To some extent, 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 his constant concern. More than most people, they look to others for “self-definition and regulation of self-esteem; inflated or deflated self-evaluation …”, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Your 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 presumed superiority entitles them to special privileges that others do not deserve. Your needs, opinions and feelings count, while those of others do not or only do so to a lesser degree. They have grandiose fantasies that extol their greatness, in which they are the most attractive, talented, powerful, intelligent, strong, and wealthy.
The self-esteem of narcissists
Self-esteem reflects how we think about ourselves. On most tests, narcissists score high on self-esteem. Traditionally, the high self-esteem of a great narcissist was seen as a facade of underlying shame. Their insecurity usually only reveals itself in therapeutic settings. Recent research challenges that theory. However, because grandiose narcissists have a distorted self-image, tests that rely 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 his sister), lying was common. She claims it was “primarily a mode of self-aggrandizement meant to convince other people that she was better than she really was.” Narcissists have been shown to lie on tests. However, when the researchers put them through a polygraph test where being discovered would reflect them badly, they did not lie and their self-esteem scores dropped markedly.
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 the “esteem of the other”. I believe that unrealistic and dependent self-esteem is unhealthy and I prefer to describe self-esteem as healthy or impaired.
Rating narcissists’ self-esteem at a high level is misleading, due to the fact that it is generally inflated and unrelated to objective reality. In addition, it is brittle and deflates easily. Healthy self-esteem is stable and not as reactive to the environment. It is not hierarchical and is not based on feeling superior to others. Nor is it associated with aggression 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 Self-Image, Self-Esteem, and Power
The fact that narcissists brag, exaggerate, and lie about their greatness and self-worth suggests that they are trying to convince themselves to disguise hidden self-hatred and feelings of inferiority. Her hidden shame and insecurity drive her hypervigilance and behavior regarding her self-image, self-esteem, appearance, and power. They use a variety of tactics:
Narcissists are extremely sensitive to threats to their image and pay close attention to signs that could affect them 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 choose situations that will increase rather than decrease their esteem. Therefore, they seek public, high-status, competitive and hierarchical settings rather than intimate and egalitarian settings because they offer greater opportunities to gain status. They prefer to acquire multiple contacts, friends, and partners rather than develop existing relationships.
3. Status assessment
They constantly evaluate their influence and the attention and praise they receive in relation to the performance of their competitors. They are attentive to any impediment to their goals.
Regulation of self-esteem 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 that of other people. To regulate their self-esteem, they mainly use internal self-inflation and interpersonal skills.
Impression management is designed to influence others to gain both internal and external status and benefits, such as romantic partners, power, and money. They employ charm, use their wit, resources, talent, conversational skills, and self-promotion through bragging, beautification, and lying to manage their impression. These strategies improve the image they have of themselves and improve their status with others.
These are most effective in the initial stages of a relationship or short-term interactions. Some researchers propose that the main difference between vulnerable and grandiose narcissists is that covert or vulnerable narcissists employ threat-oriented defenses and negative self-talk that do not meet their needs for esteem and validation. In contrast, grandiose narcissists employ more mature reward-seeking strategies to pursue acceptance and admiration.
When self-promotion doesn’t work, great 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 repealing their competitors. They look down on others to elevate themselves and also generate conflicts that can lead to violence.
Great narcissists sacrifice getting along to get along, 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. Their self-esteem suffers as a result of this treatment, and yet the narcissistic verbal abuse continues. Learn more about “Changing the Dynamics of Abusive Relationships.”
Learn more about narcissistic relationships and how to handle them. Deal With A Narcissist: 8 Steps To Boost Self-Esteem And Set Limits With Difficult People.
© DarleneLancer 2020
Grapsas, S., Brummelman, E., Back, MD and Denissen, JJA (2020). “The ‘why’ and ‘how’ of narcissism: a narcissistic status-seeking process model”. Perspectives from 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).