Narcissism vs. Authentic Self-Esteem

You may have seen or heard about these two new studies on self-esteem in college students.  A recent New York Times article reports that, when given the choice, most college students prefer to receive a boost to their self-esteem in the form of a compliment or good grade over eating a favorite food such as pizza or having sex.  The article begins with the following question:  “Are young people addicted to feeling good about themselves?”

At first, I found this question idiotic.  I am sick and tired of how our culture has adapted the language of addiction to describe everything.  The more I thought about it, however, it did make a (limited) kind of sense to me, especially if you consider addiction to actual drugs as a means to avoid some other experience or to seek an inappropriate remedy for a very real problem.  As I’ve written elsewhere, narcissistic people crave attention and admiration in order to ward off feelings of inferiority and to  bolster a fragile sense of self.  In other words, they have no authentic self-esteem and look to others to provide a substitute for it.  The problem with external sources of self-esteem, as with all drugs, is that they wear off and you have to secure more of it to feed your habit.  As a result, those individuals without genuine self-esteem have an insatiable need for their their egos to be bolstered by the people around them.  In this sense, I suppose it makes sense to talk about them as addicts, even if “addicted to self-esteem” sounds ridiculous.  Besides, receiving a compliment has nothing to do with authentic self-esteem.

In my experience, you can’t obtain real self-esteem from the outside.  Yes, it’s important that our parents praise and encourage us as we grow up.  We internalize that praise, along with their values and standards and those of our teachers, peers and social environment; then, once they’ve become a part of us, we must live up to those standards if we’re to feel good about ourselves.  I’m not referring to perfectionistic and overly harsh standards, impossible to meet.  I mean our own ideas and expectations, evolved from the disparate influences of family, peer group and culture, about what it means to be and behave like a person we would respect.

Once in my own therapy, many years ago, I was telling my therapist about a social encounter the night before which involved too much alcohol, some poor choices and promiscuous behavior on my part.  I don’t remember what he said about it, exactly, but I responded in a very defensive way and told him I felt as if he disapproved of me.  He may then have said, “I think you feel that you deserve disapproval.”  Or maybe, “I think it’s you who disapproves of yourself.”  I can’t recall but the effect upon me was stunning, the way I always used to feel when he delivered a particularly accurate interpretation.  All at once, I had to “own” my projections into him and realize that I felt very bad about myself indeed.  I knew better than to behave the way I had done; at the time, I knew I was making poor choices but like a rebellious kid, I refused to acknowledge the probable bad result of my actions and did what felt good in the moment.  I could have done better.

To this day, I say similar things to my own clients when it seems appropriate.  I might tell them, “Maybe there’s a good reason why you feel bad about yourself today.”  I don’t in any way mean this to be harsh and I never feel judgmental about it.   Rather, it’s my way of making clear that self-esteem is something that is earned.  Maybe self-respect would be a better way of talking about the issue.  All respect has to be earned, including self-respect.  In this connection, I think that self-confidence is another useful concept, if you consider confidence in its secondary meaning, something confided or entrusted.  I believe that authentic self-confidence, self-respect and self-esteem grow out of knowing yourself very well, including your capacity for destructiveness (confiding in yourself, as it were) and behaving in ways that you respect by meeting your own standards and keeping destructiveness in check.

Finding Your Own Way:

Think back to a recent event you can’t quite put to rest, an incident where you may have behaved inappropriately, or about which other people have criticized you; maybe you’re still justifying yourself in the privacy of your thoughts.  This may be a place where you can see this process at work.

Try to step back from the incident and look at it objectively; you don’t have to accept or assign blame at this point.  What are the issues and values at the heart of the experience?  Sensitivity to other people’s feelings?  How to balance your needs and wishes with those of your loved ones?  Division of responsibilities within your primary relationship?  Maybe
there are ethical issues involved with something that happened at work.  You might have betrayed a confidence or said more than you should on a sensitive issue.  If possible, look at the situation as if it involved somebody other than you and decide what are the standards and values that apply.

