Since the 1970s, “self-esteem” has been a buzzword among parents, teachers, and psychologists. Parents hear that they need to instill self-esteem in children if they want them to grow up to be happy and productive adults. Educators believe self-esteem is a key to academic success, so they twist criticism into praise lest they bruise little ones' budding sense of self-worth. Further, therapists and life coaches advise clients with low self-esteem to just "fake it till you make it," as if a sense of self-worth comes from within rather than from without.
Plenty of research shows that there is a relationship between self-esteem and subjective well-being, or a general sense of happiness in life. Hence we understand the drive to build self-esteem in the next generation. While conceding that the intentions are good, however, Dutch psychologists Eddie Brummelman, Sander Thomaes, and Constantine Sedikides argue that the methods we often use to raise self-esteem may be creating a generation of monsters.
Among personality psychologists, there’s a longstanding debate about whether personality is stable or whether it changes over time. Some psychologists claim that personality traits are genetic and hence present at birth. We can call this the “solid” model—your personality may get nicks and dents as you go through life, but it keeps its overall shape. Other psychologists claim that your experiences shape your personality. We can call this the “fluid” model, since your personality molds itself to varying circumstances throughout the lifespan.
A third group of psychologists take a middle position. They maintain that personality is fluid in childhood but sets by adolescence or early adulthood. We can call this the “Jell-O” model of personality. If you believe that the way people behave as adults depends on how they were raised as children, then you subscribe to the Jell-O model. (Otherwise, you’d blame behavior on either genes or the current situation.)
Brummelman and his colleagues concede that there is some evidence for a genetic component to both self-esteem and narcissism. However, they also argue that the most important factor lies in childhood interactions with parents, teachers, and other significant adults. Although self-esteem and narcissism have some similar features, the researchers argue that they’re fundamentally different. Hence, in trying to instill self-esteem in our children, we may be encouraging narcissistic tendencies instead.
The received wisdom is that narcissism is just exaggerated self-esteem, but the researchers argue that the difference is far more than one of degree. Both self-esteem and narcissism are based on people’s perceptions of how others evaluate them. However, narcissists and those with high self-esteem view their social world differently, and this greatly colors the way they think about themselves and others.
Narcissists view their social world as vertical. There’s a pecking order, and everyone else is either above or below them. There are no equals. Thus, the goal of the narcissist is to get ahead—by hook or by crook—and he or she will use relationships to climb to the top.
Those with high self-esteem, however, view their social world as horizontal, where all members of the group are on an equal footing. They seek to get along, not get ahead. They build deep and intimate connections with other people. In other words, they view relationships as ends in themselves, not as a means to achieving supremacy or bolstering their fragile sense of self-worth.
In sum, narcissists view themselves as superior, whereas people with high self-esteem view themselves as worthy. Signs of both self-esteem and narcissism begin to appear at around age seven. This is a time when children begin developing a global sense of self as well as the social perception skills to judge how they compare with others, and how others view them. By adolescence, the Jell-O of personality sets into either a self-esteem or narcissism mold.
To test this theory, the researchers conducted a long-term study in which they measured children’s personality and observed the ways their parents interacted with them. They found that children who developed high self-esteem also had parents who expressed fondness and affection for them—but did not overly praise them. However, children who developed narcissistic tendencies had parents who showered them with praise and constantly compared them to other children who had accomplished less than they did. In a nutshell, parental warmth led to self-esteem, whereas parental overvaluation led to narcissism.
Brummelman and his colleagues propose several interventions to help children develop high self-esteem while avoiding narcissistic tendencies: First, they suggest that parents and teachers praise children for their accomplishments without comparing them to peers. The difference between “Great job!” and “You’re the best!” may be subtle, yet the first conveys worthiness—the core of self-esteem—while the second conveys superiority—the core of narcissism. Second, parents should nudge children away from narcissistic thinking by encouraging them to think about ways that they are similar to peers rather than superior to them.
A third intervention the researchers propose is aimed at children showing signs of low self-esteem. These children need the significant adults in their lives to help them properly interpret the remarks others make about them. People with low self-esteem, whether children or adults, tend to dismiss praise and dwell on criticisms. Elders need to reassure these children that they are worthy of the positive comments they receive and that they should take criticism as constructive feedback.
Proper care and feeding of children’s emerging sense of self puts them on the path toward healthy self-esteem—before the Jell-O of personality sets.
Brummelman, E., Thomaes, S., & Sedikides, C. (2016). Separating narcissism from self-esteem. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 25, 8-13.
David Ludden is the author of The Psychology of Language: An Integrated Approach (SAGE Publications).