It can be hard to tell if narcissists have high or low self-esteem. One moment they will be full of confidence and grandiosity, but the next they will be victimizing themselves and in desperate need of reassurance.

Narcissists have what researchers call fragile high self-esteem. Their feelings of self-worth are unstable, uncertain, and based on unrealistically positive self-views, while simultaneously being entirely dependent on external validation and self-deception.

This article is a thorough exploration of a narcissist’s fragile high self-esteem and has a ton of helpful information that you can use to grasp a better understanding of narcissism!

Narcissists Have Fragile High Self-Esteem

If you have, or have had, a narcissist in your life, understanding their fragile high self-esteem is really important.

Now, narcissists spend their entire life hiding behind a falsified identity that portrays them as charming, charismatic, confident, articulate, successful, and unique.

A narcissist hiding behind a falsified identity.

Behind this falsified identity is a fragile, vulnerable, and insecure person who struggles with feelings of being unlovable, unwanted, inadequate, worthless, and weak.

Their Positive Self-Perception is Dependent on External Validation

Interestingly enough, narcissists refuse to acknowledge their painful thoughts, feelings, and emotions.

In fact, they dedicate an extraordinary amount of time and resources to accumulating the narcissistic supply that they need to suppress their painful thoughts, feelings, and emotions.

A narcissist talking about getting narcissistic supply for his self-esteem.

The reason that they do this is because they have low emotional intelligence.

Having low emotional intelligence means that a person has difficulty recognizing and understanding their emotions and those of others.

Because of their low emotional intelligence, narcissists have extremely poor emotional regulation.

Meaning that they are incapable of managing the painful thoughts, feelings, and emotions that they have with healthy forms of regulation.

Suggested Reading:

One of the ways that narcissists “manage” their painful thoughts, feelings, and emotions is projection. Our article Why Do Narcissists Use Projection?has a lot of helpful information about this.

It is for this reason that they rely on the validation, admiration, and reassurance of others to construct a positive self-perception.

A narcissist talking about how his self-esteem is built.

This brings us to the first aspect of their fragile high self-esteem.

Those with fragile high self-esteem rely on external validation to support their unrealistically positive self-perception.

Narcissists rely on narcissistic supply, which is the validation, admiration, reassurance, power, and control that they get from their surrounding environment, to build and maintain a positive self-perception.

They Rely on Self-Deception to Maintain a Positive Self-Perception

The second aspect of a narcissist’s fragile high self-esteem that we are going to touch on is self-deception.

Self-deception is a personality trait and an independent mental state, it involves a combination of a conscious motivational false belief and a contradictory unconscious real belief.1

In other words, self-deception is a process of denying or rationalizing away the relevance of opposing evidence and logical argument.

A narcissist participating in self-deception.

Self-deception is convincing oneself of a truth, or the lack of truth, so that one does not reveal any self-knowledge of the deception.

Because narcissists lack the emotional intelligence needed to manage their painful thoughts, feelings, and emotions, they engage in self-deception on a daily basis.

You see, when narcissists receive a consistent flow of narcissistic supply, they develop the following traits2:

  • A grandiose sense of self-importance.
  • Fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
  • A belief that he or she is special and unique.
  • A belief that he or she can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people or institutions.
  • A sense of entitlement
  • A belief that others are envious of him or her

What is happening here is that they are using narcissistic supply to convince themselves that the traits listed above are truly part of their identity.

This is self-deception because when this happens it allows narcissists to suppress and “forget” their true identity which is composed of painful thoughts, feelings, and emotions.

A narcissist pretending that he doesn't have painful thoughts, feelings, and emotions.

Now, this leads us into the third aspect of a narcissist’s high fragile self-esteem which is the fact that their feelings of self-worth are unstable, uncertain, and based on unrealistically positive self-views.

Their Feelings of Self-Worth Are Unstable, Uncertain, and Based on Unrealistically Positive Self-Views

The unrealistically positive self-views that narcissists have originate from the narcissistic supply that they get from their surrounding environment.

Interestingly enough, their unstable and uncertain feelings of self-worth also originate from the narcissistic supply that they get from their surrounding environment.

This is because narcissists use a manipulation tactic called mirroring to get narcissistic supply.

A narcissistic woman using mirroring.

However, before we can explain the significance of that, we must take a closer look at a narcissist’s origin story.

It is the belief of many mental health specialists that narcissism originates from a childhood with emotionally unavailable, unresponsive, and inconsistent primary caregivers.

The emotional neglect that narcissists are believed to have experienced prevented them from getting their thoughts, feelings, and emotions mirrored properly.

In this context, mirroring refers to a parent’s accurate reflection of a child’s expressed thoughts, feelings, and emotions.

When children don’t have access to a healthy parental mirror, they can’t get the validation, admiration, and reassurance that they need to construct a realistic self-perception and have a healthy cognitive development.

A neglected child.

This is the reason that narcissists have unrealistically positive self-views and low emotional intelligence.

When this happened, narcissists quickly figured out that they could build a positive self-perception (i.e. self-esteem) by using mirroring to get the validation, admiration, and reassurance that their primary caregivers couldn’t, or wouldn’t, give them.

In this context, mirroring refers to a narcissist’s ability to absorb an extraordinary amount of information about the identity of others and use that information to create a falsified identity that people will validate, admire, and reassure.

Suggested Reading:

One of the best things that you can do if you want to grasp a better understanding of why narcissists do what they do is learn about their origin story. Our article How Are Narcissists Made? has all the information that you need to do this.

There are two very big problems that a narcissist’s approach to getting validation, admiration, and reassurance creates.

A narcissist running away from her problems.

First, it makes them even more emotionally unstable because they are not able to be their true authentic selves; only a version of themselves that they believe others would validate, admire, and reassure.

Second, their low intelligence prevents them from being able to look past society’s superficial exterior when mirroring so they constructed their self-perception (i.e. self-esteem) out of very superficial forms of validation, admiration, and reassurance.

A simple example of this would be a narcissistic teenage boy building his self-esteem out of the validation, admiration, and reassurance that he got from his peers for being popular at school.

A narcissist getting a lot of attention.

This is why the feelings of self-worth that narcissists have are so unstable and uncertain.

They have to spend their entire lives hiding behind a falsified identity so they can get the validation, admiration, and reassurance that they desperately need and the validation, admiration, and reassurance that they get is worthless.

You see, the correct way to build self-esteem is by doing things like building positive relationships, being kind to yourself, finding things that you are good at, etc.

What narcissists do is they build their self-esteem out of the admiration of others.

So they prioritize having a lot of money, looking really good, being high-status, finding attractive partners, driving nice cars, etc.

A narcissist going after superficial aspect of life.

The stability of their self-esteem is entirely dependent on the people in their surrounding environment, that is why it is so unstable, uncertain, and fragile.

What Should You Take Away From This Article?

Narcissists have fragile high self esteem. They spend their entire lives hiding behind a falsified identity so they don’t have to acknowledge their painful thoughts, feelings, and emotions.

As a result, their feelings of self worth are unstable, uncertain, based on unrealistically positive self-views, and entirely dependent on external validation and self-deception.

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References:

[1] Von Hippel, William, and Robert Trivers. “The evolution and psychology of self-deception.” Behavioral and brain sciences34.1 (2011): 1.

[2] American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5)