I’ve heard that narcissists (and multiple murderers) have too-high self-esteem. I’ve also heard that they have low self-esteem. Which assertion is right? Surely they can’t both be!
Self-esteem became a big topic of conversation in the 1980s. That’s when self-esteem programs for children were beginning to be taught in schools and preschools. There were many questions about them, some of which I asked when assigning a writer to a story about them. (I was an editor for a publication for childcare workers and daycare owners at the time.) Why do children need self-esteem programs? Doesn’t daily living foster self-esteem? What can self-esteem programs do that parents and teachers can’t or don’t? The writer seemed taken aback, but bravely tackled all those questions and wrote a fine article on the subject.
Later, the self-esteem movement came into disrepute and was the subject of much mocking and more authentic criticism. Chief among the things detractors made fun of were “participation trophies” given to every participant in a game or sport, spelling bee, or whatever other sort of competition. Complaints included that this negated the idea of competition altogether, falsely inflated children’s sense of accomplishment, shortchanged children who had truly excelled, and was a touchy-feely practice that had no place in the realm of sports or other competitive areas.
It was also thought that self-esteem programs were teaching the wrong lesson. Instead of learning that effort doesn’t always achieve the desired results, children were learning that everyone was as good as everyone else, which seemed like a mistake to some. Self-esteem programs were also said to lead children to the idea that the world was a kindly place where they would be rewarded just for existing. Instead, they should “toughen up” and learn that the world would deal them harsh blows at times and that they needed to be ready to cope with them. Debate continued about when and where such a lesson should be taught and even if it should be taught at all.
How does this relate to the aforementioned narcissists and toxic people? The two theories about their level of self-esteem seem contradictory and counterintuitive. Do they have low self-esteem? It doesn’t seem like it, the way they take control over others’ lives and manipulate them. Do they have high self-esteem? This sounds a little more plausible.
Reconciling the two theories is problematic. On the one hand, these people’s self-esteem seems to be too great, so they feel they are special and entitled to control other people who aren’t up to the same standard. On the other, their self-esteem might be too low, driving them to overcompensate for their lack by acting powerful and controlling others.
It seems unlikely that both of these mechanisms could apply to a single person. How could they feel genuinely powerful and compensate for being less powerful at the same time?
But, at its heart, true, healthy self-esteem isn’t about power. It’s about loving, accepting, and appreciating yourself for the good qualities that you do have. It’s about recognizing that your place in life is to be neither a doormat nor an idol. It’s about having confidence in yourself that you can face obstacles – though not conquering every obstacle – but knowing your limitations.
Does life teach self-esteem? It can, certainly, if a child is raised in a supportive, encouraging environment; if the child learns that both effort and accomplishment are possible; if the child has role models for self-esteem; and if good lessons about self-worth are taught in the home and at school.
Of course, we know that not all children are raised in such an ideal environment. Probably far too few are. Or children receive mixed messages about self-esteem from parents, schools, religion, and other places where they get training for life events: not to be unrealistically proud but to be proud of achievements; to be humble or to be confident; to be assertive or to obey authority; to share with others or to know what’s theirs and defend it; to cooperate or to take the lead.
Self-esteem is particularly difficult for those of us with brain illnesses or psychological disorders. We may feel broken, unsure of ourselves, and clueless about where we fit into society. In the grip of mania, we can feel ten feet tall and bulletproof. When we are depressed, we can feel worthless. In bipolar disorder, in particular, the two states can be encompassed in a single individual at different times.
But this is not to say that people with psychological challenges are all narcissists. Far from it. I would say that in every person, there are varying degrees of longing to have control and desire to relinquish control. It’s achieving a healthy balance of these two things that’s the real trick.