Why Narcissism and High Self-Esteem Aren't the Same Thing, According to Science
People with healthy self-esteem experience pride that usually includes descriptions of the effort that went into the goal–narcissists will explain an unearned, over the top pride, often because they think they're just naturally amazing. Jessica Tracy, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia who has spent much of her career researching pride, found this link over the course of several studies. "Feelings of authentic pride are related to having high self-esteem, while hubristic pride is related to narcissistic traits like entitlement, arrogance and egotism," says Tracy. Think of authentic pride as the way you feel when you've poured hours into a work presentation that goes really well, and hubristic pride as the bragging by the colleague who barely helped but got equal credit.
The positive kind of pride can be incredibly motivating. One classic example is students who aren't happy with their last test score studying harder for the next exam, and it can help you reach any kind of goal, from committing to three-times-a-week workouts to sticking to a budget so you can save for a down payment. "We've found no downsides with authentic pride," says Tracy. "These people are, on average, successful, creative, they have great relationships, and people look up to them."
Compare that with hubristic pride, and the fact that people who exhibit it, according to Tracy, don't have good relationships, and people generally don't like or respect them. (Shocking, we know.)
You might be wondering where the idea that there are two types of pride came from. Tracy and her colleagues asked people to list every word they associate with pride, including "accomplished, confident," "egotistic, self-righteous." After whittling away the outliers and plugging the remaining words into a computer program, the researchers got two distinct groups of pride-related words, "one with positive associations and one with negative," says Tracy. "That told us that people actually think about pride in two different ways."
It's possible to veer from the healthy kind of pride into the not so healthy one, says Tracy, which raises the question of how we keep that from happening. The strategy: Focus on what you've done to earn that feeling of pride and not on the feeling itself. "If you're just fixated on the feeling, it becomes easy to want to get it without putting in the hard work, to find the easier way, like athletes who dope to win," says Tracy. And when you see someone else exhibiting the not-so-flattering version, it can't hurt to remind yourself that narcissism doesn't look good on anyone, including you.