Lately, I have been thinking about narcissism and its relationship to self-esteem. There seem to be some mixed messages going around about whether or not narcissists actually have high self-esteem.
The conventional wisdom is that narcissists are masking an underlying sense of low self-esteem. But when psychologists measure the self-esteem of a narcissist, they actually score very high. So how can we make sense of this?
Digging deep into the research on narcissism, this is what I’ve found:
Narcissists have high self-esteem. But unlike individuals with a secure sense of high self-esteem, narcissists have what researchers call “fragile high self-esteem“. It is a form of high self-esteem dependent on external validation and self-deception.
Let’s take a closer look at the research to unpack what this means.
How to Recognize Fragile High Self-esteem
Self-esteem can be understood as one’s valuation of one’s own worth. This sense of one’s value can rest on a secure foundation, or it can be fragile and dependant on constant external validation. Fragile high self-esteem can be distinguished by the following traits:
1. Defensiveness: this involves a defensive attitude toward preserving one’s self-image. A narcissistic fixation on image preservation can quickly result in defensive attacks if this image is threatened. Verbal defensiveness is one key indicator of fragile high self-esteem. It may feel like you are constantly walking on eggshells around someone with narcissistic fragile high self-esteem.
2. Validation Seeking: Research distinguishing fragile high self-esteem from secure high-self esteem also points out how fragile self-esteem is dependent on external factors. These factors can include the need for praise, compliments, or recognition. Without this validation, self-esteem begins to erode, triggering a narcissistic individual to seek out new sources of validation.
3. Unwillingness to learn from mistakes: Being able to listen and accept constructive feedback is a trait associated with secure high self-esteem. When self-esteem is fragile and dependant on constant validation, constructive feedback can be easily perceived as a slight against one’s image, often resulting in defensiveness and an unwillingness to accept the feedback.
4. A sense of superiority, dominance, or entitlement: Individuals with fragile high self-esteem often regard themselves as superior to others. This can manifest as attempts to display dominance or displays of entitlement where the individual believes they are owed special privileges.
Narcissism is an Addiction to Esteem
At its most extreme, narcissism can manifest as a narcissistic personality disorder, having severe consequences on one’s life, similar to an addiction. Researchers have actually argued that narcissism functions like an addiction in multiple ways:
The craving for esteem may lead to a cycle of escalating tolerance and occasional, bitter withdrawal. The instability of narcissists’ self-esteem and relationships could be understood as resulting from these cycles.
1. Cravings: Narcissistic cravings include the drive to constantly maintain an inflated grand view of oneself. This is a view of oneself is based on distorted thinking patterns, maintaining a positive self-evaluation that is unrealistic to the person’s interpersonal reality.
Like an addiction, narcissism is generally met with disapproval from others. Although this is the case, narcissistic individuals can distort their perception of what others think of them. In this way, they can falsely believe in the approval of others, effectively giving themselves the drug of validation.
2. Tolerance: Like an addiction, tolerance is also a feature of narcissism. Narcissists constantly seek out ways to raise their sense of specialness. There is never enough. Like an addiction, the person can chase the high provided by the substance into infinity. Opiate overdoses are often the result of this pursuit of the infinite. In the case of narcissism, the infinite pursuit of self-esteem can lead to extreme behaviors.
3. Withdrawal: Like an addiction, narcissists experience withdrawal when their fragile self-esteem begins to collapse. It can provoke aggressive hostile reactions or extreme defensiveness. In the midst of a collapse, some narcissists may even swing wildly between statements consistent with low self-esteem, validation seeking, and defensiveness.
How to Develop Non-narcissistic Secure Self-Esteem
Before considering how to develop secure self-esteem, we need to consider why self-esteem is important. There has been a recent backlash against the self-esteem movement due to its ineffectiveness.
The problem with critiques of self-esteem promotion is that they often neglect to define self-esteem. As described above, there are many different ways of defining the concept. Secure self-esteem and fragile self-esteem are radically different manifestations of self-esteem that cannot be equated.
Critiques of self-esteem promotion are accurate when discussing simple tactics like positive affirmations and participation ribbons. These tactics only work to promote fragile high self-esteem.
Rather than developing a fragile false sense of self-esteem, one can develop secure self-esteem through genuine connection with oneself and others.
