Narcissism or Big Ego? How to Tell the Difference

Most of us exhibit mild traits of narcissism; a certain degree of self interest is healthy and demonstrates good psychological health. Freud wrote that healthy narcissism is an essential part of normal development. We all start out life as narcissistic infants, completely self-absorbed and ruled by impulses. Infants, obviously, are incapable of anything more. Hopefully, as you gain a sense of others, you outgrow your narcissism.

Other people demonstrate more moderate traits of narcissism. Some of the traits of narcissism –such as inflated sense of self-confidence, arrogance and egocentrism are frequently attributed to people with a “big ego”. But how can you tell if a person “just has a big ego” or if that person has crossed the line into the realm of narcissism?

Some Narcissists can Function Well

Narcissists can be great performers in their chosen field because their exaggerated sense of self-confidence spurs them on to succeed. They need to show the world just how important they really are. If they are not only functioning, but functioning at a top level in their field, they probably will never get diagnosed as having Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Our society puts a high value on personal success and makes allowances for those who are high achievers.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder is often under-diagnosed as many high functioning individuals are just considered people with big egos due to their successes. Furthermore, our society commonly associates personality disorders and psychiatric conditions as having a negative impact on a person’s ability to perform or function normally. Indeed, that is often one of the criteria for a diagnosis in many mental health conditions.

Diagnostic Considerations

According to the Diagnostic Statistics Manual (DSM-IV, TR), considered the bible for diagnosing mental health conditions, a person has Narcissistic Personality Disorder if they exhibit five or more of the following:

  • A grandiose sense of self importance; e.g., exaggerates achievements and/or talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements
  • Preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty or ideal love
  • Believes that he or she is special and unique; feels that he or she can only associate with other special or high-status people (or institutions), or can only be understood by other special people
  • Requires excessive admiration
  • Strong sense of entitlement; i.e., unreasonable expectations of favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations
  • Is interpersonally exploitive; i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends
  • Lacks empathy; is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others
  • Demonstrates arrogant, haughty behaviors and/or attitudes

The line between healthy narcissism and pathological narcissism is often a blurry one. After reading the list, it is safe to say you probably know several people who meet those criteria. Some of them may fall just short of meeting the criteria but do exhibit many of the traits of narcissism, and others may be undiagnosed Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

Subtypes

There are some researchers who argue that there are 3 main subtypes of narcissism:

Grandiose or malignant narcissism (characterized by anger, manipulativeness, thirst for power, exaggerated self importance
Fragile narcissism (characterized by grandiosity as a defensive function-feelings of inadequacy, anxiety and loneliness)
High-functioning/exhibitionistic narcissism (characterized by individuals being self important, articulate, energetic and outgoing

The third subtype is the most elusive and most likely to be confused with people who ” just have a big ego”. They have good adaptive functioning skills and use their narcissistic traits as motivation to succeed. They often can pass as “normal” (or within the normal range) despite their arrogance, self centeredness and difficulty with lasting relationships. Think of CEO’s of big companies, lead singers in bands, or top entertainers in general. I am not saying every CEO or every rock star, or so on is a narcissist (or even has a big ego, although most truly successful people do have a solid, positive ego). So how do you tell the difference?

Differences between a Big Ego and Narcissism

A big ego, which includes high self-confidence and realistic expectations, is generally healthy (perhaps annoying, but healthy none-the-less). Narcissism involves exaggerated self-confidence, an inflated view of one’s abilities and unrealistic expectations of themselves and others. A big ego is not a bad thing. It is based on realistic successes, solid self esteem, and the ability to get through times of difficulty regarding achieving your goal (such as hard work or rejection). People with big egos are able to go with the flow, they can stay focused on their goals and keep a healthy perspective. They don’t fall into episodes of hopelessness when they meet with failure or have feelings of invincibility when they are victorious. They are able to persevere in the face of adversity.

