To some degree, most of us desire to improve our social status and self-esteem, but narcissists feel compelled to do so. A recent study concluded that it’s their constant concern. More than most people, they look to others for “self-definition and self-esteem regulation; inflated or deflated self-appraisal...,” according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Their self-esteem fluctuates between exaggerated inflation and deflation.
Narcissists are preoccupied with managing their self-esteem, image, appearance, and social rank. They see the world and themselves in terms of hierarchical status, where they’re superior and others are inferior.
In their mind, their presumed superiority entitles them to special privileges that others don’t deserve. Their needs, opinions, and feelings count, while those of others don’t or only do to a lesser degree. They have grandiose fantasies extolling their greatness, where they’re the most attractive, talented, powerful, smartest, strongest, and wealthiest.
Self-esteem reflects how we think about ourselves. In most tests, narcissists score high on self-esteem since grandiose narcissists have a distorted self-image. Traditionally, the high self-esteem of a grandiose narcissist was considered a façade for underlying shame. Their insecurity was usually only revealed in therapeutic settings. Researchers have recently challenged that theory. However, tests that rely on self-reporting cannot elicit beliefs and processes inferred from narcissistic attitudes and behaviors nor those observed in clinical settings.
For example, according to Donald Trump’s niece (and confirmed by his sister), he often engaged in lying. She claims it was “primarily a mode of self-aggrandizement meant to convince other people he was better than he actually was.” Narcissists have been shown to lie on tests. However, when researchers subjected them to a polygraph test where being found out would reflect poorly on them, they didn’t lie, and their self-esteem scores declined markedly. (See "Sons of Narcissistic Fathers.")
People usually think of “high self-esteem” as optimal. However, esteem that relies on others’ opinion is not self-esteem, but “other-esteem.” I believe that unrealistic and other-dependent self-esteem is unhealthy and prefer to describe self-esteem as either healthy or impaired. Impaired self-esteem leads to defensiveness, interpersonal and professional problems, and with narcissists, aggression as well.
Ranking narcissists’ self-esteem high is misleading, due to the fact it’s generally inflated and unrelated to objective reality. Additionally, it’s fragile and easily deflated. Healthy self-esteem is stable and not so reactive to the environment. It’s non-hierarchical and not based on feeling superior to others. Nor is it associated with aggression and relationship problems, but the reverse. People with healthy self-esteem aren’t aggressive and have fewer relationship conflicts. They’re able to compromise and get along.
Tactics Used to Maintain Self-Image, Self-Esteem, and Power
The fact that narcissists brag, exaggerate, and lie about their greatness and self-esteem suggests that they’re trying to convince themselves to disguise hidden self-loathing and feelings of inferiority. Their hidden shame and insecurity drive their hypervigilance 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 vigilantly attend to cues that could affect it in the eyes of others. They struggle to regulate their self-image through their thinking and behavior. This strategy requires constant effort.
Moment-to-moment, they scan other people and their surroundings to assess and elevate their rank.
Selective environments and relationships
They select situations that will raise rather than lower their esteem. Thus, they avoid intimacy and seek public, high-status, competitive, and hierarchical environments over intimate and egalitarian settings because they offer greater opportunities to gain status. They prefer acquiring multiple contacts, friends, and partners over developing existing relationships.
They perpetually evaluate their influence and the attention and praise they’re receiving relative to how their competitors are doing. They watch for any impediments to their aims.
Narcissists’ Self-Esteem Regulation
Once narcissists have assessed the environment and who they’re dealing with, they determine the best way to achieve status by either raising theirs or lowering that of other people. To regulate their self-esteem, they primarily utilize 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. Narcissists employ charm, using their wit, resources, talent, conversational skills, and self-promotion through boasting, embellishing, and lying to manage their impression. These strategies boost their self-image and raise 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 vulnerable or covert narcissists employ threat-oriented defenses and internal negative dialogues that don’t satisfy their needs for esteem and validation. In contrast, grandiose narcissists employ more mature reward-seeking strategies in pursuing acceptance and admiration.
When self-promotion doesn’t work, grandiose narcissists’ resort to dominance. They're excellent manipulators and use covert tactics as well as overt power tactics and narcissistic abuse, such as belittling, lying, bullying, attacking, criticizing, or raging at the person they’re trying to influence as well as derogating their competitors. They put down others to elevate themselves and also create conflict that can lead to violence.
Grandiose narcissists sacrifice getting along to get ahead, while partners of narcissists sacrifice themselves to get along. They forego their status, rights, feelings, and needs to make the narcissist happy at their own expense, but the narcissist’s demands are never-ending. Their self-worth suffers as a result of this bargain and the narcissistic verbal abuse continues nonetheless.
Grapsas, S., Brummelman, E., Back, M.D., & Denissen, J. J. A. (2020). “The ‘Why’ and ‘How’ of Narcissism: A Process Model of Narcissistic Status Pursuit.” Perspectives on Psychological Science, Vol. 15(1) 150 –172. DOI: 0.1177/1745691619873350.
Trump, Mary (2020). Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man. (NY: Simon & Schuster).