Personal attacks are when someone makes a damaging remark about another person’s lifestyle or choices. Personal attacks can make someone feel devalued, invalidated, humiliated, and degraded.

Narcissists often feel personally attacked because they have fragile high self-esteem. Their feelings of self-worth are uncertain, unstable, and based on unrealistically positive self-views. Because of this, narcissists are more likely to feel personally attacked than those with secure high self-esteem.

In this article we are going to explore the origin of a narcissist’s fragile high self-esteem so you can grasp a better understanding of the reason that narcissists frequently feel personally attacked when interacting with others.

Narcissists Have Fragile High Self-Esteem

Self-esteem is how we value and perceive ourselves. Those with secure self-esteem tend to be fairly steady in their self-view and self-evaluations.

The self-evaluations that are made by people with secure self-esteem tend to be based more in deep beliefs about the self and don’t rely on external validation.

For example, if someone with a secure self-esteem received negative feedback, it wouldn’t cause them to question or re-evaluate their sense of self.

A person getting a test back from her teacher.

Fragile self-esteem refers to feelings of self-worth that are uncertain or unstable and based on unrealistically positive self-views that are easily challenged. 

Unlike those with secure self-esteem, the self-evaluations of people with fragile self-esteem do rely on external validation. They seek frequent validation and reassurance of their positive self-views.

At a quick glance, narcissists seem to have very positive self-views. But they are actually some of the most insecure, vulnerable, and self-loathing people on the planet.

Narcissists have a ton of painful thoughts, feelings, and emotions buried underneath their surface that they keep suppressed with the help of narcissistic supply.

A narcissist with many painful thoughts, feelings, and emotions.

This supply is the validation, admiration, reassurance, power, and control that narcissists get from their surrounding environment and it helps them maintain emotional stability.

The story behind the painful thoughts, feelings, and emotions that narcissists struggle with on a daily basis is important to know because it is believed to be the reason that they have fragile self-esteem.

Their Childhood Upbringing Destroyed Their Self-Esteem

Many mental health specialists believe that narcissists are created by an abusive or unhealthy childhood upbringing.

This upbringing is believed to have consisted of emotionally unavailable, unresponsive, and inconsistent primary caregivers.

Now, before we go any further, it is important to clarify what is meant by an abusive or unhealthy childhood upbringing because it has a broad spectrum of possibilities.

We are often quick to assume that the terms abusive or unhealthy mean physical abuse or more evident forms of emotional abuse such as gaslighting and invalidation.

A narcissist yelling at her daughter.

However, that isn’t always the case. It could also refer to an environment where the emotional availability, responsiveness, and consistency was unhealthy.

For example, a primary caregiver who doesn’t set healthy boundaries with thier child or a primary caregiver who is very controlling and overprotective.

The point is that when a child has emotionally unavailable, unresponsive, and inconsistent primary caregivers, they never get their thoughts, feelings, emotions, or needs properly mirrored.

Suggested Reading:

Our article How Are Narcissists Made? has a ton of helpful information about a narcissist’s origin story.

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

Healthy parental mirroring.

Healthy mirroring gives children the validation, admiration, and reassurance that they need to develop a realistic sense of self and have a healthy cognitive development.

This is where things went horribly wrong for a narcissist because their caregivers’ neglect caused them to develop an extremely fragile self-esteem.

You see, when the narcissist was neglected by their primary caregivers, they began to believe that they were unlovable, unwanted, inadequate, weak, and worthless.

Unfortunately, there wasn’t anything that they could do about these painful thoughts, feelings, and emotions because their unhealthy cognitive development left them with low emotional intelligence.

Low emotional intelligence is the inability to accurately perceive emotions (in both themselves and others) and to use that information to guide their thinking and actions.

A teacher talking about a narcissists low emotional intelligence.

In other words, narcissists didn’t possess the emotional skills one would need to effectively manage all of the painful thoughts, feelings, and emotions that they had.