Narcissists, on the other hand, show an excessive degree of self-absorption. A narcissist sees the world and everything that happens to him or her through that self-centered lens. They have little regard for spouses, children and friends. They cannot handle criticism and cannot persevere through difficult times; their fragile ego does not allow this. They do fall into feelings of hopelessness or rage if they encounter failure or rejection, and they do feel invincible when they meet with victory.

Conclusion

We all start out as narcissistic infants and we retain a certain degree even as we grow and develop; hopefully, as we progress in our personal development we outgrow our narcissism.
Although there are important differences, sometimes it is difficult to distinguish a high-functioning narcissist from someone with “just a big ego”. The two are interrelated. Every narcissist has a big ego but not every person with a big ego is a narcissist.

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About Alexander Burgemeester

12 Responses to “Narcissism or Big Ego? How to Tell the Difference”

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  1. Tempe says:

    This is one wonderful article. Especially where you say “unrealistic expectations of themselves and others” and “they don’t (the big-ego people) fall into episodes of hopelessness” and “a n. sees the world through his self-centered lens” and “they have little regard for spouses, children, and friends”. I have been wondering for a while if my husband has npd. Now, I think it is clear. Your article really helped me get to this point. Thanks!

  2. Vladimir says:

    Thanks for the beautiful article.
    Just, I’m not sure, I don’t understand one thing: what kind is narcissistic ego? Is it big or small, is it tough or fragile? Please, can you make more details on this?
    Your title says “Narcissism or big ego”. This implies that they have small ego.
    Thanks a lot!

  3. Jenny says:

    I would really appreciate some feedback of whether showing this article to my brother (who despays all of the above criteria of being a narcissist) would be a good idea….he is causing havoc at the moment with our family business and is getting himself and us into trouble further afield. I’m afraid he is heading for a hard fall…would it do more harm than good?

  4. cheryle says:

    I experienced the narcissist’s ego as big – never small.
    He had a very big ego, and in the beginning I was drawn to his self-esteem and out-going nature. (paradoxically, his ego seemed both strong and fragile) Say what you aren’t supposed to say,
    and that fragile ego can become enraged. But, I believe its strength depends on the constant admiration of other people that provide that supply
    Only as much time went by, did I begin to understand the true picture.
    A big ego can perhaps be annoying sometimes, but often not unhealthy ~
    it usually isn’t terribly destructive and malicious.
    They need SUPPLY, in the form of admiration, adulation, ~ it is like they “feed” on other decent “selves”, emulate them, and make use of them, until they can get no more use from them, or the other person confronts them with the mind boggling truth they’ve discovered about the narcissist.
    Only then, do they discard, and they usually have numerous others as back-up supply, while looking for new “prey” all the time. However, they are not emotionally attached to anyone on any level, in a way that they would experience true empathy or remorse from any wrongs they have done. They don’t change……they just move on…..
    He would often project on to me, if I dare question him, or try to assert any of my “rights” in the relationship – that if I could just “keep my ego in check”, all would be fine. That was just the beginning of a very degrading devaluation ~ they are locked in a highly destructive pattern of blaming and accusing others of not being “self-aware”!
    When I came to the awareness that his “self” was false, I had a break down.
    (however I escaped – this was the second time – he had promised counseling, but he reneged, saying, “So WHAT if I said we’d get counseling…it doesn’t matter.”)
    The relationship must be on their terms – they are always right. Always.
    You cannot express any dissent, question, or try to be intimate in any way, or you may face the narcissistic rage. (or be ignored, “gas-lighted”, etc.)
    The one I knew demanded “unconditional cooperation”, and respect.
    I was altered in a way I am still trying to recover from.
    Narcissists can damage others, even those who profess to love them
    dearly ~ especially those that attempt to love them.
    A narcissist, as the article explains, is so much more than just a big ego….
    and so much more dangerous to the human mind and heart.
    c.

