Narcissism and Self-love: The Dark Side of Self-Esteem

Psychology 101: The 101 Ideas, Concepts and Theories that Have Shaped Our World - Adrian Furnham 2021

Narcissism and Self-love: The Dark Side of Self-Esteem

Virtue brings honour, and honour vanity. (Thomas Fuller, Gnomologists, 1700)

Our vanity desires that what we do best should be considered what is hardest for us. (F. Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, 1880)

Several versions of the myth of narcissism survive. At the heart of the myth is the caution of misperception and self-love: the idea that inaccurate self-perceptions can lead to tragic and self-defeating consequences.

There is a scale which goes from healthy high self-esteem, to very high, to pathologically high. While it is healthy to ’feel good about yourself’, narcissists are self-absorbed, focusing on and caring about, only themselves.

Researchers have summarized the psychiatric diagnostic criteria of clinical Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) as:

A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behaviour), lack of empathy and hypersensitivity to the evaluation of others, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by at least five of the following:

1 Reacts to criticism with feelings of rage, shame or humiliation (even if not expressed).

2 Is interpersonally exploitative: takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends.

3 Has a grandiose sense of self-importance, e.g. exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be noticed as ’special’ without appropriate achievement.

4 Believes that his or her problems are unique and can be understood only by other special people.

5 Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty or ideal love.

6 Has a sense of entitlement: unreasonable expectation of especially favourable treatment, e.g., assumes that he or she does not have to wait in line when others must do so.

7 Requires constant attention and admiration, e.g., keeps fishing for compliments.

8 Lack of empathy; inability to recognize and experience how others feel, e.g., annoyance and surprise when a friend who is seriously ill cancels a date.

9 ’Is preoccupied with feelings of envy’ (Oldham and Morris, 1991, pp. 93—4).

Narcissism is a disorder of self-esteem. People with NPD self-destruct because their self-aggrandizement blinds their personal and business judgement and managerial behaviour. Their reaction to any sort of criticism is extreme, including shame, rage and tantrums. They aim to destroy that criticism, however well-intentioned and useful. They are poor empathizers and thus have low emotional intelligence. They can be consumed with envy and disdain of others, and are prone to depression as well as manipulative, demanding and self-centred behaviours; even therapists don’t like them.

Narcissists are boastful, pretentious and self-aggrandizing, over-estimating their own abilities and accomplishments while simultaneously deflating others. They compare themselves favourably to famous, privileged people, believing their own discovery as one of them is long overdue. They are surprisingly secure in their beliefs that they are gifted and unique and have special needs beyond the comprehension of ordinary people.

Paradoxically, their self-esteem is fragile, needing to be bolstered by constant attention and admiration from others. They expect their demands to be met by special favourable treatment. In doing so they often exploit others because they form relationships specifically designed to enhance their self-esteem. They lack empathy, being totally self-absorbed. They are also envious of others and begrudge them their success. They are well known for their arrogance and their disdainful, patronizing attitude.

The two dimensions of NPD are often referred to as grandiose and vulnerable narcissism. Grandiose narcissism primarily reflects traits related to aggression and dominance, while vulnerable narcissism reflects a defensive, insecure grandiosity that obscures feelings of inadequacy, incompetence and depression. The primary feature shared by both dimensions of narcissism is a tendency to act antagonistically towards others. Vulnerable narcissists have grandiose fantasies but are timid, insecure and consequently do not appear narcissistic on the surface. Grandiose narcissists have higher levels of happiness and life satisfaction and are more exhibitionistic than vulnerable narcissists.

Narcissists are unsupportive but demand support for themselves. All are unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others in and out of work. They have desperately low emotional intelligence, though are apparently unaware of this. Indeed, they may assume they have superior emotional intelligence. Curiously, they are often envious of others and believe that others are envious of them. In this sense they are deluded. They show arrogant, haughty behaviours or attitudes all the time and everywhere at work (and home).

Narcissists are super self-confident: they express considerable self-certainty. They are ’self-people’ — self-asserting, self-possessed, self-aggrandizing, self-preoccupied, self-loving — and ultimately self-destructive. They seem to really believe in themselves: they are sure that they have been born lucky. At work they are outgoing, high energy, competitive and very ’political’, depending of course on their normal (big five) trait profile. Thus the extraverted conscientious narcissist may be rather different from those more neurotic and open. They can make reasonable short-term leaders as long as they are not criticized, or made to share glory. They seem to have an insatiable need to be admired, love and be needed. This can appear amusing or pathetic to outside observers. They are often a model of the ambitious, driven, self-disciplined, successful leader or manager. The world, they believe and demand, is their stage.


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Furnham, A. (2015). Backstabbers and Bullies. London: Bloomsbury.

Kets de Vries, M. (2006). The Leader on the Couch. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.

Oldham, J., & Morris, L. (1991). Personality self-portrait. New York: Bantam.