Narcissism and the never-ending pursuit of self-worth

Posted by

narcissism - Mark Ettensohn, Psy.D. Sacramento Therapist

…this issue of worthiness (is) a bogus, largely cognitive issue which creates the pointless merry-go-round of worthlessness motivated acts of worth that are never worthy.” – Stephen Johnson, Humanizing the Narcissistic Style

We are all familiar with individuals who seem to have a fragile sense of self-worth. Perhaps it’s the coworker who needs to please others even at his or her own considerable expense or discomfort. Maybe it’s a friend who needs high levels of praise or attention, or a loved one who constantly worries about being good enough. Most of us have had at least one boss or manager who seemed to relish in his or her power and control. The paradox of attempting to find self-worth in the praise, attention, admiration, or fear of other people is that it ceases to be self-worth.

Basically, we all have a source of healthy narcissism (love of self) from which we make periodic withdrawals. Whenever we feel good about ourselves, we are drawing on our own healthy narcissism. Occasionally, we may seek the positive feedback of others in order to bolster our self-esteem. This is a perfectly healthy behavior, as long as it is reciprocal and moderate.

People who have difficulty maintaining their sense of self-worth have what psychologists call a low narcissistic supply. In order to compensate, they make excessive withdrawals from other people by seeking attention, praise, admiration, or other forms of reassurance. It works great for the short-run, but the person is quickly left needing more. This can become a maladaptive cycle in which the person’s sense of well-being becomes dependent on others – who, in turn, begin to feel exhausted and resentful. When others attempt to express these feelings, the person with low narcissistic supplies typically reacts by feeling worthless. Depending on the person, this feeling may be expressed through depression, anger, shame, or anxiety. Typically, both parties end up feeling frustrated.

This cycle is the root, or core conflict, of maladaptive narcissism. While narcissists are commonly thought of as having an inflated sense of self-worth, the heart of the disorder is actually an inability to feel like one is good enough. The narcissistic person’s sense of self-worth is usually based on very high standards, which is why it can be difficult or impossible to live up to them. Such high standards typically revolve around issues of performance: being talented enough, attractive enough, powerful enough, etc. Paradoxically, these standards are often so high because the person’s sense of self-worth is so low. To counter deep feelings of worthlessness, the narcissistic person fantasizes of greatness. In order to combat a profound (and sometimes unconscious) sense of not being good enough, the narcissistic person seeks a steady flow of praise and admiration from others. Ironically, this places the narcissistic person in a very dependent position; but since dependency is usually seen as a sign of weakness and more evidence of not being good enough, the person will typically be consciously unaware of (and even very defensive about) his or her need for other people.

While we may not all be maladaptively narcissistic, we can certainly learn from the narcissist’s conundrum. The pursuit of being good enough is a red herring. It is a snake eating its own tail – a never-ending merry-go-round. The worth of a person is intrinsic – it exists regardless of how well he or she performs. In treating narcissism, emphasis is placed on helping the person to learn this basic lesson. Treatment focuses on paying attention to feelings rather than deeds, in order to establish a connection with the self – that place inside each of us that is the wellspring of vitality, authenticity, sorrow, and joy. If you find yourself looking for narcissistic supplies from others because you feel unable to generate a stable sense of self-worth, a great place to start is by paying very close attention to your feelings. Work on accepting whatever it is that you feel without first labeling it as good or bad. Practicing Mindfulness Meditation can be a great way to start, as can talking to a therapist.


Eventually, the client must express directly what the symptom blocks, ask directly for the gratifications that the symptom demands, and face head-on the threatening feelings and memories that the symptom protects.”

– Stephen Johnson

Leave a Reply