Then evaluate your behavior and see if you lived up to those standards.  Pay careful attention to the ways in which you may want to justify a breach — a sure sign that you feel in the wrong.  Angry defensiveness is another indication that you’re trying to ward of guilt or other bad feelings.  I usually find that giving up the fight and simply owning my error makes me feel better — not completely better, of course, but somehow all that energy spent in trying to defend my innocence only makes me feel worse about myself on another level, leading to more defensiveness, etc.

By Joseph Burgo

Joe is the author and the owner of, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.


  1. I agree 100%…
    “I believe that authentic self-confidence, self-respect and self-esteem grow out of knowing yourself very well, including your capacity for destructiveness (confiding in yourself, as it were) and behaving in ways that you respect by meeting your own standards and keeping destructiveness in check.”

    It was not until I had come to know myself very well (in therapy), with my therapist ‘walking beside me’ to assist me to do this, that I gained authentic self-confidence, self-respect and self-esteem. All of this, I describe as a deep inner knowing that I really am okay.

    1. So very well said! You described the exact experience that I’m going through at the moment. For the first time in my life I feel like I’m finally developing a sense of authentic self-confidence, self-respect, and self-esteem along with an inherent sense of self-worth that has only come as the result of me getting to know myself on a deep level and fully understanding myself, my values, my emotions, my experiences, my behavior, my beliefs, etc… and that absolutely includes my own capacity for destructiveness and self-sabotaging behaviors.

      The biggest life changing aspect came when I began being compassionate and understanding with myself… I began allowing myself to be imperfect and make mistakes and instead of judge myself harshly, I began to nurture and support the less healthy side of me from a more mature healthier side. Basically re-parenting myself. I still do things sometimes that I feel disappointed in and I genuinely try to do better the next time. But I don’t feel like a total failure at life when I make mistakes anymore and this has been huge for me. It all came down to finally realizing that I AM OK!!! Just as you said…. what a simple yet so profound realization! Totally life changing! Knowing that I’m ok just as I am frees up all the energy that I spent beating myself up so that I can use it to focus on working towards goals that align with my personal values in a realistic and achievable way. It’s a beautiful thing! 🙂

    2. I’ve recently dissolved a relationship with a woman I feel has NPD. I can’t say for sure (and I’m not a doctor), but it seems like all the “signs” were there. I searched for a long time to find a place where men (in particular) could go and find information and share their stories. Most of the information is geared towards it being a man’s disorder. I assume because it is mostly found in men. It seems, from the stories I have read, that it tends to be more subtle and less “outwardly” abrasive in women. So maybe this is one of the reasons it isn’t shown to be as prevalent in them. I have tried to share my story and some experiences in hopes that other men might not feel as though it was something they did or it was their fault. I dealt with a good amount of personal assaults, from my ex-girlfriend during our breakup. It seemed to really cause problems when I told her I believed she had NPD. Her biggest concern was to make sure none of her immediate family or friends heard any of this. I can’t “fix” her and had to just accept that. So I created a forum for others to get some support. Maybe you can give me a few ideas or a direction you think might be beneficial for the group.

      I would appreciate any suggestions/critisism you and your readers may be able to provide.

      Thank you,

      1. William, back when I was researching the issue of eliminating NPD from the upcoming DSM-V, I came across this website: Shrink4Men. I didn’t spend much time there but it looked to me like a forum for men who had survived abusive relationships with women who suffered from personality disorders. Let me know if you think it has any value for you.

        In your forum, you might want to explore what it was that drew you into these relationships. Because pathological narcissism is so dramatic, it’s easy to focus on HER; but what (unhealthy) needs was this relationship satisfying for you? For example, you mentioned that you couldn’t ‘fix’ your girlfriend; do you feel the need to ‘fix’ people before you can get what you need, and where does that come from? You see what I’m getting at. By looking at the relationships this way, you won’t see yourself as simply the victim and you can learn something about yourself. Each of us is always in a relationship for a reason, because it satisfies one of our “needs”, however bad for us it may be.

