how to regain self-esteem narcissism

Validation and self-esteem

I’ll drop my glove, to prove his love; great glory will be mine.

Leigh Hunt

Vanity and fair are simple words. However, it was only recently that I understood what these words mean together. In more contemporary English, it means an exchange of validation between two people. What got me thinking about it is the book I recently read by Robert Cialdini called Influence. It describes the mechanics of how easily people’s need for validation  can be used to play them in a Machiavellian way.

Validation is always a treat. We must be wired for it. Given that humans are social animals, it makes sense to yearn for validation as it increases one’s chances of survival. If one is part of a tribe (i.e. accepted/validated by the tribe), he/she is less likely to get eaten by a sabre-toothed tiger. However, it seems that this pathway gets hijacked an awful lot.

addicted to validation

I think the best way to explain this is by looking at an extreme example: narcissism, because the logic is the same no matter where someone is on the spectrum. I grew up with and subsequently encountered some florid narcissists – though I didn’t always know it at the time. While the full blown narcissistic personality disorder is relatively uncommon, traits thereof appear quite ubiquitous. I will loosely use the word narcissistic here to signify anyone with traits of the disorder. During my late teens I loved high-achieving people and hated arrogance. It made no sense to me why somebody would act so unpleasantly. I thought that arrogant people believe they are better and that I am not worth their time. It turns out that’s only half-true.*

I subsequently figured out – through a mix of psychiatry training and reading (Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence is brilliant for this) – that arrogance is a form of insecurity. However, the exact same insecurity can be revealed through being super friendly (hence, not all narcissistic people are arrogant**).

Much of it boils down to the source of one’s self-esteem. I hypothesise that a self-esteem based on external circumstances is one of the factors that contributes to much unhappiness and perhaps even the poorly understood personality disorders – such as narcissistic, histrionic and emotionally unstable.

What does that actually mean? What is it like to be narcissistic (or a person with some narcissistic traits)? Most people think they are deluded with their own glory. This can be true – if the narcissistic person doesn’t have insight into just how hooked they are on validation. Sadly, having insight doesn’t instantly cure it. If the person with narcissistic traits does have insight, it’s a never ending cycle of feeling high from validation, feeling pathetic for being like that and seeking more validation to take the edge of. New Insights Into Narcissistic Personality Disorder highlights their fragility, internal vulnerability and external self-enhancement, their attempts to regulate insecurity by numbing emotion, especially in interpersonal contexts and their preoccupation with blame, and criticism.

For some, it is “I think therefore, I am”. For people with narcissistic tendencies, it is “I produce a good reflection, therefore I am worth existing.”

Interestingly, patients with narcissistic personality disorder have intact cognitive empathic ability and can identify with thoughts, feelings, and intentions of others. However, their capacity for emotional empathy is compromised, especially their ability to care about and share feelings of others.

Having one’s self esteem decided by external factors is hugely painful. It’s like waking up every morning and feeling awful about oneself – and yearning to encounter something or someone in the world that will prove that one’s actually worth something. No amount of proof will ever stop this feeling of emptiness for very long.

This proof could be likes on a social media post, getting any sort of good news, a reassuring friend, attention from a member of their desired sex – anything that reminds them that they aren’t near worthless (which is the default setting). This is also why so many narcissistic people are high achievers. Actually “being the best” is sometimes the only way to get rid of the pain.

If one’s self-esteem is only lifted from the depth of despair by accomplishments (validation), then he/she will do anything to accomplish – and ease the pain.

If one’s self-esteem is set externally, validation is like an addictive drug. If it’s  set internally, validation is like an occasional glass of wine. These two types of self-esteem are also knows as contingent and non-contingent.

However, what does that even mean, “set internally”? Having an interest in mindfulness, I often come across things like loving-acceptance, unconditional positive regard, etc. Maybe the reader understands them better, but more often than not, they make me feel like there’s something fake there. To me, an internally-controlled self-esteem means answering the question: is a person proud of his/her actions.

