Self-Esteem or Narcissism?

People have always disagreed about importance of self-esteem. William James (1842-1910) introduced the idea over 100 years ago. Albert Ellis (1913-2007) criticized the idea as being unrealistic, illogical and self-destructive. Abraham Maslow (1909-1970) believed positive self-esteem increases our ability to treat other people with respect, kindness and good-will resulting in better relationships. Recently several writers have been comparing positive self esteem with narcissism.  It is important to distinguish between the two. How we understand these two different concepts affects how we raise children. 

Healthy Self-Esteem

Unconditional love and acceptance from adults are the birthright of every newborn child and are how healthy self-esteem begins.  When infants and children receive unconditional love and acceptance during those years they develop the ability to accept normal healthy limits/boundaries. Knowing they are loved helps them stand up to negative perceptions and treatment from others. Adults who are attuned to and respond well to children raise children who feel seen, heard and validated. These children develop a realistic sense of self and have healthy self-esteem.


Narcissism is a normal part of every human being. Freud argued that normal narcissism is necessary to sustain life.  Toddlers go through a normal stage of high narcissism. Due to immature brains they believe they are the center of the world so things “should” be their way.  Adolescents go through another normal stage of high narcissism.  Again, due to brains that are not fully developed they believe they have “the answers” to every problem. Normal narcissism increases in all of us during conflict when we feel a need to assert and protect ourselves.

Unhealthy Narcissism

Narcissism that is a serious problem develops during the preschool and adolescent years. Childhood trauma often causes narcissism. A child who is abused may begin to believe he is “bad”.  This child cannot develop healthy self-esteem so needs more narcissism for self protection. Narcissism can also begin when parents give children unrealistic praise. These parents are not attuned to their children and pressure them to be someone they are not. When children are praised for skills or talent they don’t have, they feel less secure and develop narcissism. If a child is pressured unrealistically she becomes insecure and anxious. In order to cover that up the child develops narcissism.

Development of Healthy Self-Esteem

Healthy self-esteem developed through positive, attuned parenting allows children to gradually discover who they are. When children are raised in a patient, loving manner they are appreciated as individuals who will become different from their parents. Parents who understand this can love their children as they are. One could conclude that healthy self-esteem prevents unhealthy narcissism.  Or that low self-esteem increases unhealthy narcissism.

The range of Narcissism

It is best to picture a range of narcissism. At one end is normal narcissism and at the other end is pathological narcissism.  People with a higher degree of narcissism can become leaders but they may fail because they can be unrealistic. Some develop schemes based on illusions and cannot admit their mistakes. Those with higher levels of narcissism are not comfortable with their own emotions so it is difficult for them to develop helpful relationships. They don’t want to listen to others and don’t want to know what others think of them. Narcissists are unable to cope with people who have different opinions and they cannot be empathetic. Today’s business world is promoting the need for “emotional competencies” and teaches that successful leaders need to be able to be empathetic.

Differences Between Healthy Self-Esteem and Narcissism

Narcissism results in envy and arguments, while self-esteem results in compassion and cooperation. Narcissists need to dominate, while people with self-esteem recognize equality. Narcissists must feel above others, while those with positive self-esteem can be humble. Narcissists cannot cope with criticism, while those with self-esteem can manage the feelings they have from feedback. Narcissism makes it necessary to pull others down in order to stand above them. Healthy self-esteem leads to knowing every human being as a person of value.

Normal Narcissism with Healthy Self-Esteem

People with normal narcissism have healthy self-esteem and are secure within themselves. They don’t have to feel superior or above others. Those with normal narcissism and healthy self-esteem are highly empathetic and can love unconditionally. They can be humble and admit their mistakes. Although we can all be self-centered or selfish occasionally it does not last in those with normal narcissism and healthy self-esteem.

Importance of Healthy Self-Esteem

Healthy self-esteem is necessary for survival as it helps us protect ourselves from normal anxieties. It gives us the feeling that we are a valuable member of a meaningful universe. Healthy self-esteem allows us to give compassion and empathy to others. Awareness that our time on earth is short helps us realize that everything we do is important. Building healthy self-esteem helps us build beyond ourselves. As we do that we build community and equality among our fellow human beings.

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