Deconstructing Narcissism: A Model of Emotional Dynamics of the Narcissistic Personality - Mindsplain (2024)

Deconstructing Narcissism: A Model of Emotional Dynamics of the Narcissistic Personality - Mindsplain (1) Introduction:

With the aim of simplifying and clarifying my own understanding of the dynamics of the narcissistic personality, I set out to create a simple, clear flow chart. In particular, I wanted to link the grandiose narcissistic behavior, with narcissistically-injured/deflated narcissism, and other forms egocentrism can take. What I ended up with was not the neat, simple chart I had in mind. Instead, I got the thing above. Still, it helped me to clarify a bunch of stray thoughts, experiences, and theory associated with narcissism. I’ll do my best to go through the different components and make it more clear.

Inside Out:

The first thing to know while looking at the chart is that the center represents what the narcissist feels, and would express if asked. For the narcissistic organization, it’s important to understand that the area of emotional awareness is very small. Most of the big and powerful emotions are outside of conscious awareness. However, the narcissist will likely only experience a diffuse sense of anxiety and/or depression.

On the outermost area of the chart, are existential, annihilation anxieties. These are deep-seated, hard-wired, reptilian fears that are not conscious for anyone on a moment to moment basis. Yet humans share these with the animal kingdom. All creatures are at some level wired to avoid being eaten, drowned, or disfigured. We will see though conceptual links between these primitive fears and more recognizable emotions.

Core emotions:

To use an analogy, have you ever used a bubble level? The ones you use when hanging frames, or for ensuring straightness when building?

I imagine the 3 core emotions of narcissism to function something like this level. Although narcissists seem impenetrable and cold at times, they simply suffer from an emotion regulation problem. The way narcissistic individuals manage stress is like trying to keep that damn bubble on a level in the center of the guides. What I mean is, it’s difficult to keep there; the bubble shifts with the slightest provocation, and it consumes an immense amount of physical and emotional energy to maintain an equilibrium. This is why, at the center of the diagram, is a pervasive feeling of enervation and deadness (i.e., depression), and/or a pervasive tension that narcissists experience as a diffuse sense of anxiety. That is, the experience is a vague feeling of distress that is

1. Disconnected from discreet, identifiable emotions; and

2. Not linked to internal thinking or feeling states (it’s explained as either completely perplexing and befuddling, or it is assumed to emanate from the external environment).

Someone with a narcissistic personality tend to seek treatment when “anxiety” or “depression” reaches a critical threshold of pain. The idea of a maladaptive personality style is often so far from conscious awareness that it could take months or years of psychotherapy before this fact is even acknowledged, let alone addressed.

Deconstructing Narcissism: A Model of Emotional Dynamics of the Narcissistic Personality - Mindsplain (3)

Diagram of emotional dynamics of the narcissistic personality

Take a look at the infographic above. The center of the diagram shows unconscious emotions coexisting in concentric rings; each ring representing a greater distance from the narcissist’s conscious, subjective experience. Returning to the bubble level analogy, for some narcissists, the center of the bubble level is a grandiose state of disgust. Others default to the reclusive, shameful solipsism of deflated narcissism. Others feel empty and envious and thus try to manage emotions by spoiling others’ feelings of fullness–including the fullness one might get from helping the very same narcissist.

Let’s go through the diagram one level at a time.

Deconstructing Narcissism: A Model of Emotional Dynamics of the Narcissistic Personality - Mindsplain (4)

Types of Narcissism:

The Grandiose Narcissist:

This is the prototype of narcissism. The closest emotion to conscious awareness for the grandiose narcissist is disgust. In evolutionary terms, disgust is an emotion that has the purpose of keeping us uncontaminated. We recoil at anything outside of us that might be harmful if taken in. It’s no coincidence that pregnant women get morning sickness and young children are the pickiest eaters (in other words, oral fixations). Most vulnerable physical states are being in utero and being a young child; the narcissist is someone who did not advance very far from this period of vulnerability, which, paradoxically, is characterized by “narcissistic omnipotence.”

The narcissistic personality displays a powerful, grandiose exterior. Yet, s/he protects the self as if its existence were so precarious that it could not survive the most slight threat to its physical and emotional wellbeing. If you have spent much time around narcissists, you will know that they reject anything that might touch a nerve, and “spit out” any attempt to know them, see their vulnerability, or question their impregnability.

