Be bold, we have all told ourselves. Stand up for yourself. Find your voice. Confidence is an attractive quality, in love and politics and literature and finance. Confident people capture our heart. But does it ever become too much?
Yes. We all know somebody full of charisma who dominates conversations, speaking with limitless authority about wine, or religion, or parenting, or baseball. When they speak, people listen. Some people seem to know that they are a star. You are their support, in a special relationship that sometimes asks a lot. Sometimes these strong personalities are your boss, or virtuoso, or lover. We watch them on videos, ordain them, and elect them to public office. They seem to radiate confidence.
Is there such a thing as too much self confidence? When does an abundance of boldness, which seems to reflect awareness of one’s gifts, cross over into the darker trait of narcissism?
Harvard Business School wants to know. HBR Blog recently posted on Narcissism: The Difference Between High Achievers and Leaders. They want to know who to trust with leadership roles. They have noticed that while narcissists have star quality, they can’t sustain it for long.
Of course they want to be able to tell the difference between contagious confidence and narcissism. Confidence inspires others to grow equally strong; narcissism invites admiration, and courting of followers. Narcissism is characterized by feeling special, powerful, apart, and not a team player.
Here at home, we want to be able recognize it too. Narcissism is a personality disorder, with its own diagnostic code in the DSM-IV. People who display it are bright and interesting, and know it. They fascinate us, and make us feel special by their attention; but their interest in us quickly wanes. Relationships are intense, but don’t go very deep. Narcissists demand recognition and respect, and often genuinely deserve it. But they underestimate our contribution, and neglect our feelings.
Boldness alone doesn’t tell us who is self-confident, and who is narcissistic. Both kinds of people are strong, capable, gifted. Both hope to be seen in a positive light. We have worked hard, to recognize our unique value, and to advocate effectively for ourselves.
We have made self-esteem a core value of our culture, the holy grail of emotional wellbeing. Cultivating it has become not just a goal of therapy, but the focus of a vast self-help industry, and a key component of the nurture of small children. Is there such a thing as an overdose? When does genuine, healthy confidence turn into toxic narcissism? What I think: never.
Narcissists lack confidence. They are skillful at coaxing – or demanding — constant flattery, or attention, or accommodation, or reassurance from others. A confident person always welcomes recognition, but does not crave it.
Confident people, notes HBR, are able to mentor others, and invest in the success of the group, because they are not anxious about losing their identity or their voice, if others succeed. Collaboration is possible when people know who they are, even when in the shadows. A narcissist is never able to get there. Leadership requires the capacity to serve, and the willingness.
Narcissists lack spiritual generosity. They are preoccupied not just with their own excellence, but being better than other people. We are complicit in teaching people to think this way, of course. We have the custom of measuring ourselves against others, to know where we stand in the universe. How many Facebook friends? How high a performance ranking? How high is the pyramid on which you sit? This may be necessary for career success, but it is not a path to self esteem.
Confidence evolves as we make a thousand mistakes, and find the path that works for us. Businesses, if they want to cultivate it, will have to nurture people differently, rewarding generosity and collaboration, and creating an environment where it is safe to make intelligent mistakes.
The people we take into our personal lives can show both confidence and empathy, which eludes the narcissist. Healthy, confident people can afford to care as deeply for our own growth as for their own. We can choose companions who notice our gifts, and genuinely care what we think. Confident people can take turns at being in charge. We all have the capacity to guide and to be guided, somewhere on this life journey: the selection of restaurants or reading materials, ways of organizing space or interpreting the news, or ways of lifting our spirits. Confident people know that we are interdependent.
There is room in the sky for a multitude of stars.