        1. Dr., Thank you for the reference and I agree with your statement about our issues. I had started another section that goes into how “we” contribute to the relationship and how we can start identifying the things “insecurities/disorders” that we bring to the relationship. I, for one, know that I have abondonment fears (pretty strong sometimes). I also know, from long discussions with my mother recently, that my father may have had NPD or traits of it. He left us early in my life and never looked back. I think in some ways I am trying to “fix” what was broken in me 33 years ago. This recent relationship has opened my eyes to most of this now and it is helping to deal with one of my biggest problems (abandonment).
          Thanks again,

  2. Hi Joseph 🙂

    I am an 20 year old year psychology student from London who loves your blog
    Have you ever heard of Brian Blackwell ? He was an 18 year old sufferer of NPD who killed his parents in 2004 and became the subject of a very popular case here in England and who was one of the first people who were allowed to plead manslaughter with NPD as a defence for murder here is a link to a documentary about his case, I’d love if you could watch it and make a post about what you think, it would be GREAT to hear your view :

    I have suffered from strong narcissistic symptoms, however feel as though I cured myself from them. My father was a pathological sufferer of NPD and feel I naturally inherited some of his traits, my mother is also a huge narcissist so naturally, they passed this on to me.

    When I was growing up I found I had a strong sense of entitlement, grandiose delusions and was so self obsessed in my idea of how incredibly amazing and special I was that I would tell ridiculous and elaborate lies to support my need to be seen as this special person.

    However, the only way I was able to escape the dangerous attention seeking, narcissistic trap was to be fully self aware and also delve deep to find out WHY exactly I needed so much attention and why I need to be constantly reassured of how great I assumed I was and more importantly ensure everyone else knew how great I was.

    I soon realised that it was all a façade to cover the fragile and damaged inner child inside me who had been bruised by years of my narcissistic parents constant put downs so although it appeared that I was this cocky, arrogant girl who had no empathy for those around me the reality was inside I was clinging on that to give me some form of self esteem as I had no authentic self esteem at all.

    Since this self awareness I have gone out of my way to earn and build authentic self esteem, where it is literally me improving how I see myself beyond the thoughts or not in relation to how anyone else see’s me but just literally how I estimate myself in my mind.

    It has been an incredibly fun journey and I’m almost there 🙂

    I think it easy for young people to slip into this trend today, in my university there are children from modest homes who feel the need to appear rich or wealthy, everyone is determined to be the next big thing and people feed off complements. The sense of grandiosity and entitlement is everywhere, I blame celebrities and the ‘look at me!’ mentality of reality TV and social networking also.

    Being a psychology student I am able to step back and simply observe, I find it almost amazing.



    1. Antonia, I admire your strength. It’s rare to hear a story like yours; in my experience, narcissists don’t often seek treatment and when they do, don’t last very long. I agree with your comments about the influence of our culture. How is one to value a “fragile and damaged inner child” when everything around us values fame, wealth, winning, etc.? How do parents instill a sense of modesty and humility when everyone around us, as you point out, is saying ‘look at me’? It’s tragic, really, because the underlying feelings of shame and inferiority must be unbearable.

      I’ll have a look at that documentary and see if I have anything useful to say about. Thanks!

  3. It seems that for better or worse, the family is the primary compass for the child’s direction in life …….

    Lambert, N. M., Stillman, T. F., Baumeister, R. F., Fincham, F. D., Hicks, J. A. & Graham, S. M. (2010). Family as a salient source of meaning in young adulthood. The Journal of Positive Psychology: Dedicated to furthering research and promoting good practice, 5(5), 367-376. doi:10.1080/17439760.2010.516616

    Five studies demonstrated the role of family relationships as an important source of perceived meaning in life. In Study 1 (n = 50), 68% participants reported that their families were the single most significant contributor to personal meaning. Study 2 (n = 231) participants ranked family above 12 likely sources of meaning. Studies 3 (n = 87) and 4 (n = 130) demonstrated that participants’ reports of their closeness to family (Study 3) and support from family (Study 4) predicted perceived meaning in life, even when controlling for several competing variables. Study 5 (n = 261) ruled out social desirability as an alternative explanation to the proposed relationship between family and meaning. We conclude that for young adults, family relationships are a primary source of meaning in life and they contribute to their sense of meaning.

  4. Dr. Joe, do you really believe that Antonia’s parents ‘passed’ narcissism on to her? If so, do you mean that they did this genetically or by their behavior or possibly both?

