Why do Narcissists feel unhappy?
People with Narcissistic Personality Disorder confuse self-esteem with happiness. When they feel special, unique, admired, and perfect they are happy. When they do not, they are unhappy.
They are probably as a group not any more unhappy than the rest of us. Where they do differ is in what they believe will make them happy, what makes them unhappy, and the strategies that they employ when they feel unhappy.
- Over Reliance on External Factors
The main problem that Narcissists have with happiness is they have set it up in their minds that whether or not they are happy is based on external factors: such as enhanced status, a new car, or being seen as admirable, beautiful, important, or special. Unfortunately, all of these things are ephemeral and can quickly disappear, leaving Narcissistic individuals back at the beginning, constantly having to rebuild their self-esteem so that they can feel happy again.
- Their Happiness Depends on Other People’s Validation
Narcissists use other people as mirrors. When they get the reflection back that they long for—total admiration and approval—they feel happy for the moment. However, there are bound to be times when what is reflected back to them is critical or disinterested. Then happiness suddenly disappears until they find a new and more positive reflection. They are like a car with a leaky gas tank: all the previous positive feelings leak out and they need constant new refills.
- What makes a Narcissist happy?
In general my Exhibitionist Narcissist clients report feeling the most happiness when they believe themselves to be the center of admiring attention. They also feel happy when they believe themselves to be at the top of whatever status hierarchy is important to them. Being “at the top” stabilizes their shaky self-esteem and feeds their defensive grandiosity. The most common status hierarchies involve money, beauty, power, fame, intelligence, and athleticism.
Example—Lisa the Beauty
Lisa derived most of her self-esteem from her looks and designer clothing. She was very competitive with other women and whenever she entered a roomful of people, immediately assessed and rated the other women with regard to how beautiful and fashionable she considered them to be. She expressed this very clearly to me in one of our sessions together:
“The thing that makes me happiest is walking into a room and knowing that I am the best dressed and most beautiful woman there.”
Example—John the Would Be Entrepreneur
John was very impressed by all the young, self-made billionaires he read about on the internet. He desperately wanted to do something that would prove to the world, his parents, and himself that he was in that category. He believed that he if were able to start a company and become fabulously rich, all his crippling self-doubt would go away as he basked in the glory of his success and everyone else's admiration.
Unfortunately, every time he started a new project, his self doubt came in and stopped him. He perpetually asked himself the wrong question: “Will this really make me great?” His harsh, devaluing inner voice always told him “no.”
He should have been asking: “Do I like doing this? Do I have enough genuine interest in this project to sustain me through the boring parts? Is it a good fit with my natural talents?”
- What makes a Narcissist unhappy?
My Narcissistic clients get unhappy when:
- Their status diminishes
- They are criticized
- No one is willing to listen to their repetitive stories
- They experience any failures
- They are interrupted
- They don't get to give advice
- Other people are in the spotlight
- They have to listen to other people give their opinions
- When higher status people ignore them
- When they don't get the best table in the restaurant
Punchline: Narcissists have a very narrow view of happiness that rests on the opinions of other people. High status and continual admiration is thought to be the only true source of happiness. As most people are preoccupied with the details of their own lives and not the Narcissist’s, this leaves Narcissistic individuals perpetually seeking new and better mirrors in which they can admire themselves.
Elinor Greenberg, PhD, CGP
In private practice in NYC and the author of the book: Borderline, Narcissistic, and Schizoid Adaptations: The Pursuit of Love, Admiration, and Safety.