There’s a long standing belief, reinforced by books like The Narcissism Epidemic, that narcissists actually feel great about themselves, despite everyone’s suspicion—dating back to age old wisdom about schoolyard bullies—that no one who has to push people down to feel bigger than everyone else on the planet could possibly possess anything even approaching healthy self-regard.
Much of the “evidence” that narcissists have high self-esteem comes from a measure called the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, which includes items like “I am assertive” and “I’m a born leader.” Narcissists, who tend to score high on the NPI, claim to have terrific self-esteem and oodles of confidence on all or most of these items. Ergo, the researchers concluded, they must have high self-esteem.
The only problem is study after study shows that once you pull out the self-esteem heavy items on the NPI, nothing healthy is left.
Zilch. Nada. Bupkis.
Which stands to reason.
Would anyone gifted with truly high self-esteem need to insult others to feel superior, attack anyone who criticizes them, treat people like playthings, pick “trophy wives” and “trophy husbands” over loving partners, demand constant accolades or—in intimate relationships—perfect unwavering attention, and finally, devalue love and relationships? Because these are all features that NPI narcissists seem to proudly flaunt right along side their “high self-esteem.”
Savvier researchers recognized that the emperor had no clothes. Extroverted narcissists of the kind measured by the NPI say they’re great at everything, so it’s no surprise they’d claim to feel great about themselves, too. Which led one set of researchers to try something new. They hooked the narcissists up to a lie detector (fake), then asked them how they felt about themselves. Suddenly their high self-esteem vanished.
And psychologists didn’t stop there. They also devised new measures, ones that didn’t lump healthy self-esteem in with nasty habits like exploitation and entitlement. (That’s the solution I chose, by the way, for the NSS). Once again, what appeared to be healthy self-esteem vanished like Keyser Soze.
Perhaps the most damning evidence that narcissists are not, in fact, secure, is their open admission that they devalue caring relationships. Sorry narcissistic guys and gals, by definition, that’s about as insecure as it gets: it’s called insecure attachment (avoidant, to be precise).
So are narcissism and self-esteem the same? Not by a long shot.
And here I'm talking about why: