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.”
Read: The persistent myth of the narcissistic Millennial
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.
Read: How to spot a narcissist online
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.