The Insecurity Behind Narcissistic Personality (NPD) Explained

Woman holding up a black hat to hide her faceIt’s not uncommon to hear “narcissism” and “narcissist” used to casually describe people who:

  • Seem vain and self-centered
  • Seem to care only about themselves
  • Demand attention, admiration, and respect
  • Exaggerate achievements
  • Manipulate others for their own purposes

While these traits are all associated with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), people with just a few of these traits may not necessarily meet criteria for diagnosis. What’s more, other significant characteristics of narcissism are less recognizable, so they aren’t always associated with the condition.

It’s generally a good idea to avoid labeling people with mental health diagnoses when you don’t have a full picture of their mental health. In other words, someone’s diagnosis is typically between them and their therapist or psychologist, unless they choose to share that diagnosis. But it is true that people with traits of narcissism generally show a mask of superiority and arrogance to the world. They may seem full of themselves, demand appreciation from others, and appear to have high self-esteem. But an inner core of insecurity often lies behind this mask.

Narcissism and Insecurity

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), people with NPD almost always have a fragile sense of self-esteem. Because of this, they spend a lot of time thinking about how others perceive them and how well they’re doing in life. This insecurity contributes to the continuous demand for admiration associated with NPD.

Many people with narcissism struggle with pervasive feelings of insecurity underneath the outward superiority and entitlement they present to the world.

Many people with narcissism struggle with pervasive feelings of insecurity underneath the outward superiority and entitlement they present to the world. But this experience may be most commonly associated with covert, or vulnerable narcissism. Many people with this subtype of narcissism do show outward signs of sensitivity to criticism and insecurity. This insecurity, often tied to the concept of being less than perfect, can contribute to mental health concerns such as stress, anxiety, or depression.

This insecurity can manifest as difficulty accepting criticism, or anything seen as criticism, since critiques can trigger feelings of vulnerability. Someone with narcissism may, for example, take constructive advice from a supervisor as a personal attack and react angrily. They might offer a reply laced with contempt or derision or they make a passive-aggressive or mocking comment. This reaction, lashing out in response to a slight, can humiliate or reject the person offering the critique. People with NPD generally do this to help relieve the potential threat to their self-esteem.

NPD is a complex personality disorder that involves feelings of insecurity, but insecurity is not only linked to narcissism. It’s not uncommon to feel insecure or struggle with moments (or longer periods) of low self-esteem, even if you have no mental health diagnosis at all. One way to differentiate narcissistic insecurity involves looking at the person’s response to perceived criticism or other threats. Responding with aggression, rage, or passive-aggression could suggest narcissism, though this isn’t a definitive diagnostic tool.

Narcissism, Insecurity, and Relationships

Maintaining a relationship with someone who has NPD can be difficult, especially without support from a mental health professional. Many people living with narcissistic traits may have had a parent with NPD, experienced insecure attachment as a child, or have other attachment issues. It’s also not uncommon for people living with NPD to experience depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts, or abuse substances. These can all cause relationship difficulties, though dealing with the main traits of narcissism may pose the greatest challenge.

People with narcissism generally need a lot of admiration and approval, since receiving this admiration may help combat the underlying insecurity. But because NPD typically involves a lack of empathy, they usually don’t offer much in the way of reciprocation. This is one key reason why people living with NPD are usually labeled “toxic.” They need their romantic partners to praise them, listen to them talk about their feelings and topics of personal interest, and demand devotion and regard. They might talk about their envy for others or project those feelings by talking about how others envy them.

This can be draining for romantic partners and family members of people with narcissism, particularly as people with NPD may also express insecurity by accusing partners of being unfaithful, not caring about them enough, or not doing enough for them. They might use emotional abuse tactics, including gaslighting, to try and control partners so they’ll remain in the relationship and continue offering admiration and regard.

These attitudes and attacks can cause a lot of emotional pain. They can also lead to feelings of insecurity in anyone involved with a person with NPD:

  • Frequent negativity and derision can have a significant impact on self-esteem.
  • Gaslighting can cause doubts about what’s really true and make the person affected feel as if they’re in the wrong.

Are ‘Narcissists’ Insecure?

Existing research on narcissism suggests people with NPD do tend to feel insecure, whether they display this insecurity outwardly or not. Insecurity may provoke many of the problematic behaviors associated with narcissism. Both a 2015 article looking at the diagnostic challenges of narcissism and a 2017 review examining the connection between narcissism and behavior on social network sites like Facebook suggest insecurity is more often seen in people with vulnerable narcissism, who might present as humble or reserved and tend to put themselves down.

Katherine Fabrizio MA, a licensed professional counselor in Raleigh, North Carolina, helps people who were raised by narcissistic parents heal. She explains, “At their core, the person with narcissistic personality disorder is deeply insecure. They feel unworthy, ashamed, and empty. They hide this emptiness from themselves and others with a set of defenses that act as a storefront. The cover-up story they tell themselves and others constitutes those defenses, which are designed to artificially fill them up—all while hiding the fact that they feel truly empty.”

