To some degree, most of us want to improve our social status and self-esteem, but narcissists feel compelled to do so. A recent study concluded that it is their constant concern. More than most people, they look to others for “self-definition and self-esteem regulation; inflated or deflated self-assessment…”, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Their self-esteem fluctuates between exaggerated inflation and deflation.
Narcissists are concerned with managing their self-esteem, image, appearance, and social rank. They see the world and themselves in terms of hierarchical status, where they are superior and others are inferior. In their mind, their supposed superiority entitles them to special privileges that others do not deserve. Your needs, opinions and feelings count, while those of others do not or do so to a lesser extent. They have grandiose fantasies that extol their greatness, in which they are the most attractive, talented, powerful, intelligent, strong, and wealthy.
Self-esteem reflects how we think about ourselves. On most tests, narcissists score high on self-esteem. Traditionally, the high self-esteem of a grandiose narcissist was seen as a cover for the underlying shame. His insecurity was usually only revealed in therapeutic settings. Recent research challenges that theory. However, because grandiose narcissists have a distorted image of themselves, tests based on self-report cannot elicit beliefs and processes inferred from narcissistic attitudes and behaviors or from those observed in clinical settings.
For example, having grown up mocked and belittled by his father, according to Donald Trump’s niece speaking of him (and confirmed by her sister), lying was common. She states that it was “primarily a mode of self-aggrandizement intended to convince other people that he was better than he really was.” Narcissists have been shown to lie on tests. However, when the researchers put them through a polygraph test in which being caught would reflect badly on them, they didn’t lie and their self-esteem scores markedly dropped.
People often think that “high self-esteem” is optimal. However, the esteem that is based on the opinion of others is not self-esteem, but “other-esteem”. I believe that unrealistic self-esteem and dependence on others is unhealthy and I prefer to describe self-esteem as healthy or impaired.
Ranking narcissists’ self-esteem high is misleading, due to the fact that it is generally inflated and unrelated to objective reality. In addition, it is fragile and easily deflates. Healthy self-esteem is stable and not so reactive to the environment. It is not hierarchical and is not based on feeling superior to others. Nor is it associated with aggressiveness and relationship problems, but the other way around. People with healthy self-esteem are not aggressive and have less conflict in relationships. They are able to compromise and get along.
Tactics Narcissists Use to Maintain Their Self-Image, Self-Esteem, and Power
The fact that narcissists brag, exaggerate, and lie about their greatness and self-esteem suggests that they are trying to convince themselves to disguise hidden self-hatred and feelings of inferiority. Their hidden shame and insecurity drive their hyper-vigilance and behavior regarding their self-image, self-esteem, appearance, and power. They use a variety of tactics:
Narcissists are extremely sensitive to threats to their image and pay attention to signs that could affect her in the eyes of others. They struggle to regulate their self-image through their thinking and behavior. This strategy requires constant effort.
Moment by moment, they scan other people and their surroundings to assess and raise their rank.
2. Selective environments and relationships
They select situations that will increase rather than decrease their esteem. Therefore, they seek public, high-status, competitive, and hierarchical environments over intimate, egalitarian ones because they offer greater opportunities to gain status. They prefer to acquire multiple contacts, friends, and associates rather than develop existing relationships.
3. Status evaluation
They constantly evaluate their influence and the attention and praise they receive relative to the performance of their competitors. They observe any impediment to their goals.
Self-esteem regulation of narcissists
Once narcissists have assessed the environment and who they are dealing with, they determine the best way to achieve status, either by raising their own or lowering other people’s. To regulate their self-esteem, they mainly use internal self-inflation and interpersonal skills.
Impression management is designed to influence others for both internal and external status and benefits, such as romantic partners, power, and money. They employ charm, using their wit, resources, talent, conversational skills, and self-promotion through boasting, embellishing, and lying to manage their impression. These strategies increase the image they have of themselves and raise their status with others.
These are most effective in the early stages of a relationship or short-term interactions. Some researchers propose that the main difference between vulnerable and grandiose narcissists is that vulnerable or covert narcissists employ threat-oriented defenses and negative self-talk that do not meet their esteem and validation needs. In contrast, grandiose narcissists employ more mature reward-seeking strategies to seek acceptance and admiration.
When self-promotion doesn’t work, grandiose narcissists turn to dominance. They are excellent manipulators and use covert tactics as well as overt power tactics and narcissistic abuse, such as belittling, lying, intimidating, attacking, criticizing, or enraging the person they are trying to influence, as well as denigrating their competitors. They put others down to lift themselves up and also create conflicts that can lead to violence.
Grandiose narcissists sacrifice getting along to get ahead, while narcissists’ partners sacrifice to get along. They give up their status, rights, feelings, and needs to make the narcissist happy at their own expense, but the narcissist’s demands are endless. His self-esteem suffers as a result of this treatment, and yet the narcissistic verbal abuse continues. Learn about “Changing the Dynamics in Abusive Relationships.”
Learn more about narcissistic relationships and how to manage them. How to deal with a narcissist: 8 steps to increase self-esteem and set limits with difficult people.
© Darlene Lancer 2020
Grapsas, S., Brummelman, E., Back, MD, and Denissen, JJA (2020). “The ‘why’ and ‘how’ of narcissism: A narcissistic status-seeking process model”. Perspectives on Psychological Science, Vol. 15(1) 150-172. DOI: 0.1177/1745691619873350.
Trump, Maria (2020). Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man. (New York: Simon & Schuster).