    On another note, I believe I look at the world a bit differently. I believe one of the underlying causes of the narcissistic behavior in young people today is because of a sense that everything is failing, crumbling and falling down.

    We seem to have moved from a stable culture where our dollar was as strong as the middle-class families who supported it to a society where the middle-class has disappeared and everything appears short-lived.

    We moved from a world where most diseases were curable (except major ones, of course) to a world where even sex is deadly.

    I believe young people today are just inundated with hopelessness and feelings of despair that are exacerbated by the violence they see on a regular basis on television, in video games and even on the evening news.

    Perhaps this is just a survival mechanism our young people have adopted because they have come to realize that money, fame and power will buy some protection against the many ills our society now suffers. Ills that you and I did not have to grow up with.

    Just a thought.

    1. I think it was a poor choice of words on my part since it does seem to suggest something genetic. That’s not what I mean. I do think that narcissistic parents tend to pass narcissism on to their children, by modeling it first of all, and also because the children obviously don’t get what they truly need of an emotional nature from those parents, are damaged by that experience, and have to shore themselves up with narcissistic feedings from the outside. What you say about our culture is interesting, and I don’t think your view is incompatible with what I wrote. As society decays in the way you describe, it inevitably affects family life, leading to parents who behave in narcissistic ways, etc. You might want to read Christopher Lasch’s book, ‘The Culture of Narcissism.”

  5. Hello from Germany! Thanks for an intersting read, I’d like to comment:

    There is a good exercise one can make every day: Look in the mirror before morning toilet and ask yourself: Do I like me? Yes, I do! I don’t like the mistakes I made yesterday. I don’t like being unpacient sometimes. I feel sorry for the argument I had days ago with my mother. I don’t like how I look at the moment with my rumpled hair. But after all, yes, I like me. I am right, I try my very best, I will try to improve tonight and if I don’t, I’ll be back here tomorrow morning asking the same question and giving myself the same answer. But please be honest to yourself.

    It sound’s easy but it’s not. There is a good chance that we are starting to hate ourselves for things we’ve done and can’t change anymore. I am not an expert on this but sometimes I struggle between self-esteem, a good portion of narcissm and self-doubt. But I began to look at self-doubt as a twin-brother of self-esteem. If they’re in balance one helps the other not to get overweight and transform to pure narcissm or self-destruction.

    One tipp at the end: If you did ask or answer the question in front of the mirror in 3rd person (Do I like him or her?), please leave the bathroom, come back and ask again: Do I like ME? There’s a difference.

  6. Thank you for the insight, I have called it the drive thru mentality, “entitlement” is how I hear it expressed. The question I have used to “unglue” the false attachment is, “Do you like feeling that way?” A few years ago I heard a woman talking about self esteem, her solution was very simple. “You gain self esteem by doing esteem-able things.” The problem I believe is a “values” proposition, where do you get them, if you have never had them instilled or for some reason “forgot” or did not understand the value of values. The problem becomes “who’s values” do you adopt if you need to adjust. I developed some simple tools to do that, called short listing. A simple cognitive list that pulls out the areas a person “thinks” they need it. I do cheat, by supplying an example of values, but even those are difficult to obtain, daily.

  7. I’ve just spent 4 years in therapy to heal from the effects of being married to an extreme narcissist. I didn’t know what a narcissist ‘looked like’ other than the obvious celebrities and typical school personality types. My ex-husbands early behavior was confusing because he was very dynamic, fun to be around and smart. I thought those were good qualities. Little did I know that most of his actions were ‘learned behaviors’ because he found it hard to have empathy for people including his own family! A few years of living with him uncovered a false personality – one for the world and a completely different one at home. It was like a light switch going off and on. He had ‘learned’ the behaviors that would make him most attractive to others and he mastered the ability to get what he wanted from people. He is a very successful sales person. Living with him was exhausting.. he was extremely selfish, needed constant affirmation, and believed himself to be better than everyone. He displayed attention seeking behaviors were embarrassing and outlandish. He would not socialize with anyone who didn’t make him look good and had to have the ‘best’ of everything. As well, he was extremely rude and cold to general society. After years of married ‘hell’ I filed for a divorce only to endure a new type of abuse- rejecting a narcissist can turn dangerous. What he put me through was the very worst experience of my life. The rejection made him angry and he could not accept that I did not want to be with him. Fortunately, the legal system put him at bay and I’ve been able to move on peacefully. However, the damage these people can cause to their families is quite destructive. And they don’t seem to get it. I’ve learned to steer clear of people who lack empathy and and are ‘all about themselves’ … seems that there are more out there than one would think.

