We’ve all met them, the boss that hates being corrected, the romantic partner that can’t handle being upstaged, or the friend that’s always putting you down to bring themselves up. What’s their issue? They’re so full of themselves and starving for attention. Is it just a big ego or are they a full-fledged narcissist?
We frequently conflate the two, but some important differences are separating those with big egos and those with a personality disorder like narcissism. Knowing which type of person you’re dealing with and what makes them tick will vastly improve your life and your interactions with these people.
What Does It Mean to Have a Big Ego
Narcissism is a well-defined disorder – you can find the definition of it in the DSM-V, the diagnostic guidelines used by clinicians to define mental disorders. Some of the most common narcissistic traits are an exaggerated sense of self-importance, a need for excessive admiration, an inability to recognize the needs of others, and they take advantage of others to get what they want.
Sounds like a big ego doesn’t it? Not exactly. Someone with a big ego is certainly annoying and probably won’t enjoy spending time with them, but they’re unlikely to make your life a living hell the way a narcissist might.
The Characteristic of Someone with a Big Ego
Saying someone has a big ego is considerably more vague than defining a person as a narcissist. The difference between the two is often a matter of degree. These are some of the most common characteristics of someone with a big ego.
They’re Very Confident
Someone with a big ego might also have an inflated sense of self importance, but their views are grounded in reality. Maybe this person is the boss at your company or at least a star performer. Their immodesty about their importance is irritating to be around, but their sense of self isn’t veering into delusional territory.
Look at the top ranks of any Fortune 500 company and you’re likely to find some big egos (and a few narcissists). Getting to the top of the corporate ladder requires serious ambition, something that is often accompanied by a big ego. If they’ve made it this far, they’ll probably have a high opinion of themself.
They’re Externally Motivated
Someone with a big ego wants others to see and reward their success. At work, they want to know how much everyone else is being paid to see how they measure up. They’re also likely to pay attention to other’s job titles and order them into a hierarchy.
They’re Self Centered
Big egos tend to not notice those around them. It’s not that they don’t care about anyone else, but they come first. With a little prodding, they can be made to understand that other people have needs that might need attending to first.
The line between high self-esteem (a desirable quality) and a big ego (a mildly annoying quality) is a fine one. People with big egos are often very successful; society rewards them for their confidence and ambition. Narcissism, on the other hand, makes every relationship a toxic and one-sided one. It’s near impossible to have a meaningful friendship, romantic relationship, or productive workplace association with a narcissist.
The High-Functioning Narcissist
Narcissism isn’t always easily defined. Narcissists come in several forms, and some of them can appear quite similar to a person with a big ego. These are a few of the most common types.
Pro-Social Narcissists: These are the so-called “do-gooders” that are always doing something for the community or humanity at large. Look at their motivations though and you’ll find that they’re in it because they need the attention and praise of others. Since their actions are beneficial, and they seem to understand the needs of others, these narcissists aren’t much of a danger to society.
Malignant Narcissists: They’re nearly the exact opposite of a pro-social narcissist. They have low self-esteem and the only way to rectify it is by bringing other people down to their level. These types of people are conniving, vindictive, and completely untrustworthy.
Covert Narcissists: Less obvious than the previous two, covert narcissist keep their feelings and motivations to themselves. They’re still very self-absorbed and believe the world is not giving them what they deserve. This makes them more likely to turn their anger inward, leading to feelings of depression.
High-Functioning Narcissists: This is often what we call a big ego. High-functioning narcissists are ambitious, charming, and have very high self-esteem. Sometimes they ignore other people’s feelings, but they have a decent grasp of society’s rules and expectations. They do their best to follow these guidelines while getting as much power, praise, and attention for themselves. They cross over into the narcissistic territory when they no longer care about social norms or are incapable of following them.
7 Differences Between a Big Ego and Narcissism
We’ve covered what a person with a big ego is like, but to really understand how they’re different from narcissists, we need to compare their traits more specifically. These are ten of the most important differences between big egos and narcissists, and the distinction between the two can be invaluable in understanding how to deal with these personalities.
Narcissists Lack Self Esteem
Both big egos and narcissists would appear to have high self-esteem. However, this is only true of the former; narcissists actually have incredibly low self-esteem and are constantly in need of validation. This is why they’re so likely to lash out at you over criticism. Even the slightest negative comment will cause them to question their self-worth.
The primary reason for narcissists to form relationships is simply to receive affirmation. If you’re not providing this in the form of narcissistic supply, you are of no use to them. Big ego appreciate compliments and self-esteem boosting comments, but they already have a high opinion of themselves and one person’s affirmation won’t do much for them.
