It’s a common response I receive when I write articles about narcissists, even malignant narcissists who lack not only empathy but also remorse. “People like that just have low self-esteem!” is the popular claim. We coddle even the most abusive narcissists in our society by perpetuating this myth that all narcissists just have self-esteem issues – and the underlying implication that they just need to be cradled and positively affirmed back to a more empathic place. But do narcissists really suffer from low self-esteem, or does their pathological behavior stem from something deeper and more sinister?
Perhaps what therapists call “vulnerable narcissists” on the lower end of the spectrum suffer a lack of self-esteem and core sense of self. These types of narcissists are more likely to struggle with a core sense of shame that they project onto others, though they still share a lot in common with more overt narcissists in terms of their general disregard for the welfare of others.
However, the narcissists that I write about – malignant ones – are much farther on the scale. These types of grandiose narcissists can be sadistic. They take pleasure in tearing others down. They are contemptuous, haughty and engage in bullying. They possess a pathological sense of envy that enables them to sabotage others who inspire that envy. They exploit without remorse or empathy – some of them even drive their victims to suicide. They abuse behind closed doors, often without being held accountable for their actions. They feel an absurd sense of superiority over others. Some of them even have psychopathic traits that make them overbearingly indifferent and fearlessly bold when it comes to engaging in criminal activity and betrayal.
Studies show that these toxic types experience positive feelings when seeing sad faces. Millions of survivor accounts from all over the world and even mental health professionals well-versed in the covert abuse they inflict tell us that these types gain pleasure from micromanaging, controlling and overpowering their victims. Malignant narcissists have the cognitive ability to distinguish between right and wrong, but they lack the affective empathy that would enable them to care. Even online trolls who viciously bully, terrorize and threaten others have been shown by research to have psychopathy and narcissism as part of their dark traits.
So what drives their cruel and callous behavior? It’s not low self-esteem. It’s a deeply ingrained sense of excessive entitlement.
Malignant narcissists feel entitled to dupe people and to destroy lives. They feel entitled to idealize their victims, then devalue and discard. They feel entitled to manufacturing love triangles to rile their various admirers up for a competition they never asked for. They drain the resources of others and get ahead without working for it. They like keeping their various victims on the back burner. They know how to groom people to become enablers that carry out their dirty work for them. They do not have any sense of remorse for the feelings of others. They’re all about their own agenda.
This sense of entitlement starts in early childhood. Most alarmingly, children who are taught an excessive sense of entitlement at a young age have been shown by research to develop narcissistic traits in adulthood. Their narcissism did not stem from “lack of parental warmth” as the researchers noted, but rather, parental overvaluation. In other words, not all narcissists are raised by neglectful parents as people often assume – more grandiose narcissists tended to be excessively praised and taught that they were special, unique and better than others.
It is dangerous to characterize those higher on the spectrum of narcissism as struggling with self-esteem issues. We all are as human beings, to an extent, struggling with self-esteem – but most of us do not chronically violate the rights of others as a result. A truly nefarious narcissist is one who is able to hide behind the guise of low self-esteem and use it as a pity ploy to ensnare you further into his or her toxic web. Excusing their abusive behavior by noting that they have low self-esteem only serves as a dangerous rationalization that dismisses their potential for sadism. It minimizes their capacity to do real harm – without ever batting an eye at the destruction they leave at their wake.