It’s important to recognize that although people with narcissism may struggle with unwanted emotions and experiences that cause distress, these feelings don’t excuse their behavior. Insecurity can be hard to face, but it’s possible to work through this, along with any other emotional or mental health challenges like anxiety, without emotional abuse or other problematic behaviors.

If you often feel insecure, working with a therapist can help you overcome this mindset and develop a greater sense of personal empowerment. If you struggle to recognize or understand the feelings of others, or if you tend to lie or manipulate others to get your needs met, you may want to reach out to a therapist who can help you learn new ways of relating to others so you learn how to meet your own needs and support the people in your life.

Anxiety and insecurity can result from setting too-high standards for yourself or wanting to achieve things that aren’t realistic. But in either case, a therapist can help you recognize your capabilities and potential for success so you can set more achievable goals for yourself.


  1. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, fifth edition. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Association.
  2. Caligor, E., Levy, K. N., & Yeomans, F. E. (2015, April 30). Narcissistic personality disorder: Diagnostic and clinical challenges. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 172(5). Retrieved from
  3. Dickinson, K. A., & Pincus, A. L. (2003). Interpersonal analysis of grandiose and vulnerable narcissism. Journal of Personality Disorders, 17(3), 188-207. Retrieved from
  4. Gnambs, T., & Appel, M. (2017, February 7). Narcissism and social networking behavior: A meta-analysis. Journal of Personality, 86(2), 200-212. Retrieved from
  5. Jauk, E., Weigle, E., Lehmann, K., Benedek, M., & Neubauer, A. C. (2017). The relationship between grandiose and vulnerable (hypersensitive) narcissism. Frontiers in Psychology, 8, 1600. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01600
  6. Narcissistic personality disorder treatment. (n.d.). Retrieved from

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  • Leave a Comment
  • Leena

    November 10th, 2019 at 8:39 AM

    My husband left me (he has NPD) and he is with the woman he left me for but they broke up, we have 4 kids together, I want him back but he doesn’t. He agreed to go to therapy to get along but is there hope for reconciliation? I have been nothing but angry and critical of him and he has been passive agressive and defensive. Do you think that if I tried to show him that I understand him he would take me back?

  • Mike

    November 15th, 2019 at 12:46 AM

    I wouldn’t put much hope in him changing to the point of taking you back. One reason I believe that is since narsistic people are so prone to manipulate the situation, including the other person in the relationship, or former relationship, the expectation level should be very low or non existent or to at least appear that way to the narc. person so he might not have that in his mind already and be planning to manipulate beforehand. But If he knows you are wanting to get back with him beforehand, you might not be able to convince him otherwise later. That very well may keep you from a therapy session which could be beneficial, especially if those intentions were not made known to him beforehand. if you told him you were not seeking reconciliation, you may have a better chance of finding out his real intentions as compared to telling him. Good luck with all that

  • lil

    February 17th, 2020 at 8:53 PM

    my ex is a narcissist. I was with him for almost two years. He seemed like he was perfect and very charming but as the year went by, it slowly went downhill, especially since I had gone through a incident that left me with ptsd (I’m doing very well btw). There were lies and very sneaky manipulation on my emotions, he influenced my emotions by lying and trying to “brainwash me” into something else. Later on as the year went by, it got worse and more of himself was revealing slowly but fast. He reacts quickly to criticism, he thinks he deserves all the good, he’s never wrong, he guilt trips to get what he wants, etc etc. He hits all the points for a narcissist and it used to hurt me because it was hard for me to wrap around this new image but, it’s just who he is. A therapy session and some emotional support is what I need as well as himself, it’s hard but I guess it’s the way life is.

  • Bonnie

    May 17th, 2020 at 9:27 PM

    Hmm Sounds like I’m the narcissist and here I thought it was my husband. Crap! Can we both have this personality? Do narcissists actually like another like them or even be able to love and succeed together? If so how did they transform or adapt? Its the same explanations or studies done over and over and I am not seeing enough supportive evidence to suggest in any way the “type” is bad or unwanted….personality is controllable? Oh I thought only narcissists could control that? Hmmm, maybe provide info on how to maximize on the right things and the positive attributes this type has to offer and feel anything other than shame or labeled. Gosh…

  • Ashley

    May 29th, 2020 at 7:18 PM

    or consider the gaslighting portion… what were you like before you met him and did you simply start to emulate his behavior as a survival skill – or because he was projecting so effectively you started to believe him? Try to detach and figure out which one of you is the manipulator.

