultures such as in North America and parts of Europe and that the collective aspects of the self are emphasized more in collectivistic cultures such as those of East Asia. These contrasts suggest that, while self-esteem seems to be important in all cultures, it is achieved in diverse ways in different cultures.

The practices described earlier in this discussion that are intended to help children achieve and maintain high self-esteem (e.g., "All About Me" books and "I am Special" celebrations) may inadvertently cultivate narcissism—not in its pathological form as the term is used in psychiatric diagnoses, but as a general disposition. These school practices may be symptomatic of our larger culture, described by several observers as having many of the attributes of a narcissistic society (Lasch, 1979; Wallach & Wallach, 1985). Lowen (1985) claims that when success is more important than self-respect, the culture itself overvalues image and is narcissistic, and further that narcissism denotes a degree of unreality in individuals and the culture.

Our culture seems almost obsessed with the image one projects to others. Many of our political leaders use expressions like not wanting their actions "to appear to be improper" rather than not wanting them to be improper. At the beginning of the Gulf War crisis, President Bush said, "We have to appear to be strong" rather than that we have to be strong, suggesting that momentous decisions are based as much or more upon appearances than upon actualities. The term impression management has indeed entered into the national vocabulary!

A related manifestation of confusing images with reality is explored thoughtfully by Kakutani under the heading "Virtual Confusion: Time for a Reality Check." Kakutani (1992) points out that "ardent soap opera viewers routinely confuse their favorite characters with the actors who play them...and send 'CARE' packages to actors who play impoverished characters" (p. B2).



According to Lowen (1985), narcissism refers to a syndrome characterized by exaggerated investment in one's own image versus one's true self and in how one appears versus how one actually feels. Dispositions often mentioned in definitions of narcissism as being characteristic of narcissism include dispositions to behave in seductive and manipulative ways, to strive for power, and to sacrifice personal integrity for ego needs. Adults diagnosed as suffering from the narcissism syndrome often complain that their lives are empty or meaningless, and they often show insensitivity to the needs of others. Their behavior patterns suggest that notoriety and attention are more important to them than their own dignity.

According to Emmons (1987), narcissism is characterized by being self-absorbed, self-centered, or selfish, even to the extent that it "may lessen individuals' willingness to pursue common social objectives...[and] increase potential for social conflict...on a group level" such as occurs with "excessive ethnocentrism" (p. 11). As part of the definition of narcissism in adults, Emmons refers to the tendency to "accept responsibility for successful outcomes and deny blame for failed outcomes" (p. 11). According to some specialists, narcissism includes a preoccupation with fantasies about unlimited success, power, and beauty, plus a grandiose sense of self-importance. Raskin, Novacek, and Hogan (1991) interpret their experimental findings to mean that narcissistic behaviors are defenses against, or defensive expression of, threatening emotions such as anger, anxiety, and fear. Anger, hostility, and rage seem central to the emotional life of the narcissist; consequently, narcissistic behaviors may allow the expression of these emotions in a way that protects a sense of positive self-regard. (p. 917)

Narcissists are also sometimes described as exhibitionistic, requiring constant attention and admiration, often believing that they are entitled to special favors without the need to reciprocate. They tend to exploit others, to be seekers of sensations, experiences, and thrills, and to be highly susceptible to boredom. Many of these characteristics of narcissism seem to apply to our culture in general and to many of our youth in particular.

Wink (1991) suggests that narcissism takes at least two major forms. The classical form is indicated by excessive need for admiration, frequent exhibitionism, conceit, and a tendency toward open expression of grandiosity—commonly referred to as "being a bit too full of oneself." Wink calls the second form "covert narcissism," in which individuals "appear to be hypersensitive, anxious, timid, and insecure; but on close contact surprise others with their grandiose fantasies" (p. 591). They tend to be exploitative and to over-interpret others' behavior as caused by or directed to themselves rather than to others.

In sum, healthy self-esteem refers to realistic and accurate positive appraisals of the self on significant criteria across a variety of interpersonal situations. It also includes the ability to cope with the inevitability of some negative feedback. By contrast, unhealthy self-esteem, as in narcissism, refers to insensitivity to others, with excessive preoccupation with the self and one's own image and appearance in the eyes of others.

Continue to Appropriate Practices.

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