  8. great site!

    I can definitely see myself exhibiting some of these narcissistic patterns at times and yet because of “learned” behaviors some people think im humble. But then sometimes I feel like i’m taking up too much room cuz i want attention and then start self deperecating talk. oh the fun!

    one thing I’m curious about: do you really think all praise from parents is all that helpful?
    in excess i would suppose it could be detrimental (leading to thoughts of “if its such a big deal that i did x or y, did they not expect me to do it in the first place? and then why would they expect me not to do it”)
    the mixed messages of praise and shame have certainly been a forming pattern in my life. i’m up and down all the time

    1. I think praise from parents, when appropriate, is important. When EVERYTHING the child is praised, however, they don’t learn how to make distinctions between something truly good and something mediocre or unacceptable.

  9. As a teacher, I see the effects of false self-esteem all the time from both my students and their parents. When I tell my students and their parents the truth about where they are academically or behaviorally, I often get a lot of backlash and I have actually been accused of, “damaging” their child’s self-esteem.

    Self-esteem is rooted in truth, and it’s acting as if something is shameful instead of just what it is–and changeable–that creates problems. Too often, though, teachers and parents cripple with what they think is compassion, when really it is pity. Oh, you poor thing, you’re not doing very well so let’s pretend it’s all just fine.

    I tell my students what the strengths and weaknesses of their work is, and then we work together on strategies to improve. My kids work hard, and because I tell them the truth, they are able to build authentic self-esteem. They see themselves as capable in the end.

    We do no one any good when we do not tell them the truth. That doesn’t mean being harsh or mean; it just means telling the truth as compassionately as possible, then offering help to progress.

  10. I’m unsure that ‘eating a favourite food
    such as pizza’ and ‘great sex’ are comparable’?


  11. You said “I might tell them, “Maybe there’s a good reason why you feel bad about yourself today.” I don’t in any way mean this to be harsh and I never feel judgmental about it. Rather, it’s my way of making clear that self-esteem is something that is earned.” But, telling someone that they have something to earn when they don’t have a clue about how to do that is harsh – it’s very harsh. Self respect is a gift we give ourselves – not something we earn by always reacher for a “better” bar.

    It’s like this big secret that we’re supposed to figure out. Proper social values not instilled in someone as a child, and how are they supposed to know what they have to do to earn their own respect? Throw in a mental illness that contributes to behavior and fears, and what in the world is someone supposed to do? Always trying to do better and feeling bad about ourselves and avoiding any action that may make us feel bad about ourselves?

    You can’t ‘guilt’ someone into good behavior. That’s abusive. At the same time, an individual can’t guilt themselves into behaving differently. Guilt always leads to more perceived bad behavior. There’s no way around that, and I find your statements to be very dangerous pseudo-psychology, that encourage a ‘fixed’ way of thinking.

    Growth is a process, and it appears that you find yourself all grown up and just need to live up to your expectations, whether they’re realistic or not in order to be healthy? Kinda sad.

    1. This is a topic that many people find confusing. When writing a post, I try as hard as I can to be clear and make myself understood, but it doesn’t always work. There are many people who can’t distinguish between exercising judgment and being judgmental; for those people, no matter how careful I am, I will always sound harsh and guilt-inducing.

      I don’t believe that “self-respect is a gift we give ourselves.” You can’t talk yourself into self-respect. But I do take your point about how difficult it is for some people to understand what they need to do to earn their own respect; teaching them is part of psychotherapy. The comments I describe having made come well into treatment, after the client has internalized some strong self-care values. And when I intervene in this way, it is because I can hear their own disapproval in what they are saying, and I don’t the harsh, indiscriminate, perfectionistic type of disapproval. I mean that they know, on some level, that they are violating their own nascent values in a self-destructive way and as a result, they feel bad about themselves for having made poor choices. This helps them to make better choices in the future and take better care of themselves in ways that earn their self-respect.

