High self-esteem or narcissism?

By David Joel Miller, MS, Licensed Therapist & Licensed Counselor.

a narcissist

Is he a Narcissist?
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.com

Trait or State Narcissism.

In the field of psychology, there has been a good deal of study of a personality dimension that psychologists call narcissism. The way the term trait narcissism is used is very different from the way mental health describes Narcissistic Personality Disorder. This difference has caused some problems when people look at the results of personality tests, theirs or other people’s, and see that there is a score for narcissism.

Trait narcissism is meant to be a measure of how good you feel about yourself. For most people, this trait will be relatively stable over time. State narcissism is how much you are thinking about your own needs now and can vary with the situation. Sometimes you should think about your needs first, and other times you need to include other’s needs in your calculations.

This difference between the way psychology defines narcissism and the way it is described in mental health and recovery literature has created a good deal of confusion.

High trait narcissism is mostly a good thing.

People with low self-esteem, score low on measures of trait narcissism. As your self-confidence and self-esteem rise, your scores on the narcissism inventory rise. People with high trait narcissism are likely to be extroverted, emotionally stable, and mentally healthy. High trait narcissism correlates with improved functioning and an increase in life satisfaction.

Only those at the extreme high-end of the scale begin to resemble those with malignant, pathological narcissism or Narcissistic Personality Disorder. How much is too much may be open to interpretation but in the tradeoff between low self-esteem and being highly Narcissistic being in the middle, balancing your needs with the needs of others is the healthiest place to be.

Trait narcissism is rising.

Worldwide there appears to be a rise in the levels of trait narcissism. This principally reflects the shift from Eastern collectivist cultures to the Western competitive, individualistic society. We have encouraged everyone to feel good about themselves by bolstering self-esteem, but despite these efforts, there is more depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. When you keep raising the standards for what you expect from people the result is not universal high self-esteem but a society where no one can measure up.

The concept trait narcissism is chiefly studied using verbal questionnaires and tests. This raises the question if everyone responding to these questionnaires understands the concept in the same way. To refine the research results, the trait of narcissism is often studied by separately analyze various subscales, each of those subscales is defined using other words.

The subscales of narcissism.

These various factors are used in measuring the level of narcissism a person has and the components of this condition. There has been some debate about whether these are all distinct factors or how much these concepts may overlap. Here are my thoughts, not specific diagnostic criteria.


When do you take command, insist on leading, and assume you are correct, and how much do you defer to the judgment of others. Do you always think you are right?


Do you think you can do everything? Do you always need someone else’s help? Can you balance self-sufficiency and cooperation?


Feeling better than others is not the same thing as confidence. No one is the best at everything, but highly narcissistic people think they are inherently superior.


More focus on looking good than on substance.


Balancing the search for applause with a tendency to do things specifically for attention.


Is there give and take in your relationship or are you all about getting what you need?


Do you accept that you need to work for what you get or do you feel that you are superior to others?

One interesting study examined the difference between people in the community who are high in trait narcissism and a group of prison inmates also high in narcissism. The subscale of Exploitivness mostly predicted which of those people who were high in trait narcissism would end up in prison.

More about Narcissists.

As we move through our series of Narcissism posts, feel free to ask questions, and leave comments. To help you find these posts, below are some links to point you in the right direction. Keep in mind that all the posts about narcissists appeared in the narcissism category but links to future posts will not be live until future posts appear.

Narcissism category.                          Personality disorders.

Narcissistic traits.                               Psychology. (coming soon)

Narcissistic relationship partner.        Relationships.

Self-esteem.                                        Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

David Joel Miller MS is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) and a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor (LPCC.)  Mr. Miller provides supervision for beginning counselors and therapists and teaches at the local college in the Substance Abuse Counseling program.


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