Neurosis vs. Character Disorder: Self-Image Issues, Part 2

Disturbed characters generally have too much self-esteem. They know what they have going for them and they equate their endowments with their identity. This is one of the main reasons their self-image can become inflated. On the other hand, disturbed characters often are frequently and chronically lacking in self-respect.

It’s fairly common for both lay persons and professionals to make an assumption that the ego inflation they encounter in disordered characters must be a compensation for underlying low self-esteem. But what they fail to consider is that there is a very significant difference between self-esteem and self-respect. The aforementioned terms are often used interchangeably, but I find it crucial to distinguish between these very important concepts, especially because issues related to a healthy balance of self-esteem and self-respect play pivotal roles in the shaping of an individual’s character.

Self-esteem literally means to estimate worth. Our sense of self-esteem arises out of an intuitive assessment about what we have going for ourselves in the way of talents, abilities, etc. If a person has been blessed with ample intelligence, with physical attractiveness, and with other desirable characteristics, it’s natural for them to feel good about themselves.

Self-respect, on the other hand, comes from the Latin respectere, which means to “look back.” Self-respect arises from a retrospective assessment a person makes about what he has done with the various gifts he has been given. When people use their abilities and talents to make a meaningful contribution to society, the usual result is the achievement of a fair degree of success as well as positive regard from others.

Among the most crucial issues affecting sound character development are the attributions a person makes with regard to the factors that engender both self-esteem and self-respect. All disordered characters, most especially narcissists, chronically overvalue and claim “ownership” of the desirable but accidental attributes (i.e., gifts of nature or blessings of God) that foster a sense of high self-esteem. What’s more, many times they get reinforcing messages from others like: “You’re so smart,” or “You’re so talented.” In short, they both receive and are readily willing to claim credit for things that they can’t genuinely attribute to their own doing. They know what they have going for them and they equate their endowments with their identity. This is one of the main reasons their self-image can become inflated in the first place.

Contrarily, disordered characters (once again, especially naracissits) are frequently and chronically lacking in self-respect. That’s because they know that they haven’t done enough for the good of others with the gifts they’ve been give to merit such a positive appraisal of their genuine worth. In short, they lack respect because they haven’t earned it. Self-respect is among the most valuable human commodities. Yet, the most disturbed characters among us try to demand respect in various ways without ever earning it, and sometimes others afford it to them when they haven’t truly earned it. Upcoming posts will further address this and the reasons for it.

One of the failings of modern culture is our frequent failure to recognize and reward what has in the past been referred to as meritorious conduct. Even some of our major religions and philosophical schools of thought sometimes unwittingly downplay the value or even existence of human merit. Merit has to do with the manner in which a human being exercises the ultimate human power, the power to choose. Human beings are endowed with a free will, and making the meritorious choice is never easy — yet it is the essence of character development. When a soldier enters a minefield knowing full well he could die in the process yet seeks to rescue a fallen comrade, he commits a meritorious act. When a father and husband turns down a flagrant offer to engage in a tryst with an attractive co-worker out of concern for the solidity of his marital commitment, the stability of his family, and the welfare of his children, he performs a similarly meritorious act. Doing the right thing is never easy.

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The problem is that within modern culture and even within major schools of religious and philosophical belief, the value placed on such conduct is minimal. Sometimes, we simply expect good people to do right. Teachers and parents rarely catch and reward children for making the right choices, but we’re quick to chastise when they choose wrongly. We need to be careful not to praise people for the things that are rightfully attributed to nature or a higher power such as looks, brains, talents and abilities, but instead recognize and reinforce people for the meritorious exercising of their wills and their subordination of their baser instincts in the service of the common good. That’s what fostering sound character development is mostly about.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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