There are a variety of misconceptions that float around out there about self-esteem.
A common one is that self-esteem is the same thing as “ego” or “narcissism.” That people who have unearned, unrealistic perceptions of themselves and who behave in an entitled, arrogant way suffer from an excess of “self-esteem.”
Nothing could be further from the truth.
The fact of the matter is, people who demonstrate narcissistic characteristics have trouble truly “esteeming” anyone or anything, including themselves.
The essence of self-esteem is honesty and respect. When we have genuinely high, healthy self-esteem, we respect ourselves (and treat ourselves with respect), and this respect is borne out of honesty and genuineness. One of the essential characteristics of genuine self-esteem is that it is borne out of unrelenting, uncompromising honesty; that is, the esteem in which we hold ourselves is derived from a genuine, uncompromising appraisal of ourselves and the world in which we live.
That is to say, dodging and overlooking the facts of reality, as we perceive an understand them, is fundamentally inimical to self-esteem. To develop real self-esteem is to make a firm, no-questions asked approach to honesty with one’s self and others.
Narcissists, by contrast, do not approach the appraisal of self and world with uncompromising commitment to honesty.
If you’ve ever known any narcissists, you know that no one can hold a candle to their uncanny ability to twist and mold facts to reflect their warped, self-serving version of reality.
At the core of narcissism is a sense of entitlement. In fact, the diagnostic criteria for narcissism specifies that narcissists experience a sense of entitlement that is disproportionate to any objective achievements or earned accomplishments.
Narcissists like to pretend they have expertise. When you try to pin them down on the limits of their expertise, they tend to get annoyed. “How dare you question my authority?” Or, in the more charming variants of the narcissistic disease, it becomes, “If you dare to question my authority, it’s evidence of your own lack of faith.”
Let me be very clear: questioning things is a sign of high, healthy self-esteem.
Questioning is a mark of healthy self-esteem because it indicates that you are not willing to subvert the functioning of your magnificent mind to the passive influence of someone else— that is, you’re unwilling to go on autopilot. Thinking for yourself is one of the fundamental traits of people who maintain high self-esteem, whereas going on autopilot is something that tends to be incredibly damaging to self-esteem over the long term.
Questioning things is not a sign of “lacking faith.” In fact, it is the sign of someone looking to form a more intelligent, durable sense of faith, because concepts worth having faith in can withstand some skepticism.
If you want high, healthy self-esteem, I’m telling you: question things at every turn. Question qualifications. Question processes. Question conclusions.
(Yes, even with things I write…especially with things I write!)
If your goal is to develop high, healthy self-esteem, and if you do your due diligence and learn with self-esteem actually is, you’ll realize that there is little danger with conflating egotism and narcissism on the one hand with true self-esteem on the other. In fact, doing the things you need to do to develop high, healthy self-esteem almost guarantees you’ll stay away from the fundamental characteristics of the narcissistic disease.
Narcissists tend to discredit and mock the accomplishments of others. The accomplishments and credentials of others are endlessly threatening to narcissists. Whereas people with genuinely high self-esteem acknowledge and celebrate the expertise and accomplishments of others, because they represent not threat to them— genuine self-esteem is secure and confident in its own value.
Narcissists tend to offer vague justifications for their opinions and pronouncements. They don’t want you thinking too deeply about how they know what they know. Genuine self-esteem welcomes scrutiny, debate, and questioning, because it is committed to honesty, examination and reflection.
Genuine self-esteem only exists in an environment in which reality is respected, truth is valued, and scrutiny is the norm. Narcissists often do everything they can to keep things hazy, vague, and superficial.
The good news is, narcissists can only function as long as people stay ignorant of what all is involved in the development and maintenance of genuine self-esteem.
Once people understand that self-esteem is all about living consciously, treating oneself with respect and compassion, respecting the boundaries of oneself and others…they realize that they have little room in their lives for the bullying of narcissists.
They realize narcissists really don’t have much to offer them.
They realize narcissism only flourishes in environments of obfuscation and codependence.
They realize they can be free of narcissists— and they don’t need anyone’s permission to liberate themselves.