      1. I agree that this is a subtle issue, and extremely difficult for people to sort out if they tend to set unreasonably high standards for themselves. Personally, I don’t find the distinction between “can’t” and “won’t” particularly helpful. I find it kind of interesting that you use the example of your son’s music as an example, because that honestly seems pretty minor. Are you sure that this is not just narcissism on both your parts? Even if he had practiced more, he would (presumably) not be the best. Why can’t he enjoy music at his current level? Why should he base his enjoyment of his skill on what others have accomplished? Maybe he had fun being a kid instead of playing music for hours every day.

        You seem to be conflating different types of “goodness” – accomplishments, like musical instruments, versus disciplining yourself to treat yourself and others well. I would say the second is much more important.

        I would also say that we like to pretend to ourselves that everyone has limitless potential, so if someone is bad at something, they must not be trying hard enough. Sometimes people really just aren’t that good at math. Maybe it’s pity, and maybe it’s reality. Maybe the willingness to persist in the face of obstacles is in itself – like music – part practice, and part inherent ability.

        In short, if the worst thing you can say about someone is they don’t try very hard – but they like themselves, they treat loved ones well, and they enjoy their lives – then maybe that person is perfectly fine.

        It is of course a much more difficult issue if people are trying and failing to be good to themselves and others. But again, I would say that TRUE self-esteem, fundamental self-acceptance vs. unalloyed self-regard, can only help you improve your chances.

  12. Joseph says:

    “There are many people who can’t distinguish between exercising judgment and being judgmental;”

    That is IT exactly. I agree.

    And Ellen also says it well:

    “We do no one any good when we do not tell them the truth. That doesn’t mean being harsh or mean; it just means telling the truth as compassionately as possible, then offering help to progress.”

    Not telling someone the truth is quite dishonest, I think.

    The difficulty can often be that some people want to be told what they want to hear.


  13. Your website has been very useful to me. Thank you.

    I think the distinction between self esteem and self respect is a very important one.
    There are a lot of people with almost no tangible worth (no achievements involving effort and no relationships not built on power, fear and vanity) with very high self esteem. Theyare contemptuous of broader society (or whoever supports them) and behave in an utterly selfish manner which is actively destructive to civil society. Their self esteem is fed by the power to get away with selfishly acting on their whims and getting things they consider rights for no earned effort on their part. (Not, incidentally, to imply that I’m against social welfare – I’d like more of it but just no something for nothing. It seems so obvious to me that when you are given something for nothing it breeds contempt in the recipient towards the giver)
    I think it is impossible for such a person to have self respect.
    It would therefore seem to me that, as you say, self respect is far worthier an aim than self esteem, which can be actively toxic.

    1. I wonder if what you’re calling self-esteem on the part of selfish, entitled people is really a type of grandiosity, a defense against underlying feelings of smallness and shame.

  14. Oh gosh. Now I am even more worried, having read this series of posts, that I not only have anxiety, depression, and symptoms of Borderline personality disorder (unstable moods ) but the descriptions of people who seek approval and self-esteem from others rings bells with me. I have very low self esteem and need others to ‘approve’ of me (and even then I feel it’s not merited but that they only see what I want them to see). I find it hard to be with people I feel very envious of and inadequate with. Does that make me a narcissistic personality? >>>>:(

    1. Don’t worry too much about the labels. They’re artificial categories; the important thing is to recognize the pain you feel and the ways you struggle to cope with it. Having narcissistic traits doesn’t mean you suffer from “Narcissistic Personality Disorder”; it points to issues with unconscious shame and feelings of being damaged or defective, “not normal” compared to other people.

  15. Joe:

    Did you observe the debate between Obama and Romney?

    I think the debate disclosed an example of authentic self-esteem and pseudo self-esteem.

    Remove Obamas external supports, staff and the teleprompter, discloses an empty shell.
    Psedo-self-esteem. Obama regressed into a shell. Deflated ego. I am beaten.
    Romney has had a life of accomplishments from childhood to adulthood. Romneys demeanor and deportment reflected authentic self-esteem. A can do assurance for a challenge. I have done all thses other things in my life as saving the Olympics and I can be the president.

