A narcissist is high when you are low

Narcissism: On the lonely pedestal

Schalkwijk's compatriot Martin Appelo, psychologist and behavioral therapist, describes this dynamic as a vicious circle: In order not to have to feel the unstable self, narcissists inflate themselves and often leave a self-confident first impression. If the other person notices the lack of reciprocity, the appreciation is lost. Narcissists see this as an attack, devalue the other person and end up alone. The unstable self is affirmed; the circle closes.

The psychologist Eddie Brummelman from the University of Amsterdam also believes that narcissists are stuck in a vicious circle. The reason, however, is not an unstable self or low self-esteem. "That would explain why narcissists are sometimes ashamed, even though they seem to think they are great," says Brummelman. "But several research groups have checked the hypothesis, and a comprehensive meta-analysis speaks against the fact that narcissists unconsciously have low self-esteem." Brummelman believes that it is rather the feeling of one's own superiority that maintains the vicious circle, because that makes them vulnerable: "Narcissists act up to get confirmation from others that they are among the best. "

The belief that you are superior or special is not the same as having high self-esteem. The narcissist is convinced that the value of people can be expressed hierarchically, and he stands on a solitary pedestal. A person with high self-esteem, on the other hand, thinks they are valuable, but not more valuable than others. If you measure both using a questionnaire, it turns out that there are two largely independent dimensions. There are roughly as many high self-esteem narcissists as there are low self-esteem.

Two theories of origin

Self-esteem and narcissism show up around the age of seven. Only then have children developed a general judgment about themselves, including by comparing themselves with their peers. At this age, they also begin to think about the impression they make on others. Brummelman therefore sees middle and late childhood as the most important stages in the development of narcissism.

So how is it that some children develop strong narcissistic traits? According to the psychoanalytic view, narcissistic traits are an attempt to compensate for the emptiness created by the lack of parental warmth. Children try to portray themselves as great when they don't feel seen and understood enough by their parents.

The theory of social learning offers another explanation: Children find themselves great when mom and dad put them on a pedestal, see them as a gift from heaven and tend to exaggerated and undeserved compliments - and that largely detached from reality. "For example, these parents think their child is much more intelligent than their IQ suggests," explains Brummelman. "It starts with the birth: Overestimating parents often give their children an unusual first name."