Narcissism (Part 2): Narcissism and Self-Esteem

To understand this article better, it is highly recommended to read the previous one titled Narcissism: What It Is and Isn’t.

The Role of Self-Esteem in Narcissist’s Self-Image

One of the biggest misconceptions about narcissistic people is that the narcissistic person has a high self-esteem. It’s an easy mistake: some of them look fancy, have money, know how to get what they want, are respected, famous, powerful, and so on. In actuality though, they have low self-esteem. It only seems like they have a high self-esteem because they associate themselves with things that they perceive as having status or they pretend and imitate those who actually have high, healthy self-esteem. All of this gives them narcissistic supply from others and boosts their false sense of self-worth.

Since a narcissist’s sense of self-esteem comes from other people’s perception of them, and since they see themselves as both not enough and perfect (depending on the situation), their main drive is to manage the pain of feeling worthless and to gain false validation for being amazing.

Narcissism and Splitting

As psychologist Elinor Greenberg writes:

“One can conceive of highly Narcissistic behavior as centered almost totally around self-esteem regulation. Individuals who have made Narcissistic adaptations see themselves and others in a highly unrealistic, polarized, black and white way. There are no gray areas: you are either special, perfect, unique, and entitled to better and different treatment than everyone else (at the top of the Status Hierarchy) or worthless, defective garbage entitled to nothing but shame and whatever crumbs those above you choose to give you (at the bottom of the Status Hierarchy). Of course, given the implications of this stark view, everyone with a Narcissistic adaptation fights very hard to hold onto the belief that they are in the Special category.”

Black and white thinking, otherwise referred to as splitting or lack of whole object relations, is where a person sees themselves, others, or even conceptualizes the world in general in black and white terms, in extremes. This is a failure to see things as a cohesive, realistic whole. For the narcissistic person, splitting is the central defense mechanism, and it is closely related to idealization and devaluation, and to projection. In order to regulate their self-esteem, narcissistic people see and portray themselves as purely admirable and upright, while perceiving and painting those who refuse to comply with them and their values as evil and contemptible. There is no in between, or grey area.

The narcissistic individual lacks a nuanced, realistic perception of people, including themselves. But at the same time, they also vehemently justify their own failures, shortcomings, and wrongdoings. Sometimes it involves blaming others that they lack a nuanced perspective since they don’t get how special, just, or wronged the narcissist is (psychological projection). Or, to feel and be perceived as better than others, they exaggerate people’s flaws and make up false “explanations” for their “evil” actions. And on the other side of the same coin, they idealize themselves. They may openly idealize those they admire, especially if it helps them get what they want by association. However, if it doesn’t work, the idol quickly becomes devalued and vilified. Again, no in between, no grey area.

A highly narcissistic person perceives their own actions as just, moral, or even heroic (when factually they are not). Since a narcissist is burdened with a usually unconscious sense of shame, they consequently paint themselves as a noble hero to regulate it, which then creates a sense of false validation and over-importance. This is sometimes related to a Messiah complex, where a person believes that they are destined to be a savior, protector, or fighter. This, by extension, leads to justifying whatever despicable, hurtful, and immoral acts the narcissist partakes in, as in their mind they are doing whatever it takes to save whatever they believe they are saving, or that since they are special they have the moral right to act this way.

There needs to be a conflict, where people are divided into virtuous and evil, and then the narcissistic individual feels good about themselves that they are on the right side. Being always right is vital to their self-esteem regulation. Sometimes they fake remorse or seemingly accept they have flaws by openly declaring that they are imperfect, yet deep down they believe, or quickly after the confession start believing it again, that they are perfectly virtuous. More often than not the confession is to fool others and to pretend to be like others so that they would be more accepted.

Since a narcissist feels an unbearable amount of shame if they think of being perceived as doing something wrong, their defense mechanism is to mask it or to justify anything and everything they do to avoid it. This shame is actually the scariest thing for the narcissist. They cope with shame and worthlessness by trying to feel perfect, heroic, or special, and they use a number of specific behavioral tactics and thought patterns to accomplish this.

How Narcissists Regulate Self-Esteem

The following is a good summation of the most common strategies a narcissistic person uses to regulate their sense of self-esteem (by psychologist Elinor Greenberg).1

Narcissistic individuals develop strategies that are aimed at stabilizing and raising their shaky self-esteem. Some common ones involve:
  • Status Enhancers: They will try to associate themselves with people, causes, and objects that they believe are high in status. In their minds, close proximity to anything they consider high status confers status on them as well.
  • Self/Objects: This is the technical psychological term for utilizing other people to help regulate one’s self-esteem. They often expect other people to uncritically admire them, and when they do, they feel better about themselves. When others don’t act as an admiring mirror, they feel worse about themselves and they become angry with the other person.
  • Grandiosity: They will often act as if they are better than other people. They will insist that they are special, unique, perfect, and entitled to special treatment because of it. 
  • Devaluation: They will feel free to insult and devalue people that they view as slighting them, or competing with them, or who they consider to be of lesser status. 
  • One-Way Sensitivity: They are highly sensitive to anything they consider a slight to their sense of self importance. This is couple with an insensitivity to the feelings of those around them. 
In addition, as is the situation with the other common personality disorders (Borderline and Schizoid), they lack two abilities—”Whole Object Relations” and “Object Constancy” that are usually acquired in the course of a normal childhood:

Whole Object Relations: This is a psychological term for the ability to see people in an integrated way as simultaneously having a variety of liked and disliked qualities. When you have “whole object relations” you can tolerate seeing your own and other peoples flaws because you also see your and their good qualities and talents.

Object Constancy: This is another psychological term that describes the ability to maintain your positive feelings towards someone while you are feeling, disappointed, hurt, or angry with the person. It also includes the ability to maintain your sense of connection to them when they are not physically present.

Much of Narcissistic bad behavior is the result of their lack of “whole object relations” and “object constancy.”

Because Narcissists lack a nuanced, realistic, and integrated view of people, they divide themselves and other people into one of two categories:

  • High Status “Winners”: Special, perfect, unique, and entitled to special treatment and admiration, or 
  • Low Status “Losers”: Worthless, defective, expendable, garbage.
Since narcissism is a branching spectrum, there are other types of narcissism. For example, where the person doesn’t feel any shame or guilt at all and can be murdering a person with a hammer one minute, and then eating a slice of pizza the next as if nothing happened. But this is not so much because of self-esteem regulation and more about completely disregarding social rules and doing whatever you want with zero concern for your fellow human beings or for potential consequences for your actions.

In the next article, we will look at how narcissistic people react to feeling threatened or wronged.

Resources and Recommendations
Greenberg, Elinor. What is a Narcissist? LinkedIn. Accessed May 5, 2017.
Narcissism (Part 1): What It Is and Isn’t [article]
Narcissism (Part 3): How Narcissists Act When Feeling Threatened or Upset [article]
Splitting (Wikipedia)
Self-Archeological Conversations #3: Black & White Thinking [video/podcast]
Compulsion to Correct, Convince, Control, and Help Others [video]
Messiah Complex (Wikipedia)
Self-Esteem [playlist]
Narcissism (Wikipedia)
Psychopathy (Wikipedia)
Characteristics of Narcissistic Mothers [article]
On The Difficulties of Identifying Narcissistic, Unhealthy, Toxic, Dangerous People [article]
Why Do People Become Narcissistic [video]
Narcissism / Family Dysfunction [playlist]
Empathy And Laughing At Others’ Misery [article]

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