The Essence of Narcissism

A short article describing the central problem with a narcissistic personality: 390 words.

If you can imagine that within you is a pool representing your self-esteem. Keeping this pool adequately full will maintain enough self-confidence to function in your life. If your pool is empty you will be racked with insecurity, and not even know who you really are.

Your pool is topped up every so often through accomplishments, but it may also be drained by events which reflect badly on you. Generally though, the level of your pool is pretty stable.

Now imagine if your pool had a leaky bottom, steadily draining self-esteem all the while. To keep hydrated you’d have to constantly keep taking in more liquid, but realistically we can’t expect one success after another. This is the predicament facing the narcissist.

Without constant additions to their pool of self-esteem the narcissist would shrivel. They must employ all methods at their disposal to keep the self-esteem flowing in, like a desperate addict looking to score. Putting others down in order to feel comparatively good about themselves is an option, no doubt one reason why narcissism has such a bad reputation. Maintaining a façade of confidence and accomplishment is another. Being in a position of power would be a handy way to regularly feel important, and perhaps a narcissist must ultimately achieve this to live sustainably. Experiences damaging a narcissist’s self-esteem are felt particularly hard, and perceived as an attack, so they will commonly respond with aggression. Perhaps unsurprisingly with such a constant self-focus, the narcissist often fails to empathise with others.

As a clinician I encounter narcissistic individuals at their low point, and so it is this I know best. The client usually still lacks insight into their condition, believing a hostile world to be the cause of their distress, when in fact the world may not have treated them particularly harshly; they just have a leaky bottom (so to speak). The client often still clings to their narcissistic façade portraying achievement and confidence, despite the clear discrepancy with the observable reality. But occasionally they will find a way to lower this façade, revealing the vulnerable human underneath, and this can be a very satisfying moment for a clinician. Narcissism has a bad reputation for a reason – it is frequently unpleasant for all concerned. But we mustn’t forget there is a human like us beneath this syndrome.

An Unstable Sense of Self

A short analogy on the experience of having an unstable sense of self: 340 words.

Most people take for granted a stable sense of the self. We know roughly our main character traits, our strengths and weaknesses, and the ways in which we relate to other people. We also can expect that these attributes will remain largely stable over time, and are not highly dependent on outside events or influences.

But not everybody feels this way. For some, their sense of self, and indeed their value as human beings is very much dependent on the outside world, particularly other people. In order to feel valuable and secure they require unambiguous and constant confirmations that others adore or admire them. Without these they begin to crumble. It is as though they must always be in the sun to keep warm, unable to generate body heat from within. And if a comparison to cold blooded reptiles seems unkind, it nevertheless represents the harsh way in which society judges such people. We interpret their psychological sunbathing as being needy, selfish or arrogant, and find their unpredictability and emotionality troublesome at best, destructive at worst. Related diagnoses such as Borderline and Narcissistic personality disorders carry a stigma, although for some the recognition of their experience as a ‘thing’ can be a relief.

Of course the majority of people who are psychologically ‘warm blooded’ still benefit from a little time in the sun – occasional compliments, hearing “I love you” from our family, a promotion at work – but cannot easily understand what life would be like if our whole identity depended on a constant supply of these events. We’d be always searching for that patch of sunlight in which to bask, and forever vigilant and defensive over threats to our self. There’d be no respite, and so it is not surprising that such experiences can lead people to make suicide attempts.

Overcoming an unstable sense of the self should be considered a long term project, and just realising what is going on is a good start. Then find a qualified clinician to help you or your loved one to take the next steps.