It’s impossible to hold oneself fully responsible for one’s circumstances. Yes, over time, patterns emerge that reflect the small decisions made everyday. However, there is so much beyond our control that one needs to be cautious making conclusions about themselves based on results. As all of these kind of musings, this is specific to the person in question. Some people are perhaps too laid back about how much they control and others – too intensely determined to control everything. (See this post on how to find good tailored advice.)

I think that one has to always learn from their results, but it isn’t always true that their results are a reflection of their actions. Even learning from results is tough because it is so hard to attribute results to causes.

So to bring one’s self-esteem back to being internal, one can only judge whether he/she is happy with their actions and decisions given the information they had at the time.

This post is to some extent inspired by N.N. Taleb’s commencement speech transcript. It’s not like any commencement speech I’d heard before. He says:

…I have a single definition of success: you look in the mirror every evening, and wonder if you disappoint the person you were at 18, right before the age when people start getting corrupted by life. Let him or her be the only judge; not your reputation, not your wealth, not your standing in the community, not the decorations on your lapel.

Taleb says that by his definition, he’s not successful. Fair enough. However, he doesn’t strike me as the kind of person who lacks in self-esteem. This goes back to how different people use the same words to mean different things. Obviously, to Taleb being successful is a kind of a luxury, not a must-have. Otherwise, if one looked in the mirror and resented themselves everyday, that’s a shortcut to despair.

need for validation ruins self-esteem

I wonder what it’s like for other people. For me, my 18 year old self had no clue about how the world works, so I can’t adopt this definition of success – it’s pretty useless to me. Maybe though, that’s Taleb’s point – that one should think back to their idealistic self and see what they would think. I probably shouldn’t say what my 18 year old self would think of me now, but I do wonder what Taleb got up to so that he doesn’t approve of.

I think that’s it though – reconnecting with one’s internal self-esteem is an uncanny exercise of separating oneself into two people and getting one to judge the other’s decision and actions – not their results.

Perhaps, at this point the concept of acceptance become relevant. Otherwise, it is the same old addiction to validation sugar coated with forced positive thinking.

* Whether a narcissistic person believes they are better depends on their insight into the need for validation and their actual achievements. However, narcissists do prefer to associate with people they see as being worthy of surrounding them.

** Some narcissistic people are sweet and charming. Different people use different strategies to feel special and seem worthwhile to others.

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how to regain self-esteem narcissism

58 thoughts on “Validation and self-esteem”

  1. Read a Man’s Search for Meaning by Frankl.

    People project themselves onto others for external validation because of internal insecurities. (TED Talk for instance is a good example of this for majority of the speakers.)

    Liked by 3 people

      1. It’s not newness or the chasing after academia elitism, for which I think you are still trying to divorce yourself from due to your background, but reading an efficient vehicle which delivers the message be it new, once upon a stoics’ tale, or coined by the Chinese philosophers ages ago.

        “There is nothing new under the Sun”


        Have fun! Enjoy the process. Shed that old skin and grow into the new one.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Have you ever had a narcissistic lover? This is both a wink/wink/nod kind of comment as well as a real one. You think, “Oooh, wow, this is cool – wow, so attentive!” Until you examine more closely the look in the other’s eyes – it’s really all about them. And for some this is okay. Wasn’t for me, though.

    Ditto on the Frankl book – had to read it in college, but happily so. Loved it. On another note, I’m going back to my mantra: human nature is fricking unfathomable. The DSM definition is only a guideline. One must decide what one can live with, in the end – both in another as well as within the self. The idea of looking at myself in the mirror and reflecting back – even a day, nevermind to some of the most miserable years of my life (high school, gosh it looked like she was having fun, who knew?!) – on anything, seems ludicrous. Mindfulness puts us in This Moment. And that’s enough for me!