In The Six Pillars of Self-esteem, Nathaniel Branden presents a concept of secure high self-esteem. He argues that self-esteem consists of the following practices:
1. The Practice of Living Consciously: This involves being more aware of what drives our actions, bringing mindful awareness to these underlying motivations so we can act in accordance with our values. Living unconsciously is like sleepwalking through life. You go through the motions, reacting to negative stimuli with a fight or flight response.
Fragile high self-esteem is built on living unconsciously. It is based on a form of self-deception regarding one’s own sense of self. Rather than seeing the underlying behavioral motives and the impact it has on others, fragile high self-esteem maintains unhealthy relational dynamics.
Ineffective patterns of behavior are maintained because bringing conscious awareness to the reality of the situation would threaten the narcissistic identity. It is easier to simply blame others for any hardships than to take responsibility for one’s actions.
Living consciously involves being able to accept feedback, remaining open to learning about your unconscious motives and shortcomings. It then involves acting mindfully, consciously choosing your reaction to situations, rather than simply reacting in the moment based on fear and anger.
2. The Practice of Self-Acceptance: This means letting go of an adversarial relationship to oneself. In The Confidence Gap, Russ Harris argues self-acceptance is the most important aspect of building true confidence. When we have an adversarial relationship with ourselves, we constantly battle or deny our uncomfortable thoughts or emotions. Self-acceptance means consciously being aware of the things you are resisting, in addition to letting go of this resistance.
Fragile high self-esteem is built on a foundation of denial and resistance. Rather than accepting one’s shortcomings, they are resisted through the armor of false self-worth. Self-acceptance requires letting go of this armor.
3. The Practice of Self-Responsibility: This can be understood by breaking the word into two parts, “response” and “ability”. It is the ability to respond appropriately to situations. For example, if you are responsible for your team at work, it means you must be able and ready to respond to the needs of the team to the best of your ability.
Before taking on responsibility for others, one must first take on self-responsibility. This means being able to respond to your own unmet needs. After being conscious of your own unmet need and acceptance of your situation, self-responsibility means having personal boundaries and working to take care of your own unmet needs so you can develop your skills and ability to be responsible for others.
4. The Practice of Self-Assertiveness: This means being able to speak the truth, as you understand it, rather than trying to deceive yourself or others. A lack of self-assertiveness could mean denying your needs, not communicating personal boundaries, and telling everyone that everything is okay when it is not.
Fragile high self-esteem, on the other hand, is aggressive rather than assertive. Assertiveness comes from a foundation of secure self-esteem whereas aggression comes from fear. Aggression is defensive and biting in tone whereas assertiveness is proactive and neutral in tone.
5. The Practice of Living Purposefully: This means having a sense of purpose. A sense of purpose built on secure self-esteem means having taken care of your own needs, then making yourself useful to others. This is something I explore further in my article, “What Does It Mean to Have a Purpose?“.
Low self-esteem can lead to codependency, which is a false sense of purpose consisting of constantly doing things for other people at the expense of your own needs. It prevents you from developing your potential since you are not focusing on developing your own skills or taking care of your own needs.
Insecure high self-esteem is also a form of false purpose since one’s purpose is completely intertwined with seeking validation and maintaining one’s image.
6. The Practice of Personal Integrity: This means living in alignment with your values. If your behaviors match your values then you are living with personal integrity. By living with integrity, you gain self-worth, knowing you have acted in accordance with your values. Although it may be easy to fool others, you cannot fool yourself. Deep down, we know when we have deceived ourselves.
In the book, Rethinking Narcissism, Craig Malkin argues that genuine connection is the antidote to narcissism. Since this site is dedicated to the power of social connection, this is something I completely agree with. If you are interested in learning more, I highly recommend checking out his book. You can get the audiobook here.
Since narcissistic individuals have fragile high self-esteem, they are always on the defense against potential threats to their self-esteem, creating a barrier to genuine connection.
Codependent persons on the other end of the spectrum have the opposite issue, but the result is often the same. Due to fragile low self-esteem, they often constantly do things for others at their own expense, creating a barrier to genuine connection by not letting others help them.
Rather than viewing narcissism as high or low self-esteem, I have found it useful to distinguish between fragile and secure self-esteem instead.
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