Theories of Personality 9th Edition

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100 Part II Psychodynamic Theories

Distinguishing Narcissism as Striving for Superiority

versus Self-Esteem as Striving for Success

Perhaps Donald Trump sprang to mind when you read about Adler’s notion of
“Striving for Superiority.” The media have flooded the public with analyses of
Trump’s personality, and respected psychologists argue that he is a textbook case
of a narcissist (e.g., Howard Gardner, Harvard psychologist, in Vanity Fair).
Named after the Greek myth of Narcissus, a hunter who fell in love with his
own reflection in a pool of water, narcissism was discussed by Freud and many
other theorists, and today this construct is operationalized in psychology via
narcissism scales. High scores on such scales tend to reveal a personality that
feels superior to others and feels entitled to prestige and admiration from others.
Adler has been credited with making an important contribution to our understand-
ing of narcissism (Ansbacher, 1985). The historical record shows that Adler’s
idea of the “masculine protest” significantly influenced Freud’s theorizing regard-
ing narcissism. Furthermore, Adler’s personality theory provided a foundation
for our modern understanding that a narcissist is someone who lacks social inter-
est. If that doesn’t sound like Donald Trump to you, then perhaps you, yourself,
ought to look in the mirror.
For a narcissist, and for someone whom Adler believed is driven by a
striving for personal superiority, others’ welfare is of little to no concern. Such
a person’s striving is centered around being acknowledged as better than every-
one else, to be “the best.” But is this just healthy esteem seeking? There is a
common belief that narcissism is simply an exaggerated form of high self-esteem.
Don’t all people wish to win? Indeed modern American society places an espe-
cially high value on children’s self-esteem, and some psychologists have
expressed concern that American parents’ habit of praising their children for
being extraordinary is not enhancing healthy self-esteem (which, in Adler’s view,
would involve striving for success, but not at the expense of others) but rather
creating a generation of narcissists who feel entitled to privileges and lack humility
(e.g., Twenge & Campbell, 2009).
Brummelman, Thomaes, and Sedikides (2016) recently provided a theoretical
analysis of the distinction between narcissism and self-esteem that maps quite
nicely onto Adler’s perspective. For these psychologists, narcissism, a maladaptive
and unhealthy personality orientation, differs dramatically from self-esteem, an
adaptive and healthy approach to the self. They argue that both narcissism and
self-esteem have their origins in children’s internalization of regard from their
caregivers. However, this regard is characterized differently when it underlies nar-
cissism rather than self-esteem. That is, parental overvaluation leads to a core belief
that “I am superior to others.” In contrast, parental warmth leads to a core belief
that “I am worthy.” These two different core beliefs about the self are not equally
resilient. As the authors write, “Although everyone can be worthy, not everyone
can be superior” (Brummelman et al., 2016, p. 10). The precariousness of feelings
of personal superiority may account for the need many narcissists appear to have
for others to validate their superiority. And, indeed, Trump rallies during the elec-
tion campaign were nothing if not enormous platforms for a narcissist to receive
endless validation for his feelings of personal superiority.
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