It’s often said that there’s a fine line between being confident…and being cocky. We admire those we find assertive and opinionated, but we tend not to warm to people who are egotistical and boastful.
That’s probably why we sometimes confuse confidence and narcissism. When does a healthy self-belief tip over into self-obsession?
In fact, confidence and narcissism have very little to do with each other — and a growing body of research backs this up.
Confidence and Narcissism Are Actually Nothing Alike
Let’s start with some essential definitions to understand why confidence and narcissism aren’t alike.
According to Psychology Today, narcissism, which exists on a spectrum, “is characterized by a grandiose sense of self-importance, a lack of empathy for others, a need for excessive admiration, and the belief that one is unique and deserving of special treatment.”
Self-esteem or self-confidence relates to your overall opinion of yourself, according to Mayo Clinic. A healthy level of self-esteem means “you feel good about yourself and see yourself as deserving the respect of others.”
“Confidence is believing in yourself — your talents and abilities,” explains Talkspace therapist Elizabeth Hinkle, LMFT. On the other hand, “narcissism includes an exaggerated sense of self and what you’re capable of, often having an expectation of admiration from others while lacking in empathy for others.”
Put another way, 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,” Dr. Eddie Brummelman, an assistant professor at the University of Amsterdam, told The Atlantic.
He added: “Narcissism is very much about feeling superior to other people.”
From anger to social comparisons: the traits of narcissism vs confidence
Elizabeth Hinkle says that we often assume someone with narcissism is confident. But she says that’s a misconception. “It’s difficult to understand that people with narcissism deep down do not generally have positive feelings about themselves or healthy self-esteem.”
A 2018 paper shed more light on the qualities of narcissism in comparison to confidence. The research analysed the traits of narcissism against self-esteem. It found that both were related to agency, assertiveness, positive emotions and a drive for rewards.
“But that’s essentially where the similarities ended,” Kaufman summarized in Scientific American. “In fact, narcissism and self-esteem differed on 63% of the other traits that were assessed.”
The authors concluded: “Unlike self-esteem, narcissism was related to callousness, grandiosity, entitlement, and demeaning attitudes towards others.”
Some of the other trait-specific findings included:
- Self-esteem is more strongly linked to conscientiousness and perseverance
- Narcissists are more antagonistic; those with healthy self-esteem are agreeable
- Narcissism is linked to feeling and expressing anger
- Narcissists are more prone to arguing and social comparisons
Interestingly, narcissists feel central to their social networks, and they perceive other people in their network as narcissistic, neurotic, and disagreeable. On the other hand, self-esteem is related to feeling close to others in their social network, and perceiving them as intelligent, likeable, and kind.
What’s more, self-esteem was strongly linked to lower levels of anxiety and depression. Narcissism only weakly related to those outcomes. It was more linked to antisocial behavior, substance misuse, and aggression.
Can Self-Esteem Lead to Narcissism?
If self-esteem means believing in yourself, and narcissism is having an exaggerated sense of self, then could self-esteem or confidence eventually lead to narcissism? If your self-esteem over-develops, are you at risk of becoming a narcissist?
It’s understandable to think that. “For many years, psychologists and the media alike have treated narcissism as representing ‘inflated self-esteem’, or ‘self-esteem on steroids’,” Scott Barry Kaufman wrote in Scientific American.
However, this isn’t true. In fact, there’s a growing body of evidence to support the idea that higher self-esteem does not lead to narcissism.
A recent study published in December 2019 in the Journal of Research in Personality addressed the question: Does high self-esteem foster narcissism? The researchers carried out a survey of 158 workers, measuring self-esteem, narcissistic admiration, and rivalry over the course of a year.
“The researchers 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,” observed The Atlantic.
The researchers 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 The Atlantic. “They seem to be quite separate states.”
Nurturing self-confidence in childhood
It is thought that both narcissism and self-confidence emerge at around eight years old, according to Dr Brummelman. He investigated the origins of narcissism in children for a 2015 paper.
Speaking to The Atlantic, he surmised that “parents who treat their children like they’re more special and entitled than others might nurture the children’s narcissistic tendencies.” Whereas cultivating healthy self-esteem requires parents to value their children for who they are, explaining that they don’t have to be unique to be accepted and loved.
“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.”
Are They a Narcissist, or Just Confident?
If you suspect someone in your life is a narcissist, Dr. Perpetua Neo, DClinPsy, suggests asking the following questions:
- How do they respond to others’ success?
- Do they truly promote others’ growth?
- Do they truly have empathy and compassion?
- Are they open to others having different opinions, and for their own opinion to change?
- Are they able to acknowledge how luck and privilege have factored in their lives?
- Are they able to respect boundaries?
- Are they okay with their vulnerabilities?
In conclusion, remember that having a healthy confidence and sense of self does not make you narcissistic. “You can feel good about yourself while still respecting and empathizing with others and have an, ‘I’m okay, you’re okay’ approach,” says Hinkle.
She says therapy can help develop self-confidence “by exploring your expectations of yourself, old messages you may have received about yourself, and ways to adjust these expectations. Talking to a therapist can give you an understanding of the automatic and distorted ways you could be perceiving yourself.”
If you wonder whether your confidence truly comes from an authentic, positive place or is perhaps less benign, sharing your concerns with a licensed online therapist can be an excellent way to sort out these differences.