    I think the presidential debates provide an excellent opportunity to measure both non-verbal behaviors and the concept of narcissism vs authentic self-esteem.

    1. Hi Joel, this sounds like an interpretation based on political orientation, finding what you want to see. You may very well be right, but I could argue that Romney has done little but campaign and prepare for this debate these past few months while Obama has continued to function as President of the United States. He was tired and overly confident (one of his weaknesses); for this reason he didn’t take his debate preparation seriously enough. I don’t know if I’m right but your point of view seemed biased.

  16. I’ve been putting off reading this post as I knew it was something I wanted to focus on. I found your site when searching the internet for more information on rage and anger in bipolar disorder. My (recently) ex-boyfriend is diagnosed as bipolar and before I knew that I often felt puzzled because some of his behaviors led me to believe he might be a narcissist (dated them before) but I could see it was more complicated than that, as he was much more sympathetic than true narcissists I’ve known (toward animals, toward his son, though not so much toward me). When I learned he was bipolar I started my own research and the pieces started to line up. This in turn forced me to look at myself (I’d been in therapy before where I learned I have a narcissist mother, and I read that post with fascination, part of me still wanted to defend her but its dead-on). I thought I was mostly healed myself until I found myself enmeshed with a bipolar man — the label not as important as the fact it seemed I couldn’t do anything without sending him into a rage of anger. Never violent, but I just oculdn’t seem to have a mature conversation with this man about boundaries or MY needs in the relationship. Sadly I had to finally end it and it still causes me a great deal of pain as I did love him.

    I’ve been in a support group for codpendency. This post (to my relief) confirms to me (as I have a tendency to TAKE blame) that I am most likely not a narcissist nor do I have many of these tendencies. Toward the end of our relationship he had successfully projected much of his anger and hateful feelings onto me where I found myself finally reacting in angry ways of which I wasn’t proud (mostly due to my own abandonment issues which he constantly triggered as he could never help himself from leaving the scene of an arguement…which always turned into an arguement as his frustration level would rise from normal intimate conversations about the relatoinship….twice he actually left me, once in another city on my birthday, most recently and my final straw he left me to walk home from the beach 5 miles while I was sick…he was mad I wouldn’t hold his hand and took off when I tried to explain why).

    Anyway, this post describes him to a T. I truly do hope he finally gets help with this. There have been moments he’s broken down in front of me and all of it came out and I’m sure it was a releif and I have been nothing but kind to him in those moments of honesty, held him as he cried. But it’s been rare. And he has such an aversion to those feelings he’d rather be angry I think and defend his ego.

    Anyway, back to me. What I wanted to say. I think this post applies to people with narcissistic tendencies or people in general who are frustrated with negative emotions.

    For those of us who fall on the other side….who I think have the tendency to be the vitims of narcissists…. I think we can have a distorted sense of values when it comes to being “nice” — especially women. Since we were raised to be “nice” and “polite” it can hurt our self-esteem when someone accuses of us of being mean, or not perfectly polite and nice. (I actually read this before in a book, don’t recall which one but it resonated with me as I was recovering from my first run-in with what I believe to ba sociopath)

    Sometimes being not nice is perfectly justified (especially when someone is mistreating you). So, even while being ‘nice’ is a good value to have — I think this can work backwards for those of us who are people pleasers/too compassionate/codependent etc. Its not that our value system is wrong, but it can be too easy for a stronger perosnality to convince us that we were ‘mean’ or should ‘apologize’ …I think all of this can affect our self esteem very badly over time because we think we have offended our value system but its false. We are too eager to take the blame and actually believe it. We have no probelm apologizing. Yet we also can have the feeling we are somehow different, lesser than, low self esteem though perhaps not low self respect as we believe we are working within our values!