  • Kevin

    March 28th, 2021 at 7:32 AM

    Hi Crystal!
    This is a good article and you have written many other good articles. You seems like a knowledgeable and well-read person.
    In another article when you´re talking about “Narcissistic victim syndrom”, This one: 12 Signs You’ve Experienced Narcissistic Abuse (Plus How to Get Help).
    Firstly, I think this fits well into the new diagnosis CPTSD (Complex PTSD). This diagnosis is in ICD-11 and it´s not part of DSM. I think when writing about “Narcissistic victim syndrome” (which is not accepted as an own disorder), you should also mention the CPTSD-diagnosis. This new diagnosis is both welcomed and challenging/troublesome. Welcomed because trauma could be more subtle to some individuals and also include things like childhood emotional neglect and/or what you describe as narcissistic victim syndrom (in childhood/or as and adult). “small” traumas/or trauma-like experiences could also be devastating for an individual and especially for a person that is born with a highly sensitive nervous system. This diagnosis is challenging because it will require a lot of effort and knowledge of the psychiatrist/psychologist who diagnose a person with this diagnosis. So, what I´m meaning is that it´s not necessary to have a new diagnosis like “Narcissistic victim syndrome” because most of the symptoms is already included in CPTSD.

    Another thing when you talk about “Narcissistic victim syndrome” is the importance of making a difference between if the individual who suffer have experience narcissistic abuse in childhood or as an adult (e.g. in a relationship with a narcissist). Many children who experience narcissistic abuse, will develop a personality disorder themselves. As a defense mechanism, they could develop NPD themselves or other PDs and/or traits from e.g. : Borderline PD, Avoidant PD, Schizoid PD and more. They could also be in consideration of the diagnosis CPTSD. Especially Vulnerable/Covert NPD, AvPD and BPD. But an adult who experience narcissistic abuse don´t develop a personality disorder, but could be in consideration of the diagnosis CPTSD. As I said before, it´s a challenging diagnosis and traits like: Avoidance/isolation, freeze/flight, flashbacks/nightmares, anxiety/fear, self esteem issues, should be looked more deeply into when considering that diagnosis.

    What do you think of my reasoning? What do you think of the diagnosis CPTSD?
    Nice if you want to reply here or send me an email!

  • Jane P.

    September 12th, 2021 at 9:06 AM

    This is a very good article concerning the “opposite mask” that is the real mask of insecurity behind narcissistic behaviors. While it is important to note that many people present an opposite mask to cover their true feelings, narcissists will employ many different manipulative methods to keep their victims in a constant state of uncertainty to achieve specific goals (usually to benefit themselves in some way.) This is very different from say, a person who may be depressed, or sad who is masking their sad emotions by pretending to be happy, or carefree. While this sort of masking is not healthy, it doesn’t tend to perpetuate emotional abuse on another person, which makes dealing with narcissistic masks and their accompanying behaviors so difficult. This is because there is often an underlying sadistic element to narcissism achieved at the expense of the victim. And because the emotional manipulations can be so indirect and insidious, a victim must educate themselves to the various strategic and coercive ploys of the narcissistic manipulator. The place to start is with your perceptions of reality. If anyone ever tries to change your perception of an event and try to reverse your perception of it, or otherwise turn themselves into the victim when in reality, YOU are the real victim, this is your first clue that you may be an unwitting victim of a narcissist. Another common narcissistic tactic is “dismissal”. This Dan be the dismissal of your opinion, or the actual dismissal of your presence. Either way, the dismissal works to empower the narcissist while disempowering the victim. If you ever have an interaction with someone who leaves you feeling diminished after a conversation, who shows no empathy or regards to observe the normal rules of social behavior, who dismisses or minimizes your opinions as “inconsequential” or “childish”, or who inflates themselves at the expense of you, you are most likely dealing with a toxic individual, and the only method to deal with them is to NOT deal with them at all. They won’t ever change, but will instead use you in their own private game to dominate and control, and get what they want from you for themselves. And even though that narcissism is a mask that these people wear to conceal their insecurities, never forget that they are corrupt and rotten to the core, and you deserve much better than they will ever be able to give you.

  • Daniel

    September 2nd, 2022 at 9:01 AM

    I can’t cope alone after what I’ve been through

  • Charlotte

    September 2nd, 2022 at 8:46 PM

    Dear Daniel, thank you for commenting on our blog. Sometimes it helps to talk to someone regarding issues such as these. If you would like to consult with a mental health professional, you can start finding therapists in your area by entering your city or ZIP code into the search field on this page: Once you enter your information, you’ll be directed to a list of therapists and counselors who meet your criteria. You may click to view our members’ full profiles and contact the therapists themselves for more information. You are welcome to call us for personal assistance in finding a therapist. We are in the office Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Mountain Time, and our phone number is 888-563-2112 ext 3. Kind regards, The GoodTherapy Team

  • Rick

    May 17th, 2023 at 9:51 PM

    I have had the experience on stepping on Narcissistic rage landmines twice in my life- first with a police sergeant at work who I unintentionally embarrassed in front of the troops. He had an absolute meltdown and I was told by secretaries he had a 2 hour crying jag to his supervisor. I had an enemy for life from that. The second was with my own mother, who I always knew was odd. I am not sure what exactly I did to arouse her ire, but she never spoke to me for the rest of her life. Some time after she died, I read extensively about this disorder. Lo and behold, all of her behaviors from my childhood were experienced by other people, except for her spitefulness and occasionally sadistic abuse toward me (and I later learned, from my oldest brother who fled from home at 17). So yes, these people are quite insecure and will act to preserve their false facade.

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