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Narcissism and self-esteem are two terms that relate to a person's self-perception and resultant behavior. Though they may sound superficially similar, narcissism and self-esteem are actually nearly opposite patterns of thought and behavior. While narcissism involves an unrealistically high self-perception and the driving desire for attention and admiration, healthy self-esteem a realistically balanced view of the self, and a desire to receive attention only through merit.
One of the key distinctions between narcissism and self-esteem is how well self-perception holds up to reality. The narcissistic person will assert his or her talents, achievements, and goals without reference to the objective reality of the situation. For instance, a narcissistic person might be certain he or she is the best runner on a track team, despite coming in fourth in every race. A person with healthy self-esteem is able to accurately judge his or her abilities, and does not tend to allow flights of fancy to vastly and unrealistically inflate expectations.
Another important difference between narcissism and self-esteem is how failure or disappointment is managed. With healthy self-esteem, a person may be able to look at a poorly resolved situation and discover ways in which he or she could have done better. Additionally, good self-esteem can prevent a person from allowing a failure to destroy or threaten overall self-image; while disappointment may occur, it does not drastically skew the person's view of him or herself. One of the most classic signs of narcissism is the inability to accept blame for failures. With a precious self-image under threat, the narcissist is likely to become defensive and seek ways to blame others.
How a person regards and treats others can also be important to distinguishing narcissism and self-esteem. Since a narcissist tends to view him or herself as the paramount concern, others may appear as pawns or tools to be used, rather than equally important individuals. A narcissist may be quick to drop friends or family members that do not give the required amount of praise or admiration or have skills in competition with his or her own. Narcissists may also be prone to lying or manipulating others to get what they want, since their own advancement is often their primary consideration. While a person with healthy self-esteem is unlikely to accept poor treatment, he or she may be better able to view other people as equals, and treat them with the same measure of respect and ethics they desire for themselves.