When is Narcissism Really Insecurity?

Important notice: the information in this article is not meant to diagnose or treat any medical condition. If you suspect that you or someone you know is suffering from a psychiatric illness, please consult a healthcare professional immediately.

In 2009, a nationally representative sample of 35,000 adults found that nearly 10% of people in their 20s had experienced clinical Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). That’s a 7% rise in the last forty years, with narcissistic traits tracking at a similar pace to the obesity epidemic.

What is clinical narcissism?

In clinical terms, narcissism takes a step beyond vanity and self-admiration. People with NPD form an idealised, grandiose image of themselves, most often to avoid underlying insecurities buried deep beneath this façade.

Other signs of NPD include self-centred and manipulative behaviours, arrogant thinking, a lack of empathy for others, and an excessive need for admiration. This pattern of behaviours pervades into every relationship in the narcissists’ life.

The symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder are:

  • Grandiosity and self-importance
  • Daydreaming with fantastical thinking
  • Need for frequent praise
  • Extreme sensitivity to stress
  • Manipulating others without remorse
  • Frequently bullies or puts others down
When is Narcissism Really Insecurity?

Is narcissism a defense mechanism?

Beneath the charming façade, narcissists often have a very fragile ego that breaks easily under the slightest criticism. This can trigger any number of reactions from yelling, name-calling, violence, or in even crying.

When the narcissists’ grandiose view of themselves is threatened, they will go to any length to build themselves back up. A common defense mechanism employed by the narcissist is calling intellectualizing. This involves pseudo-rationalizing an irrational belief to avoid the strong emotions one would have by facing reality.

Very often, the narcissistic traits themselves are the defense mechanism. However, when coupled with psychotic delusions such as those in bipolar type I or schizophrenia, it can take a very dangerous step beyond NPD.

Grandiosity vs narcissism

While grandiosity is a common symptom in NPD, bipolar type I, and schizophrenia, the underlying cause is very different from the latter two. In contrast to NPD, there is no charming façade in the psychotic person, because their beliefs are very real to them and difficult to break.

Narcissism is merely a byproduct of grandiosity and insecurity, requiring both symptoms to present itself. And, since grandiosity dances with ambition, it’s only through grandiose thinking that CEO’s, geniuses, and leaders are made.

Insecurity can also be used as a tool for success, but never when combined with grandiosity. When insecurity and grandiosity meet, the resulting narcissist may have some financial, social, or romantic success, but it never lasts.


It’s normal to experience some mild symptoms of narcissism from time to time, especially when our self-identity is threatened. However, if these beliefs are enduring and form a pattern of destructive behaviors, it’s time for an intervention.

Treatment for NPD typically involves cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and talk therapy on a regular basis. However, treating the narcissist is difficult because they often think there’s nothing wrong with them in the first place.

If you or someone you know is presenting symptoms of NPD, it’s important to get help no matter how difficult it may be. Turning narcissism into a positive drive for success is possible if you’re ambitious enough to try.

This article was kindly written and contributed by Alex Schaffer.

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