    For me, the first moment of clarity was at the age of 24 — I allowed my NPD boyfriend to convince me to do something so far against my value system that for the first time I knew I felt authentic shame for my behavior because it hurt me so badly and I was so angry with myself and him, and realizing I’d let him control me was the first step toward gaining my own authentic self-esteem, and my self-respect was indeed injured though I finally WAS blaming someone else for manipulating my good nature. For me this wasn’t always natural as it required me to go beyond my first value system, which was just to be ‘nice’ or ‘self-sacrificing’ for others. It was complicated to learn that taking care of my own needs first was important and required getting past the value system my parents instilled in me to be a ‘good girl’ and that being a doormat wasn’t really helpful to anyone except abusers.

    I guess all I am saying is that it seems like maybe people on opposite ends of the narcissism spectrum can experience this (shame and self-esteem) very differently, almost oppositley. At least it seems this way from the article. We both have shame but perhaps we on the other side take on more shame unjustly, affecting our self-esteem even though we haven’t acted in ways that overtly abuse our own value systems (of course we may not realize it since we are trying to be understanding and ‘nice’ and compassionate). I think we are also less likely to act out in anger or rage and defensiveness, but are more likely to internalize it and get depressed or continue to placate the abuser and take responsibility where we should not.

    1. Very interesting observations. This issue of the cultural messages about being “nice” is huge, and one I’d like to write a lot more about. One of the points I try to make in my new book is that certain feelings which society considers “negative” are in fact normal and inevitable. It’s what we do with them that is the problem.

  17. After reading many, many posts, I am sure my parents are narcissistic…minister father ….ignoring unless he is getting his ego stroked or can take the credit. Mother ignoring or passive aggressive/manipulative to get her way and keep appearances that we have the perfect family. IT IS NOT. Brother is the golden child and I’m the scapegoat. I prefer the label black sheep because for some reason…to has a “I choose to be this way” attitude.

    During a conversation with my DH(dear husband) yesterday, there was a light-bulb moment. We were discussing my parents’ constant extraordinary efforts to see my brother and his family, while I get a phone call maybe once a month to be told how wonderful they are. DH said, “you dont push that button for them. they care about you conditionally. Your brother strokes their ego.” I used to want to be with them because I liked them and I thought they liked me. Just be in the moment. When they would show boat, I thought it was sad and found it humiliating. No one else can have the spot light or even the smallest amount of attention.

    I am no longer willing to beat myself up and dwell in it. My first step…I have changed the contact listing in my phone from Mom and Dad to their first names. It seems small, but represents MY decision to distance myself .

    BTW-Using the word “I” in this post is causing me anxiety because I dont want to appear to care about only myself. Is that crazy?

    I count. I do have opinions and it is ok if they are different from yours or theirs. I am not bad or stupid or worthless if I disagreed with you. Took 15 years to realize that…I’m 40. Still have trouble in social settings. So very anxious about saying the wrong thing…but I’m working on it.

    I am seeking advice on how to realize authentic “normal” feelings in general. I constantly second guess reactions and feelings to situations. Often, running my feelings by my DH(dear husband). I have difficulty expressing feelings even over very menial things for fear of saying the wrong thing. Don’t want to offend anyone. Feeling like my opinion doesnt count so why share?

    I really try to avoid social settings, but am working on it.

    Any advice/ insight welcomed.

    1. It sounds to me like your experience has left you with a lot of shame of the kind I discuss on this site. I’ve written many posts about this subject, all found under the heading Shame/Narcissism in the menu to the right. It’s difficult to work out alone and I wonder whether you’ve considered getting professional help. Y

  18. “I’m not referring to perfectionistic and overly harsh standards, impossible to meet. I mean our own ideas and expectations, evolved from the disparate influences of family, peer group and culture, about what it means to be and behave like a person we would respect.”

    I think this sentence is key for me and others of us who are further on the self-blame spectrum. When I first read this post and the exercise at the end I experienced a wave of anxiety as I contemplated the prospect of reviewing my failures and mistakes (yet again) to “evaluate [my] behavior and see if you lived up to [my] standards.” I knew I would fail the test so I wasn’t sure what benefit it would provide me, only another opportunity to beat myself up.

    How do we get in touch with “our own ideas and expectations […]” when they’ve been covered over for so long with unrealistic standards that tell us everything we do is bad and falls short of the mark?

    Thank you.

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