Self-Esteem, Narcissism, and Boulder-Pushing
By Leighton Pu
One Greek myth tells the story of a man named Sisyphus, who was condemned to an eternal afterlife of boulder-pushing for escaping death twice. Regardless of his efforts, he has and never will get the boulder to the top of the mountain. Anyone trying to attain high self-esteem may feel as though they suffer the same punishment. Though everyone not named Sisyphus has the potential to reach the mountain’s peak, everyone including Sisyphus is at risk of making missteps or falling back down the mountain. Pushing a boulder along the hard-to-navigate path towards high self-esteem at the top consists of many opportunities to take missteps into narcissism.
It’s difficult to differentiate between narcissism and self-esteem; both are centered around positive views of oneself. As such, every boulder-pusher wrestles with what exactly they should be working towards and to achieve something Sisyphus never will.
To properly identify a boulder-pusher’s goal, the differences between narcissism and self-esteem must be parsed out. One study teased apart narcissism and high self-esteem by asking individuals to rate themselves relative to the average person on agentic (relating to one’s self) traits, such as intellect, and communal (relating to a group or community of people) traits, like morality. Individuals with high self-esteem (HSE) rated themselves higher than average for agentic and communal traits. However, narcissists rated themselves as higher than average only for agentic traits. Though differences in self-perception between HSE individuals and narcissists are subtle, they translate into resoundingly different manifestations in the social scene.
HSE individuals consider social relationships as collaborative efforts and believe their social network involves people with desirable characteristics (e.g. kindness, intelligence). On the flipside, narcissists approach social relationships as Stanford students approach Hungry Hungry Hippos, a mentally taxing game in which one person sits at the top, superior to everyone in their social network.
Narcissists take the same game-playing approach in their romantic endeavors. A study that surveyed former dating partners of narcissists found a pursuit of power facet in “game-playing” unique to narcissists in romance. It also determined narcissists focus more on themselves than their partners or relationship as a whole and exhibit lower levels of empathy than non narcissists.
All things considered, it isn’t appealing to be a narcissist. But how does one achieve high self-esteem without becoming narcissistic? Eddie Brummelman, a professor at the University of Amsterdam, has a message to the boulder-pushers of the world: high quality social relationships are key. That to achieve higher self-esteem and a healthier self view, one must build relationships with people they confidently believe view them highly. So if that boulder ever pushes back, bring along some high quality friends to help you conquer the mountain.
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