Do Narcissists Have Low Self-Esteem?
When it comes to understanding the root cause of narcissism, people tend to fall into two camps. The first group typically believes that all narcissists are self-entitled jerks without any regard for other people. The second group tends to be more sympathetic- they think that narcissists are wounded souls who need more compassion and understanding.
As it stands, narcissism can be complicated. All narcissists crave power, control, and recognition. They all rely on shady manipulation tactics to ensure they meet their needs. And while some narcissists may be more charming than others, all can be dangerous.
But do narcissists have low self-esteem? And if they think so poorly about themselves, how do they even become narcissistic? Let’s get into what you need to know.
Are Narcissists Insecure?
The simple answer: some are, but many aren’t.
The more complicated answer: Even if narcissists are insecure, they rarely reveal that part of themselves to others. They don’t make a conscious effort to try to improve their internal selves. Instead, they use their fragile egos as an excuse to continue harming people and focusing on self-preservation.
In other words, narcissists aren’t interested in recovery from the inside out. Instead, they’re focused on maintaining their narcissistic supply and using other people for validating, affirming, and enabling their toxic behavior.
If narcissists are insecure, they use those empty feelings to inflict harm on other people. At the same time, they still focus on making sure the world revolves around them.
Why Do Some Narcissists Have Very High Self-Esteem?
Some narcissists are easy to spot. They are loud and boisterous; they demand attention from others, and they love being in the spotlight of everything. These narcissists tend to be obnoxious and grandiose. They do whatever it takes to feel important, even when their actions negatively impact others.
Make no mistake about it: many times, narcissists DO think highly about themselves. They DO believe they are better than other people, and they DO assume they are entitled to whatever they want when they want it.
Narcissists who were overvalued as children simply grow up expecting that same level of admiration. In fact, contradicting most assumptions, parental overvaluation may even be a greater indicator of narcissism than trauma or other adverse childhood experiences.
Furthermore, many narcissists have insight into their narcissism. They generally know that others might not perceive them as positively as they see themselves. They might also identify exactly how they distort reality to get what they want.
It’s important to be mindful of the tendency to feel sorry for narcissists. They might not be hurting nearly as much as you think they are.
Why Do Some Narcissists Have Low Self-Esteem?
Some research suggests that narcissists simply use their ridiculous strategies to compensate for low self-esteem. They live by flexing to avoid dealing with their true feelings. But they do this so automatically- and so consistently- that their narcissism becomes more and more reinforced.
By that point, they don’t even realize they are compensating. Instead, it’s just become a natural part of their identity.
But covert narcissists are far more discreet when it comes to seeking power and control. They may present as passive, fragile, and even insecure around others. They may appear uncertain of themselves, and they might try to just blend into the background. In other words, their actions might seem completely counterintuitive to genuine narcissism.
Like overt narcissists, covert narcissists often struggle with envy, poor emotional regulation, and a lack of empathy. However, they may also have low self-esteem. That said, their low self-esteem fuels their self-absorption and neediness.
For example, instead of trying to work on strengthening their confidence, they often focus on how they can tear other people down. These efforts often come across as passive-aggressive, and they may be confusing. For instance, an overt narcissist will argue back with someone who gives them negative feedback. A covert narcissist might appear to ignore the feedback- only to then spread nasty rumors about the person behind their back.
How Do Narcissists Lift Their Self-Esteem?
Unfortunately, their strategies aren’t very healthy. If you’re closely involved in their life, you may be prone to their manipulation and abuse for them to meet their bottomless needs.
Putting You Down
Narcissists feel better about themselves when they can pit someone below them. That’s why they often gravitate towards leadership positions- they love situations where they can control people.
In relationships, a narcissist might put you down by undermining your successes, laughing at your dreams, or sabotaging your efforts. They may also criticize or blame you for anything that goes wrong in their life.
Narcissists undoubtedly cause tremendous damage, and gaslighting is one of the worst offenders. Gaslighting is a technique designed to make you question your reality. Narcissists gaslight by twisting the truth to make it seem like you’re overreacting or misunderstanding the situation.
Gaslighting may sound like this:
- “I have no idea what you’re talking about! I never said that.”
- “You’re being really sensitive right now.”
- “Why are you so upset about this? It isn’t a big deal.”
- “I was only kidding- no need to get worried!”
