The people you know whom you believe to be high in narcissism may strike you as pretty high on themselves in general. They project an outward image of self-confidence and self-assurance, and regard others as inferior. Yet, it might also occur to you that they can seem a bit over-the-top in their desire to be reassured about their greatness. They strut their stuff perhaps just a little too much. As it turns out, new research suggests that your suspicions might be right about how low their self-esteem actually is.
One paradox of narcissism is precisely this notion that high self-esteem on an individual's exterior might mask something less robust on the inside. The constant need for reassurance and attention that's so much a part of narcissism might stem from an inner feeling of weakness and insecurity. Although some theories of narcissism’s origins propose that individuals with these personalities received too much love and attention as young children, from other perspectives, these individuals perhaps didn’t get enough of either.
To test the idea that a fragile self-esteem underlies the narcissistic individual’s outward grandiosity, the University of Münster’s Katharina Geukes and colleagues (2017) examined how, and under what conditions, the self-esteem of people high in narcissism would fluctuate over time. The German psychologists studied nearly 600 individuals in three separate studies, including two field-based investigations, assessing self-esteem over multiple occasions and in different circumstances.
The theory on which Geukes and her colleagues based their work is known as the Dynamic Self-Regulatory Model of Narcissism (Morf & Rhodewalt, 2001). According to this model, “a fragile self should be characteristic of narcissists because their confirmation-seeking interpersonal strategies are only successful in the short run, when they still receive positive feedback” (p. 770). In the long run, narcissists indeed wear out their welcome with the people they know. As their constant demands for attention become intolerable, their interactions with the significant people in their lives deteriorate. Rivalry becomes an important factor in the equation, as they jealously protect their self-esteem by constantly needing to show how much better they are than even their closest friends and romantic partners. At first, then, individuals who are high in narcissism seem like charming and endearing people. But as time goes by, their true colors start to show. Now the narcissist truly has something to worry about, because in fact their relationship truly is at risk of ending.
The type of narcissism that the German team studied, it’s important to point out, isn’t the clinical variety, but a version of narcissistic grandiosity that is built into the makeup of an individual’s personality. Even so, people high in the trait of narcissism have qualities that become dysfunctional to their relationships, and potentially their self-esteem, over time. (It's also important to keep in mind that the University of Münster study involved undergraduate participants, not clinical samples of people with diagnosed narcissistic personality disorder.)
The German students who made up the three samples in the study (for a total of nearly 600 participants) completed the Narcissistic Admiration and Rivalry Questionnaire (NARQ), overall personality traits according to the Five Factor Model, and three self-esteem items (“I am satisfied with myself,” “I trust in my abilities,” and “I am satisfied with my appearance”). Testing occurred once a week for three weeks; on each occasion, participants completed a group task. Over the course of the three weeks, the tasks became more in-depth, so that by the third testing, all participants solved a moral task together and played a personality-rating game: Pick two adjectives to describe each person.
Because the participants became more intimately connected with each other over time, the study simulated what might happen in everyday life to people high in narcissism. As other people get to know them better, their self-esteem might start to suffer as their unpleasant narcissistic rivalry comes into sharper relief. In fact, the results supported the study’s theoretical basis: Narcissistic rivalry, but not grandiosity, was related to greater self-esteem shifts over the course of the three weeks.
A second study in the series examined changes in narcissistic grandiosity and rivalry in connection with self-esteem changes over a two-week period, using a naturalistic environment in which students rated themselves at the beginning of their first semester in college. The third study extended the time frame of this model even longer, and added the element of perceived social inclusion to the equation. Participants now were asked to rate their personalities at the outset of the study and then to rate their self-esteem levels over time; additionally, participants stated how much the people who knew them found them likeable and nice, or unlikeable and annoying.
The final study in the series showed that, again consistent with the dynamic model of narcissism, people high in rivalry had self-esteem scores that were highly sensitive to the level of social approval they felt they were receiving. Those high on the admiration dimension seemed relatively impermeable to the impact of their perceived level of inclusion. They generally elicit positive responses from others, so their self-esteem never wavers. Because high-rivalry narcissists are so difficult to be around due to their criticizing and aggressive behaviors with others, they have the opposite types of experiences. The longer people know this type and are exposed to their rivalry, the less they want to socialize with them. As the authors conclude, “It is admiration that puffs the self up but it is rivalry that makes it shaky” (p. 783).
Although the study’s results may not make you more sympathetic to the narcissists in your life, this research does point out that those high on the rivalry dimension suffer blows to their self-esteem every time their irritating behavior leads others to run away from them. If you care about people who show these tendencies, then, as difficult as it may be, you might consider finding a gentle way to do some of that puffing up. Over time, it’s possible that they may even develop a stronger, and more resilient, self-esteem.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2017
Geukes, K., Nestler, S., Hutteman, R., Dufner, M., Küfner, A. P., Egloff, B., & ... Back, M. D. (2017). Puffed-up but shaky selves: State self-esteem level and variability in narcissists. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 112(5), 769-786. doi:10.1037/pspp0000093
Morf, C. C., & Rhodewalt, F. (2001). Unraveling the paradoxes of narcissism: A dynamic self-regulatory processing model. Psychological Inquiry, 12, 177–196. http://dx.doi.org/10.1207/S15327965PLI1204_1