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.