    Aloha, Martina 🙂

    Liked by 4 people

    1. If you don’t care for attention, you wouldn’t expose yourself and become introverted hide somewhere and write some obscure books to be admired later on well past your lifetime.

      In trying to bring out oneself, you become somewhat narcissistic or is it simply an addiction to success? Some become enterprising to enable greater good for others and some simply do it to look in the mirror. You have to know yourself to know which one you prefer more. The girls I’ve been were not that sophisticated in thought to know if they are narcissistic to the degree you refer to but some did love that social media crowd sourced opinion/validation. Dating from a different subset now and it’s notably different. Solution for narcissists? Introduce them to free like/follower services online or better yet make “that” happen for them so they can fall deeper in love with the mirror.

      Past is easy because it is a habit. The future is unknown and you make it thru the present. If you obsess enough, you will start to live in the present and perhaps dream enough about the future to forget the past.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That depends on how you define real. Arguably, there is a low population of “real” people today and more drones who are trapped behind the glow of their little small screens.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Yahhh …. though I’d rather not feed into someone’s dysfunction, if indeed they are narcissistic. It doesn’t do them any service, or me either, come to think of it 😉 They’re not generally happy people. I think we’ve probably all got a ‘bit’ of the narcissist in us, but a true narcissist is another animal. Thanks for the follow, btw – looking forward to checking out your work! B

        Liked by 2 people

      3. @belabrightideas – Be careful. I write some dark stuff and have a no nonsense approach to life that often offends others who like to dress up reality with positive self-delusions rather than tackling the cold hard truths. Life blows, deal with it, get up, don’t stay knocked down.


    2. Thank heavens I never got too involved with one. Someone else in my family was like that though – it is is thoroughly destructive. This person leaves behind a wake of failed relationships. On a mindfulness note, I did some this morning – and sometimes it is hard to not judge yourself for the amount of empty useless thoughts that keep popping up

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh, I wouldn’t be too hard on yourself 😉 I think, as I responded in this comment thread to someone else, we all have a bit of the narcissist in us. It would be hard ‘not’ to, given Pink’s astute observation that many of us are raised in narcissistic cultures.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. A performance driven culture which is what we are now our veins screaming for vain’s (likes) as much as heroine. I have never saw validation and narcissism put together like this. Neat. It’s hard to tread a path in subjects that have been worn thin and keep a reader, interested. Frankl, “you keep using this word but I don’t think you know what this means.” 😀 I was, imprisoned for a while. The mail that I did receive took months and this book showed up. I read it. I was thirsty for it. Logos was my way through and my way out.


  4. Fascinating. Particularly because we live in cultures (and subcultures) that seem to be modeled on and sustained by narcissistic thinking.
    Christianity does it unapologetically: a person is worthless unless they’re “saved”. Once they are saved they become superior to the people in the out group.
    And of course there’s marketing. How many times a day are we confronted with images of people who are more attractive, wealthier, thinner, more successful and so (we presume) ultimately “happier” than us?

    Liked by 3 people

      1. I used to be:

        “I think, therefore I am.”

        Now it is:

        “I tweet/upload, therefore I am.”

        And for the elitists be it Christians, Plutocrats, or racist people like Asians it is:

        “I am better than you, therefore I am.”

        Why can’t we just be:

        “I am.”

        If you are ALREADY here, why would you need intrinsic or extrinsic validations? Feels like Descarte knew that he was in a simulation and he needed to pinch himself. Well, this is just a game, so get to the next level, period.

        Liked by 1 person

      1. Step 1: Get a piece of prime steak
        Step 2: Get a hungry dog
        Step 3: Write a blog about unleashing your unhuman potential while wearing the steak around your waist whilst being chased by blog
        Step 4: Learn cadence and breathing from @ThemarathonMarcus so that you don’t get chased down by Step 2 next time.


