Self-Love and Narcissists: A Correlation of Control

Is there a relationship between low self-esteem and falling for a narcissist?

Posted May 20, 2020

Love has been described in uncountable ways throughout the centuries by royalty, commoners, troubadours, fortune tellers, philosophers, religious leaders, doctors, and scientists. Although there is no singular definition or description of love, it is generally accepted as a concept of mutual selflessness, sacrifice, and peace. As humans, we desire this sense of closeness and acceptance and seek it throughout our lives. As was said in the popular TV show The Wonder Years, “all our young lives we search for someone to love. Someone who makes us complete. We choose partners and change partners. We dance to a song of heartbreak and hope. All the while wondering if somewhere, somehow, there's someone perfect, who might be searching for us” (, 2020).

When discussing or dreaming about love, we tend to only focus on the romance and forget about the personal love. Self-love is closely tied with self-esteem and self-respect; it means holding yourself in high enough regard that you reject attacks on your mind, body, and soul from people who are out to hurt you. A lack of self-worth makes one a perfect victim for the quintessential beacon of extravagant self-love: the narcissist.

By definition, a narcissist is an individual who has a highly inflated sense of worth, extreme self-love, and a consistent need for recognition or admiration (Mayo Clinic, 2020; Rohmann, Neumann, Herner & Bierhoff, 2012). A growing body of research work has established that narcissists are incapable of truly loving another person. In fact, the term narcissist is based on the Greek myth of Narcissus and how his search for the ideal partner ended up with him enamored by…himself.  

Whether an individual is a grandiose narcissist or a vulnerable narcissist, the base of the matter remains: another person can never be enough, sacrifice enough, or provide enough to keep a narcissist content. However, this doesn’t mean narcissists don’t seek out love; this just means they seek it from an individual who will easily fall victim to the emotional rollercoaster. A low level of self-respect leaves a person open to narcissistic emotional manipulation.

Photo by Sofia Garza from Pexels
Source: Photo by Sofia Garza from Pexels

Jennie was in a terrible marriage for ten years before calling it quits. Shortly after her marriage ended, she met Damien and they started dating. Jennie recalls, “Damien did a great job of hiding his vulnerability until several months into the relationship. I was just so relieved to be out of my marriage that I didn’t realize I was jumping feet-first into an equally bad relationship.” As time went on, Damien’s treatment of Jennie deteriorated into mental and emotional abuse. Jennie attributes this acceptance of his actions as a reflection of her own fledgling self-love and respect.

“My ex-husband had told me many times that no one would want me or care for me the way he did, even though he freely admitted he didn’t love me. I also would have other dates tell me that I was undesirable as a single mother. I guess I just started believing that this was the best I could get, and I accepted it.” Lexie was another woman in a similar situation. Her ex-boyfriend was mentally abusive and belittled her every day of their relationship. She says, “I started to believe what he was saying was true." Lexie stayed with her boyfriend for seven years before finally ending the relationship.

Narcissists have high expectations of how they should be treated. Nothing was ever good enough for Damien. He would react to perceived attacks on his fragile self-esteem with violent, verbal accusations about what a terrible girlfriend Jennie was and how slow she was to cater to his demands. Jennie says, “We lived about a half hour away from each other. There was a time when he asked me to go to his house and I said I had to settle things in my home first. Damien flew off the handle, screaming that I was useless and slow and fat and lazy.”

Narcissists such as Damien also do not require emotional intimacy or physical closeness and rarely, if ever, exhibit empathy (Campbell, Foster, & Finkel, 2002). “He could go weeks without coming to see me or taking me on a date, even though he would be five minutes away picking up his daughter," says Jennie. “If I said I wanted to see him or if I got lonely, Damien would say I was being selfish and demanding in regard to his limited time.”  Similarly, Lexie’s partner always demanded attention be on him to the extent where she stopped seeing her friends or family. She wasn’t allowed to go out, but it was ok for him to go out drinking with his friends and not come home at night.

by Vera Arsic
Source: by Vera Arsic

Damien was unable to regulate his emotions, swinging between deep depressions where he would hate Jennie and manic highs where he would propose marriage. The angry outbursts and violent words would build his self-esteem back up, making him powerful and Jennie weak. It is normal for narcissists to react angrily and explosively when they feel threatened (Campbell, Foster, & Finkel, 2002). Lexie was pregnant when, during an argument, her boyfriend began calling her names and pointed at her stomach and said the child wasn’t his despite the two being in a committed, lengthy relationship. “Before he left for the night, he said my daughter will be screwed up in the head like me.” Another narrative participant, Maggie, recalled that during her marriage to a vulnerable narcissist he would not answer any question straight. “He started getting very angry with me when I would ask questions and he cut me off financially." 

Jennie attributes her improved self-esteem and self-love to being able to end the relationship with Damien. “I did a lot of inner reflection work and had lots of conversations with my counselor. I educated myself about narcissists and toxic relationships, changed my mental focus, and forced myself to start believing I was a good person worthy of a relationship with someone who respected me. Once I took the power away from Damien, he couldn’t hurt me anymore," says Jennie. Lexie recalls, “when I finally broke up with him, there was a relief that came over me. It was very calming.”

In most cases, a narcissist carefully monitors their behavior in the early stages of a relationship (Campbell, Foster, & Finkel, 2002). Even the strongest person can be fooled by a skilled narcissist. Obtaining a strong level of self-love or self-respect is the only way to break free from a narcissistic partner. Whether the partner is vulnerable or grandiose, they cannot control someone else unless they have permission. The key is to remember that permission can always be withdrawn.


Campbell, W. K., Foster, C. A., and Finkel, E. J. (2002). Does self-love lead to love for others? A story of narcissistic game playing. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83(2). 340-354.

Mayo Clinic. (2020). Narcissistic personality disorder. Retrieved from

Rohmann, E., Neumann, E., Herner, M., & Bierhoff, H. (2011).  Grandiose and vulnerable  narcissism: Self-construal, attachment, and love in romantic relationships. European Psychologist. 17(4), 279-290.

"The Wonder Years, Season 3 Quotes." STANDS4 LLC, 2020. Retrieved from <>.