What happened instead was the narcissist turned to their external environment to get the validation, admiration, and reassurance that their primary caregivers couldn’t, or wouldn’t, give them.

This is a huge issue because to do this narcissist used mirroring. In this context, the term mirroring refers to a manipulation tactic that narcissists use.

It occurs when a narcissist absorbs a ton of information about their surrounding environment and uses that information to create a falsified identity that they believe will be validated, admired, and reassured by others.

Suggested Reading:

Our article How Do Narcissists Use Mirroring? will help you grasp a better understanding of what mirroring is and how narcissists use it to control others.

The reason that this is such a big issue is because at that point in time, narcissists were so emotionally immature that they couldn’t see past society’s superficial exterior.

As a result, they constructed themselves out of the most superficial forms of validation, admiration, and reassurance that their surrounding environment had to offer.

A narcissistic kid.

A simple example of this could be a narcissistic teenage boy hiding his passion for art so he could be the rugged football player that his peers validated, admired, reassured, and ultimately, accepted.

As you can imagine, this made the narcissist’s fragile self-esteem even more profound because they were not able to be their true authentic selves;  only a version of themselves that they believed others would accept.

As the narcissist got older, they continued to suppress the painful thoughts, feelings, and emotions that they had connected to their true identity with the narcissistic supply that their falsified identity was attracting.

A narcissist getting a lot of attention.

This destroyed their self-esteem and forced them to spend their days desperately searching for validation, admiration, and reassurance so they could maintain their falsified identity and keep their painful thoughts, feelings, and emotions suppressed.

They Are Prone to Emotional Pain, Distress, Torment, and Suffering

When a narcissist finds themselves in a situation where they feel attacked, they experience a high degree of emotional pain, distress, torment, and suffering.

The reason for this is because a lack of narcissistic supply causes a narcissist’s sense of self, which is now their falsified identity, to deteriorate rapidly.

When this happens, all of their painful thoughts, feelings, and emotions get triggered and the narcissist will begin to panic.

A narcissist feeling very attacked.

This is because instead of feeling validated, admired, and reassured, the narcissist now feels unlovable, unwanted, worthless, weak, and inadequate.

Unfortunately, this typically means that they will subject the people in their surrounding environment to aggressive and passive-aggressive forms of abuse.

By subjecting others to abuse, narcissists are able to regain control of their surrounding environment and gain access to nearby sources of supply.

For example, imagine that you are confronting the narcissist in your life because you think that they have been stealing from you but aren’t sure.

You aren’t aggressive, you simply ask, “Hey have you been taking money from me without telling me? It is fine if you have, I just would like to be kept in the loop.”

Someone confronting a narcissist about stealing.

The narcissist feels attacked by your question and says, “Oh so you are just calling me a thief now?!” then proceeds to fly into a narcissistic rage.

Seeing you frightened by their rage gives them the narcissistic supply that they need to manage the painful thoughts, feelings, and emotions that were triggered.

Suggested Reading:

Our article Why Do Narcissists Go Into a Rage? will give you a better understanding of how narcissists use rage to control others.

The instability, fragility, and hypersensitivity that narcissists possess is the reason why they are often feeling attacked by others.

What Should You Take Away From This Article?

Narcissists have fragile self-esteem and it causes them to frequently feel attacked by others.

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References:

Self-Esteem – Better Health Channel

Jennifer L. S. Borton, Abigail E. Crimmins, Rebecca S. Ashby & Jessica F. Ruddiman (2012) How Do Individuals with Fragile High Self-esteem Cope with Intrusive Thoughts Following Ego Threat, Self and Identity

Justin T. Buckingham, Tiffany A Lam, Fernanda C Andrade, Brandon L Boring, Danielle Emery. (2019) Reducing contingent self-worth: A defensive response to self-threatsThe Journal of Social Psychology159:3, pages 284-298.