  5. It can be hard to rid one’s self of narcissistic tendencies entirely, partly because it arises in us as a result of external factors that can be unchangeable and/or out of our control (for example, the personalities in our families). Sometimes all we can do is practice mindfulness and examine our intentions before make decisions and not let the narcissism take control.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Acceptance is knowing your capabilities , a sparrow can’t fly as high as hawk ,she is not ashamed of it ,humans have tendency to prove themselves which they may not be , if you are not beautiful nothing wrong in it ,don’t try to be ,just focus on your positive aspects and improve negative ones if its possible .

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Hello Martina,

    Thank you for stumbling upon my blog and liking a post which led me here. I will have to re-read this post when focused. I did read the comments, which I found absolutely fascinating and had me softly chuckling here and there. I don’t think I have anything to add… oh, except it got me thinking that I am probably narcissistic… me and my lack of self-worth issues.. and yes, my self-esteem is set externally. If you do have time to spare, would you mind reading my post on “Worth” and tell me if I’m way off and totally lost.

    Here’s the link:

    I briefly scanned your posts (titles) and I should definitely read them.

    Thank you so much,

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I once wrote myself advice along the lines of “You alone have the right to judge yourself; you alone have the obligation to judge yourself. To hold up another as your judge burdens both you and the other.” I think this is true within reason, though I wasn’t able to make myself live it, but I also believe that it is important to have what I earlier called some basic level of self-esteem regardless of whether you OR others judge you to be worthy.

    I suspect internally-generated self-esteem is made of different things for different people. For me, it is some combination of really not caring whether I meet certain standards (acceptance, I suppose), having an unrealistically sunny picture of myself in the back of my head (with the front I try to be realistic, though I can be at different times excessively positive and excessively negative), and valuing the things I’m good at. The first two are definitely a tad problematic, and I agree with you re forced positivity that actively striving for the second is likely to be counterproductive–I seem to have happened on it without much effort–but they beat the heck out of misery and despair. Though perhaps large dips in self-image are worthwhile if they aren’t the norm and you have the power to fix the parts of yourself that upset you (something that, I think, varies a lot from person to person and situation to situation).

    Very interesting post and comments. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your insights. You know, the more I write and read people’s comments, the more I am fascinated how different and unpredictable people really are. Even for internally set self-esteem, there are so many different approaches. Thanks for pointing this out )

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I am currently on a World Peace Leadership training/retreat and I was researching mindfulness on this blog and found your page. This piece hits home for me/ I am in a very challenging situation in my life right now. Reading this article triggered some deeper reflection”have I been the sweet charming narcissist or am I living with an arrogant narcissist or again are we both struggling with internal validation or low self-esteem? I am the high achieving type but for years I crave for my partner’s validation and I get it from everyone else but him. Why do I keep yearning for it still I don’t know. I went through the belittling phase with him but now I fear that we both are doing the belittling. It a rollercoaster of negative energy. I’ve been into philosophy, mindfulness practice, brain and body psychology and I have yet to find my balance and make a firm decision of what my life will be. All that to say I am really delving I to your articles – they are so helpful.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much connecting and sharing such intimate thoughts. I guess a healthy sense of self is always a work in progress. Some days things make sense, other days storm from craving to craving. It is a journey for all of us: it’s not like there’s anyone out there who has it all figured out. Enjoy your retreat!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Reblogged this on Recovering from NPD and commented:
    Great piece on a narcissist’s need for validation.

    “If one’s self-esteem is set externally, validation is like an addictive drug. If it’s set internally, validation is like an occasional glass of wine.”

    Liked by 1 person

  10. As a well educated, international and independent woman – I’m often asked “you seem so well-rounded and intelligent, how did you fall for such a Narcopath (con-man)”? Well, I’ve read so many books on the subject and feel that psychotherapist/author Rokelle Lerner sums it up best: “When you’re in a relationship with a narcissist you relinquish your identity and your soul to them. Their seduction is so mesmerizing, you won’t know you’re bleeding to death until it’s too late.”

    Liked by 1 person

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