The Narcissistically Injured/Deflated Narcissist:

The narcissistically injured, hereafter referred to as the deflated narcissist, is someone who embraces shame but, this narcissism comes from the rigidity with which the individual tells the story. It’s a “woe is me tale,” and the experience of being with this type of person is that they have a monopoly on the world’s suffering. No one could experience the type of pain that they feel. And how dare you suggest that they make any kind of effort to improve their situation. Don’t you understand how they have been wronged? If you think they should assume a position of agency and be more proactive in their psychological healing and growth, then you are aligned with the abuser and are blaming the victim.

The ashamed person is a cave dweller–quite cut off from others, but sheltered. The “cave” in this metaphor is a narrative of grievance that grows with every instance with every day its occupant remains there either ignored or improperly helped (“proper” help is often a moving target and a fantasy of perfectly attuned care).

The story behind the shame is impenetrable as the grandiose narcissist’s persona. The ashamed and isolated loathe themselves for two reasons:

1. To receive care from others without expectations of reciprocation; and

2. To express rage towards the person upon which they depend.

How can shame be an expression of rage, you may ask? Shame is an expression of extreme self-annihilation that presents a system, whether dyadic (i.e., parent-child), family, or societal, with the effects of the other’s cruelty. Every expression of pain is thus hostile accusation against a wrongdoer.

The Empty or Depleted Narcissist:

The classic manifestation of this type of narcissistic personality is characterized by the emotion of envy and is one that every clinician knows well: the help-rejecting complainer. This type of narcissist will often find him or herself “seeking help” by way of dragging the world down to his/her level. No solution is ever good enough, as no nourishment can fill the bottomless emotional pit inside of this type of individual. In Buddhism, there is a specter of suffering known as the “hungry ghost,” whose attributes capture the state of the empty narcissist’s state of emotional equilibrium. These hungry ghosts are known to have enormous stomachs with an incredibly narrow neck. In other words, they can never feel full, nourished, or sated.

The state of emptiness is the most emotionally regressed of these three core emotions. It is a replication of the ungratified infant’s experience, of feeling hollow while abundance was felt to be withheld. This individual does not want help. S/he wants one of two things:

1. An endless stream of support and comfort; and/or

2. To destroy those who have what s/he lacks.

It warrants underscoring that these three core emotional states of narcissism can be experienced by any type of narcissist, or any person at a low point of life, like the bubble in the level can occupy any area within the tube. The point is that experience dictates in which one of these three positions a narcissistically organized person feels most stable.


Having outlined the bubble level metaphor for three types of narcissistic states of being, I’ll define the predominant defenses used by each type of narcissist to remain at a state of equilibrium (that is, at the center of the bubble level). These defenses are used to keep primary affective experiences of disgust, shame, and envy outside of conscious awareness, and can be found on the infographic above, along with the most likely direction in which they are deployed.


A defense where the bad is disconnected from the good. It is a type of defense used by those who struggle to see themselves as combinations of good and bad personality traits. In short, it means disconnecting from the bad. It’s used pervasively by all forms of narcissism.

Identity Diffusion:

A defense wherein standing alone as a separate person creates too much anxiety to be tolerated. In short, it means merging with the good instead of risking being bad. It’s used in all iterations of narcissism.


Taking in the bad to protect against abandonment. It’s used by the deflated narcissism as a self-effacing means of attaching to another. Preferred defense of the deflated narcissist against abandonment.


The defensive process of seeing in another what is bad in oneself. Defending against shame to remain all good. One of the preferred defenses of the grandiose narcissist against shame.


Attacking the introjected object to gain separation and express rage at another who cannot tolerate direct attacks. Preferred defense of the deflated narcissist against envy.


Defending against shame by becoming envious and idealizing. Preferred defense of the empty narcissist as a defense against the shame of separateness and to obtain a parasite-like relationship to a compulsive nurturer.


Primitive defense against the bad by asserting the bad’s absence. Used as a defense against the emptiness and envy characteristic of being in a state of dependence.

Projective Identification:

Attempting to defile the good in another through projection then attacking it to defend against feelings of envy, powerlessness, and emptiness.

Anger: The Closest Emotion to Conscious Awareness

Deconstructing Narcissism: A Model of Emotional Dynamics of the Narcissistic Personality - Mindsplain (6)

It will surprise no one who knows or works with narcissistic people that a great deal of anger can be found within a narcissist without too much digging. Interestingly, most narcissists don’t see themselves as angry and thus the anger they express is not considered to be either a feature of their personality or abnormal in any way. Any outbursts of anger will be rationalized as necessary or required by the situation. And no matter whether the narcissistic personality tends more towards grandiosity, injured, or empty, anger is outside the narcissist’s conscious awareness. As stated earlier, narcissists will only feel the reverberations of intense emotions like anxiety or depression.