Big Egos Still Have Empathy
People that have big egos appear to not care about anyone else, but they’re actually just too busy thinking about themselves to notice others. Get them in the right situation though, and they have the same level of empathy that anyone else does.
Because they’re looking to gain control over a person or at least use them as a source of supply, narcissists notice everything about other people. Narcissists are expert observers but don’t feel the emotions of the people they’re watching. They can’t put themselves in another person’s shoes, and they don’t particularly want to. They only care about others insofar as they can be of use to them.
Narcissists Will Show Admiration for You (Initially)
Big egos tend to ignore those around them. They know they’re a big deal and everyone else is below them. While this exaggerated sense of self might not be accurate, it means that big egos rarely show admiration for anyone but themselves.
The opposite is true with narcissistic personalities. During the idealization phase of a narcissistic relationship, the narcissist speaks nothing but admiration and praise for their target. They’re not lying either, narcissists attribute positive feelings to their partner during this stage because that person makes them feel good about themselves. It’s only when that feeling diminishes and the devaluing stage beings, that all of that gets turned on its head.
A Big Ego Is Realistic
Big egos know what is possible and what is not possible. They don’t have grandiose ideas so much as plans for achieving their success. Narcissists have less of an idea of where they’re going, but rather a plan for how to make you believe they can get there.
Narcissism is all about manipulation and getting others to go along with the narcissist’s worldview. If someone seems grandiose in their ideas but incredibly charming, there’s a good chance you’re dealing with a narcissist. Someone with a big ego is confident in their plans for the future, while a narcissist is sure to lash out if you challenge them.
Narcissists Hold a Grudge
A tell-tale sign of a narcissist is that they hold a grudge and will seemingly never let go of it. A person with a big ego will move on from the encounter quickly. Their ego is big enough that minor slights aren’t going to damage it, and honestly, you probably weren’t that important to them anyway.
While they’d never want you to know it, you are incredibly important to a narcissist. Your supply is one of the only things that brings them happiness. When you say something damaging to their ego, they’re going to lash out just to save face.
If you fire a narcissist, break up with them, or simply insult them, you’re likely to instigate a smear campaign. Harm a narcissist’s ego and they won’t let go of their grudge against you until they feel the score has been settled and you’re in your rightful place beneath them.
Big Egos are Simply Oblivious
People with big egos are often oblivious to the feelings of those around them. They’re so focused on what they want and how they’re feeling, that they forget anyone else exists.
Narcissists are fully aware of other people’s feelings, they just don’t care about them. For them, other people are tools to be manipulated. For the narcissist to manipulate someone, they need to understand them and apply pressure where it will be most effective. This means they need an intimate understanding of that person’s personality, desires, and pressure points.
Narcissists are Less Successful
One of the more depressing facts about narcissism is that it’s often judged on a person’s objective success. If someone is rich, charming, and highly successful in their field, we are more likely to label them as a big ego rather than a narcissist.
The distinction boils down to big ego’s having something or a right to feel self-important. If someone is successful, we give them a little bit of leeway when it comes to tooting their own horn. The same can’t be said for narcissists, who need to manipulate others into praising them.
How to Avoid a Narcissistic Relationship?
To be honest, you probably will want to avoid both big egos and narcissistic partners. Neither is a healthy relationship, though narcissists are especially toxic while big egos just aren’t worth your time. There are a few things you should be looking out for to avoid such a relationship.
Be Understanding, But Assertive – Given the chance, narcissists and big egos will walk all over you. While it’s important to understand that narcissism comes from low self-esteem, it doesn’t mean that you need to cede to all of your partner’s demands. If you feel like you’re being taken advantage of, let your partner know that there will be consequences if their manipulative behavior continues.
Don’t Assume You Can Change Them – narcissists and big egos are the way they are because it works out well for them. If they don’t have the motivation to change on their own, there’s little you can do for them.
Maintain Clear Boundaries – Whether someone is a narcissist or has a big ego, they probably don’t see you as being very important. Set some ironclad guidelines for the relationship, and if they’re ignored, be ready to walk away.
Big egos and narcissism can come from very different places, but in the end, does it matter to you? Not really, both are toxic to your relationships. Big egos and narcissists should be avoided, as they don’t have your interests at heart.
If you must be around a big ego or narcissist, don’t engage with them if possible. You don’t want to be a source of narcissist supply, even if it’s just for the purpose of being nice. Walk away if you can, and engage with those who can empathize with other people.