    • marie says:

      Dear c,

      Sorry for what you’ve been through, I was in the same boat. We both know you’ve cried a lot deeply, here’s a way to shift all that hurt & pain. Perphaps before you met your N you had some emotional block and they did a clearing of that blockage…we are the Lucky ones, its inevidible that the N will get sick and loose there looks. You on the other hand are cleared for New delight.
      Best to your heart~
      M
      P.s. don’t call him or her to thank them!!

  5. Linda says:

    My narc was someone who adored and could not get enough of me until he got me hooked. He could never admit to any wrongdoing, plus he projected his mess onto me. He would call me crazy among other things. If i questioned why things changed he would go off and cause and cause more emotional turmoil. He also thought he was so important and had these delusions of grandeur that did not match up to his customer service job providing phone support. I realized a change which I now know as being devalued to be discarded. I will never allow someone to have that much control over a relationship again. I was anxious all the time because he would choose to give me the silent treatment whenever. He was also a wordsmith and plagiarist. I feel somewhat devalued but my self worth is not tied up in this guy. I called him out on his grandiose persona. He raged against me and ended communication. In hindsight that was definitely for the best. Had I had my bearings I would have already walked away. Healing is my top priority. Just had to vent.

  6. playsmart says:

    When faced with reality, there are two options, leave or play the game. Well, I’ve learned to play the game. I know what is normal behavior and what’s not. What’s acceptable and what is annoyingly sick. I’m positioned now, and that arrogant, narcissistic, egotistical nastiness does not get the best of me. I am in control by not falling prey of this bullying behavior and making sure that if I start getting angry or emotional, I remember that I am in control. Nobody else. And I win. I show myself I can be the level headed adult in the relationship, constantly reminding myself that I an dealing with a forever imature individual, damaged either when conceived or while growing up. I see it clearly now. And it’s freeing, empowering, rejuvenating. I have a goal. And nothing will deviate me from it. Only death.

    • Jeanna says:

      I can relate to everything you said. I too am recovering from this type of treatment. I’ve been with my husband for 12 yrs now and we live apart but comunicate daily again but I keep my distance for my own sanity and we get along better because he has a limited control over me. Its like we are in the first stages of dating and just getting to know each other. This is as far as anyone would want to get in a relationship with these types of people or they will tear you down. I refused to be a victim and it quit being fun to him. Its like hit me with your best shot. No reaction. No fun for them then they find something more normal to occupy their time.

  7. Samantha Wright says:

    My understanding was that egotists are actually extremely insecure and that’s why they have to puff themselves up and why they are so focused on fulfilling their own needs. Isnt egotism simply a false front of someone who displays overconfidence but is in a desperate struggle for control, security, and acceptance? Im trying to learn the difference bn narcissism and egotism and i think this article confused me more…

    • John says:

      You are correct in your assumption. This article is biased toward narcissism and depicts the egotist in a positive light. Narcissists are the more evil of the two, but having a big ego is certainly not a healthy attribute. Egotists in my experience exhibt many of the same traits as the narcissist. Egotists do not grow as people because they already believe they are adequate and capable enough when in reality they are not. The difference is an egotist is unable to see the world through someone else’s perspective, whereas the narcissist can but just does not care.

  8. Bonita Read says:

    Narcissists have a compelling desire to control and put other down. Their own feeling of inadequacy makes them ridicule the strong people around them. They can bring you down by manipulating you into believing that there is something wrong with your way of thinking and leave you feeling deflated – if you let them.

  9. Cheryl says:

    I have been trying to understand what the problem is, why this man has a hold on me. I am a very strong and understanding woman and I know I need to get away for my own sake but…….. he plays on me. The lies the deceit, he is so good at coming across like it is me and he is doing things for my best. I live alone in his house in the country away from people, very isolated and he works 3 hours away. This had been 4 years and he keeps telling me it won’t be much longer, I don’t believe him. He tells me how much he loves me and misses me so much but I don’t hear much from him during the week. I know he leaves here and I am hardly a thought in his mind and he drink some lots and lies that he doesn’t. I feel abandoned and used. My name is on the mortgage and that worries me terribly. I will get out of here soon.

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