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Is it narcissism to think you are better than other people at something? Is it self-esteem to just regard yourself as one of the herd?
Headlines this week have blared “How Parents Create Narcissist Children” and “Do Parents Nurture Narcissists By Pouring On The Praise?” They are reporting on “Origins of Narcissism in Children,” a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The authors surveyed children and parents over some years to test whether “narcissism” was associated with parental praise (as social learning theory predicts) or with a lack of parental warmth (as Freudian psychoanalysis predicts). They found positive correlations between narcissism and excessive parental praise and between self-esteem and parental warmth.
The takeaway is that parents would do better to give children general love and warmth, and to praise real accomplishments and virtuous traits, such as hard work, rather than saying things like “you are so special” and “you are the best.”
But people often are special in some respect. And every single person is immensely and uniquely valuable to himself.
"Self-esteem basically means you're a person of worth equal with other people," said one of the authors, Brad Bushman ( quoted in the NPR Shots blog ) "Narcissism means you think you're better than other people."
But as Ayn Rand and Nathaniel Branden argued , self-esteem is fundamentally a conviction that one is competent to live and that one is morally worthy of pursuing happiness. It is the sense of “I can do it” and “I am worth it” that underlies our daily get-up and go and our commitment to be the best person we can be.
Fundamentally, self-esteem has nothing to do with other people. In fact, basing one's valuation of one's self on others is what Rand decried as “social metaphysics”—substituting other people's thoughts for reality itself. The standard for judging oneself (which is half of the practice of pride) is one's own capacities and needs. The standard for moral ambitiousness (which is the other half of practicing pride) is the universal principles of ethics.
It is this sense of fundamental self-worth and competence that parents should help their children develop. And in this context, the advice to refrain from offering much socially comparative praise or blame is sound.
But then, some people (including children) are sometimes better than their peers at something. It isn't narcissism to recognize however one falls in social comparisons; it's objectivity to recognize the facts, whatever they are. It's narcissism to insist that one is the best when one is not. Just as it's a vice, too, to think oneself humble and second-rate, when one is not.
Bushman's insistence that self-esteem consists in viewing ourselves as identical to others would be destructive if put into practice. We are self-authoring individuals, and we each need a selfish sense in our hearts that we matter without regard for our standing in society. We are each unique: we cannot be the same as everyone else. And self-esteem isn't about those others anyway.