Humpty Dumpty Ego: The fragility of the narcissist’s self-esteem

Narcissism picture

Out of curiosity, before I wrote this post I entered “famous people with narcissistic personality disorder” into Google. Here are some of the results:

  • Steve Jobs
  • Adolph Hitler
  • Napoleon
  • Emperor Nero
  • Madonna
  • Elvis Presley
  • Pablo Picasso
  • Donald Trump
  • Kanye West
  • Paris Hilton

Quite the mix isn’t it? Without a formal diagnosis I won’t draw any conclusions, but does it honestly surprise you that some people in power or who are drawn to fame like a moth to a flame could possibly be narcissistic? Narcissists display (DSM IV, 2000):

  • A grandiose (pompous and pretentious) view of themselves.
  • An extreme preoccupation with fame, power, and success.
  • A belief that they are special and can only be understood by people who are as special as they are.
  • A strong desire for admiration.
  • A strong sense of entitlement.
  • A tendency to take advantage of others.
  • A lack of empathy.
  • A tendency to be envious of others and/or to believe that others are envious of them.
  • An arrogant, superior attitude.

I can honestly say that I envy the privileges that celebrities enjoy but pity their fishbowl life. Fame and admiration are addictive, to the point where any form of criticism can be a harsh and rude awakening. And that’s the catch with narcissists: They may appear confident on the surface, but much like the fabled egg in the popular nursery rhyme, keeping the shell of their self-image intact is a precarious affair.

When I initially compared the self-esteem of narcissists to those who are not narcissistic, I found a significant yet negligible difference of only three points on their self-esteem scores (80 vs. 83 respectively, on a scale from 0 to 100). On the surface, both groups appeared the same: They both had a strong sense of their worth, a low need for approval from others, and seemed to be in good social standing (i.e. felt accepted by others). When I took a closer look at how narcissists and non-narcissists respond to criticism, however, that’s when I said “Ah ha. Gotcha.” Those who score high on narcissism take to criticism like the wicked witch in Oz takes to water.

melting

  • 78% of narcissists believe that people who criticize them do so because they are jealous (compared to 6% of non-narcissists).
  • 69% of narcissists will only listen to positive appraisals of themselves and ignore negative criticism (compared to 9% of non-narcissists).
  • 47% of narcissists believe that a partially failing at something is just as bad as a complete failure (compared to 5% of non-narcissists).
  • 47% of narcissists feel insulted when someone rejects their ideas (compared to 5% of non-narcissists).
  • 46% of narcissists consider it essential to be liked by everyone they meet (compared to 5% of non-narcissists).
  • 45% of narcissists feel degraded when someone points out their mistakes (compared to 4% of non-narcissists).
  • 44% of narcissists don’t like it when people point out their mistakes (compared to 9% of non-narcissists).
  • 40% of narcissists believe that being successful is imperative; more important, even, than trying their best (compared to 5% of non-narcissists).
  • 37% of narcissists are uncomfortable admitting their mistakes or admitting fault (compared to 3% of non-narcissists).
  • 33% of narcissists believe that talking about their faults makes them vulnerable to insults and mockery from others (compared to 6% of non-narcissists).

Narcissists thrive – or rather, survive – on admiration and approval from others. So when someone dares to challenge their grandiose self-view they end up shocked and upset; it’s like an error message pops up into their mind as “does not compute.” People who are not narcissists, on the other hand, accept criticism with grace and learn from their mistakes and failures. Narcissists may nonchalantly brush off criticism in front of others, but it does hurt them quite deeply. In the end, their self-esteem will go through extreme ups and downs depending on how others view them in a given moment.

Now, Narcissistic Personality Disorder, especially in severe cases, requires therapy and in some instances, medication. If you don’t have NPD but recognize that your self-esteem tends to be highly dependent on what other people think of you, here’s what I recommend:

  • Fight the tendency to compare yourself to others. If you’re like me, you’ve obsessively looked at profiles of people from high school to see how successful they are and chastised yourself in comparison. The thing is, you may look at someone and think they possess some quality or advantage that you don’t, but the fact is they may be looking at you and thinking the very same thing. Judge yourself by your own standards. Besides, most people will only show the best pictures of themselves on Facebook anyway.
  • Shun perfectionism. Interestingly, there is a high correlation between perfectionism and low self-esteem. The more you strive to be perfect, the more frustrated you become when you realize it’s impossible! Be aware of any perfectionistic tendencies you have and keep them in check.
  • Do things for the right people. It’s easy to get wrapped up in your own little world and forget that there are people out there who are in need. Give to others – your time, company, whatever you have to share – and you’ll find yourself feeling much better about yourself. I mean that genuine, warm-apple-pie feeling.

Insightfully yours,

Queen D

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