- “You’re looking into this too much.”
- “We already discussed this. You don’t remember?”
- “I’m sorry that you’re mad about this. I’m always trying to make you happy.”
Many times, narcissists rely on gaslighting when their self-esteem feels compromised. They don’t want to give anyone else the upper hand, so they manipulate the truth to make you doubt yourself.
Narcissists often try to feel better about themselves by detaching from the real world altogether. That’s why they have such high rates of alcoholism, extreme shopping or gambling, workaholism, and eating disorders.
They engage in compulsive behavior to temporarily lift their emotions. And because they often think they’re above consequences, they often don’t realize the potential problems associated with their risky decisions.
Of course, this cycle is devastating for loved ones. You might feel worried or angry about their behavior. But don’t expect any confrontations or interventions to go well- narcissists won’t change their ways unless they feel they absolutely must (and even then, their efforts tend to be short-lived).
All narcissists brag. Overt narcissists do it outright. They showcase their accomplishments and go on and on about them. They seemingly have no filter (or awareness of others) when it comes to highlighting their greatness.
Covert narcissists can be more subtle. They often humblebrag by making more self-deprecating statements. For example, they might post a picture of their beach vacation with the caption saying, what an ugly view. Or, they may boast about an exciting new job by making a comment like, Ugh! I guess I’m going to have to buy some real work clothes now.
Narcissists love when other people feel sorry for them. It’s why they can present as incredibly strong in one moment- and totally fragile in the next. Even pity is a form of attention, and narcissists take all the attention they can get.
Sometimes, they may exaggerate specific issues to make it sound like things are worse than they really are. “My head has been killing me lately…I’m sure it’s nothing, but the doctor did seem a little concerned, so he wants to run more tests. There’s definitely the possibility of a brain tumor. I know we aren’t speaking anymore, but I figured you would want to know.”
Other times, they might blame external circumstances for their narcissistic behavior. “I know I keep hurting you. I have been talking about my trauma in therapy, and I’m realizing just how much my parents were never there for me. Nobody showed me how to love. I’m hoping you can just be a little more patient with me. I obviously don’t want to hurt you.”
Narcissists need constant recognition and validation. They rely on other people and things to meet those needs because they can’t do it themselves. They depend on their relationships to help them feel whole- even though they never truly feel whole.
Many narcissists like to hedge their bets and ensure they have exit strategies. Monkey branching allows them to avoid real commitment and hop around from relationship to relationship.
This strategy also temporarily boosts their ego and self-esteem. It can feel gratifying knowing that someone else wants them. In addition, because narcissists feel entitled to whatever they want, fulfilling that need maintains their selfish motives.
Relationships with narcissists can be exhausting. Instead of asking yourself, do narcissists have low self-esteem, it’s much better to focus your efforts on this question:
Could they be acting this way for other reasons besides low self-esteem?
Because once you focus more on this, you’re more likely to recognize what needs to change. Narcissists can and will take advantage of your generosity and forgiving nature.
How to Finally Break Free From the Narcissistic Nightmare
Until I let go of the idea that narcissists were acting out of crippling shame and low self-esteem, I was powerless to stop the crippling doubts and traumatization I experienced.
Today, after healing myself through the exact steps in The Essential Break Free Bootcamp, I experience healthy happy relationships that are kind, supportive, and fulfilling, and I have absolutely no trouble in walking away from anyone who is manipulative or abusive because I feel safe and in ownership of my worth and power.
I want the same for you too.
If you want to become aligned with these truths to actualize your recovery out of the pain and into truly healthy, wholesome, and fulfilling connections, then I’d love to help you.
You can start this journey today by clicking this link.
As always, I eagerly look forward to answering your comments and questions below.
Baumeister, R. F., Smart, L., & Boden, J. M. (1996). Relation of threatened egotism to violence and aggression: The dark side of high self-esteem. Psychological Review,103(1), 5-33. doi:10.1037/0033-295x.103.1.5
Glenn, A. L., Raine, A., & Schug, R. A. (2009). The neural correlates of moral decision-making in psychopathy. Molecular Psychiatry, 14, 5−6.
Nguyen, K. T., & Shaw, L. (2020). The etiology of non-clinical narcissism: Clarifying the role of adverse childhood experiences and parental overvaluation. Personality and Individual Differences,154, 109615. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2019.109615