Why do narcissists have such low self-esteem?

Narcissism is truly a paradoxical personality trait. On the outside, narcissistic individuals appear confident and self-assured. 

They come across as arrogant and superior, believing they are exceptional and deserve constant admiration. However, beneath the surface, there is a different side to the narcissist.

Outward displays of grandiosity are actually just a facade to cover up the narcissist’s underlying feelings of inferiority. In fact, the narcissist suffers from quite low self-esteem, which is why they must put on a show of being so superior and exceptional.

You might be surprised to learn that narcissists often have profoundly low self-esteem. Recognizing this fact and the reasons behind it is essential if you want to understand the complex nature of narcissistic personality disorder truly.

Reasons for their low-self-esteem

It can be shocking to learn that narcissists actually have low self-esteem since they appear so charming and confident on the outside. However, there are several reasons that narcissists struggle with self-esteem. 

#1 Fragile sense of self

Despite their outward arrogance, narcissists have extreme insecurities. Their sense of self is quite fragile, as they doubt their worth and capabilities.

The grandiosity they display on the outside is actually a defense mechanism. Narcissists can hide their underlying feelings of inadequacy by exaggerating their achievements and importance. 

Because they have such a fragile sense of self, narcissists often struggle with low self-esteem as they grapple with their insecurities. 

#2 Rejection fears

Narcissists are extremely sensitive to criticism and rejection. Even the slightest hint of criticism can wound their egos and trigger their feelings of inferiority. 

A subtle sign of rejection or a negative comment directed their way can quickly trigger the narcissist, activating their underlying low self-esteem. 

#3 Need for external validation 

Narcissists rely on external validation to maintain their self-esteem. This means that positive feelings toward themselves do not come from within, but rather from other people.

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The problem with this is that if the narcissist doesn’t get the validation they need from others, their self-esteem will suffer. Narcissists are prone to bouts of low self-esteem when they are not being showered with attention and admiration.

#4 History of receiving conditional love

For many narcissistic individuals, their childhood experience involved receiving only conditional love from parents and caretakers. 

This means they weren’t valued for who they were; instead, parents showed affection when the child achieved something or made the parents look good.

When narcissists become adults, they feel they are only worthy when they’re accomplishing something or standing out as being special or superior. Since it’s not possible to constantly achieve impressive feats, the narcissist’s self-esteem is often low, because they only feel good about themselves when they meet certain conditions. 

#5 Superficial relationships

Narcissists cannot develop authentic relationships that involve deep, meaningful connections. All of their relationships are transactional, with the narcissist surrounding themselves with people who will give them validation and admiration.

The problem with these superficial relationships is that they do not offer the narcissist genuine connection and support. This can take a toll on self-esteem, especially if the narcissists watch other people engage in meaningful relationships while they struggle to form true connections with others. 

#6 Criticism and neglect during childhood

Narcissism develops during childhood and is often the result of poor relationships with parents. In many cases, narcissists were exposed to parents who were cold and emotionally unavailable.

As children, many narcissists experienced emotional neglect, combined with harsh criticism. This fosters a deep sense of unworthiness in a child, leading to low self-esteem. 

As adults, narcissists still carry a sense of unworthiness with them, which they overcompensate for with their narcissistic behaviors. 

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#7 Fear of vulnerability

Forming meaningful, fulfilling relationships with others requires vulnerability, which narcissists avoid at all costs. Being vulnerable would mean admitting to their fears, faults, and imperfections, which is next to impossible for narcissists.

Since narcissists cannot be vulnerable with others, they never form genuine connections. This reinforces their feelings of isolation and low-self worth, perpetuating their self-esteem issues.

#8 Perfectionistic tendencies

Narcissists cannot tolerate imperfection, which leads them to develop unrealistic expectations for themselves and others. Narcissists strive to meet their own standards for perfection, but when they inevitably fall short, they feel inadequate.

Since they can never truly be perfect, narcissists will never meet the standards they set for themselves. When they realize they are imperfect, this realization perpetuates the narcissist’s low self-esteem. 

#9 Chronic emptiness

Most narcissists experience an inner emotional void, despite their outward displays of confidence and success. This occurs because narcissists are constantly in pursuit of external validation, which ultimately fails to meet their emotional needs.

In the end, the narcissist is emotionally unfulfilled, and they feel quite empty. This leaves them with low self-esteem, as they fail to meet their emotional needs. 

#10 Emotional numbness

Since narcissists rely entirely on external validation, they often lack genuine joy. They do not experience authentic happiness; rather, they have moments of fleeting happiness when someone else validates their worth.

The narcissist’s focus on superficial happiness leads to emotional numbness rather than lasting fulfillment. This exacerbates their low self-esteem and prevents them from ever experiencing a strong sense of self-worth from within. 

Tying it all together

We’ve spent a lot of time talking about the intricacies of low self-esteem in narcissists. To summarize what you’ve learned, consider the following reasons narcissists tend to have low self-esteem. 

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They have a fragile sense of self, dependent upon external validation.

They are extremely fearful of rejection and sensitive to criticism.

They received conditional love during childhood, leading them to believe that they are only worthy when they’re achieving something noteworthy.

Their relationships are superficial and transactional in nature, which doesn’t lead to fulfilling connections with others.

They experienced emotional neglect and constant criticism during childhood.

They are perfectionists who hold themselves to impossible-to-meet standards.

They fear being vulnerable with others, which isolates them and perpetuates feelings of low self-worth.

They struggle with emotional emptiness and numbness.

When you evaluate the truths above, it makes sense that narcissists struggle with low self-esteem. The core of their personality rests on receiving external praise and validation, while holding themselves to perfectionistic standards and avoiding deep emotional connections with others.

These personality features don’t make for healthy self-esteem; they simply cover up feelings of inadequacy. 

Low self-esteem: The paradox of narcissism

If you suspect that the narcissist in your life has low self-esteem, you’re probably correct. Even though narcissists appear outwardly arrogant and self-assured, this is just a mask to cover up their underlying feelings of inferiority.

Many narcissists have a fragile sense of self, arising from early childhood experiences of neglect and conditional love from parents. They struggle their entire lives to receive enough validation and praise to compensate for their feelings of inadequacy. 

As adults, narcissists struggle to form true connections with others, and they expect themselves to be perfect, which just isn’t possible. All of this leads to low self-esteem.

Narcissists may never admit to feeling inadequate, but it’s still helpful for you to know the truth, so you understand what is driving narcissistic behavior. 

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