Narcissism is basically a psychological coping mechanism for low self-esteem. Ironically the narcissist rarely believes that he or she has a problem with self-esteem.
Very young children naturally feel they are the center of the world. They need to experience healthy narcissism to feel good about themselves, to gain the confidence to grow up and take care of themselves and be able to initiate social interactions.
Children generally grow out of this healthy narcissistic phase if they experience “mirroring” and “idealization.” Mirroring means receiving empathy and approval from one’s parents. Idealization means being able to look up to a caregiver as a respected person separate from oneself.
Lack of mirroring occurs in one of the following ways:
1. Approval is erratic or lacking all together. The child is ignored.
2. Admiration is too unrealistic to believe, while realistic feedback is lacking. “You’re the cutest, smartest…”
3. Criticism for bad behavior is excessive. “You are bad, evil, stupid!!”
4. The parents are excessively permissive and overindulge the child, implying a lack of caring. “Sure, have a bowl of candy, more juice, toys, throw your food if you want to, I don’t care.”
Children are deprived of idealization in one of the following ways:
1. The parents are unpredictable, unreliable, or lacking in empathy.
2. The parents are emotionally or physically abusive.
3. The parents have no interest in the child’s needs, but exploit the child to feed their own self-esteem.
Without receiving empathy or the ability to look up to others, children do not develop empathy for themselves or others. They may grow up being psychologically stuck in the narcissistic phase.
As a result, they feel flawed and unacceptable. They fear rejection and isolation because of their perceived worthlessness. To avoid this pain, they focus on controlling how others view them by embellishing their accomplishments and skills.
They feel deep shame, which causes them to develop an artificial self. While we all develop an artificial self to some degree, narcissists IDENTIFY with their artificial self. Preoccupied with presenting the right image, they are ironically rarely aware of their own low self-esteem.
People with adequate self-esteem are usually willing to look at themselves with honest self-reflection and consider areas in which they could improve. This makes sense because they have empathy for the flaws and inadequacies in both themselves and others.
Sadly, the narcissist believes that flaws are to be hated and concealed, and that only perfection and superiority can be displayed. Thus, they view themselves and others with a perspective that swings from over-valuation to loathing. In their quest for approval and acceptance, they use their charm and charisma. Once dependent on others’ approval, the smallest hint of disapproval can send them into a state of punishing vengeance.
To protect oneself from the emotional pendulum of the narcissist, it’s best not to make your self-worth dependent on one by perpetually trying to please the narcissist. While the charisma bestowed on you might feel irresistible at first, it could soon turn into punishing scorn and retaliation.
by Alison Poulsen, PhD
References: “Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders.”