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.