However, depending on the state of the narcissistic personality, the way anger exists outside of conscious awareness can take different forms. For example, for the grandiose narcissist, irritability, annoyance, or jealousy are common forms that anger takes. Subjectively, the narcissist may feel this anger as the way in which people are trying to knock him/her off his perch or take something away. When the grandiose persona is attacked, the grandiose narcissist’s anger and disgust will assume the form of holding on to a sense of grandiosity (and all the extensions of this grandiosity and will throw out nasty barbs to put others in their place.)

To the narcissistically injured, rage will either be impotent, keeping the bearer stuck in a shameful position. Another possibility is for the rage to be coopted, turned against the self, to ensure others are know how cruel they have been to evoke such a state.

The empty narcissist is filled with primitive oral aggression, the kind displayed by infants who bite the breast that feeds. Rage gets expressed as “if I can’t have it, no one can!” These people are happy to sacrifice themselves for a more fair distribution of profound suffering. Empty, envious rage can be seen in the disastrous applications of communism throughout the world; civilizations were destroyed out of envy for the rich, while the masses shared in collective starvation (i.e., emptiness).

Just Beyond Anger: Sadness

Deconstructing Narcissism: A Model of Emotional Dynamics of the Narcissistic Personality - Mindsplain (7)

The dynamics of the narcissistic personality are designed first and foremost to make vulnerability as distant from conscious awareness as possible. Therefore, the narcissist has very little access to genuine emotions of sadness. One point of clarification is that sadness associated with depressive feelings, shame, or emptiness is better conceptualized as covers for anger, as the sadness is more about impacting others than it is about healing and connection. Yet, beyond anger is a deep and profound sadness that narcissists are quite justifiably afraid to feel.

For the grandiose narcissist, a facade of impenetrable confidence conceals both a history of and a commitment to banish feelings of intense vulnerability. The deflated narcissist isolates in shame to confront an aggressor (very likely to be a grandiose narcissist) with evidence of the other’s cruelty; this maneuver turns “active into passive,” appropriating the act of abandonment to prevent feelings of loneliness and despair. For the empty narcissist, a preoccupation with filling the void of emptiness so that an overwhelming sense of grief over a lost sense of fulness or completeness will not be felt.

Annihilation Anxiety and Existential Fears

Deconstructing Narcissism: A Model of Emotional Dynamics of the Narcissistic Personality - Mindsplain (8)

The most remote level of feeling for both the narcissistic personality and all other personality types are ancient existential annihilation fears that we humans share with creatures in our deep evolutionary past. The grandiose narcissist’s Teflon exterior protects against hardwired existential fears of penetration–whether through rape and violent impaling–inclusive of mutilation/castration. The deflated narcissist’s deepest fear of annihilation is to be abandoned and exiled from the larger group. Thus, the defensive maneuver is to pre-empt rejection and banishment by self-isolating while assuming a stance of accusatory aggression.

The empty narcissist’s annihilation anxiety is not immediately intuitive and requires a theoretical context. The empty-feeling person’s fear ultimately is of being a victim of predation or being devoured/swallowed. The conceptual connection to envy is that feelings of emptiness arise from psychological cannibalism. Theoretically speaking, emptiness and envy come from having one’s needs denied and being used by early caregivers as a source of psychological nourishment. Feeling full or complete is perceived to be a zero-sum game, where only one person in a relationship can feel fulfilled, and that a mutually satisfying arrangement cannot be imagined.

The DSM-5 offers an atheoretical and purely descriptive summary of Personality Disorders and Narcissistic Personality Disorder

The DSM-5 offers an atheoretical and purely descriptive summary of Personality Disorders and Narcissistic Personality Disorder

Wrapping Up the Narcissistic Personality:

The infographic above is a new model I have developed to better understand the emotional experience of narcissistic individuals, as well as to understand the relationship between well-known types of narcissism (e.g., grandiose, deflated). This graphic is both more complex than I intended, yet still is an oversimplification of the emotional nuances of narcissism. My hope is that this will provide some useful understanding for those whose lives have been affected by narcissism, or see some narcissistic traits in themselves. Although recipients of narcissistic abuse (understandably) feel weary of trying to see things from the narcissist’s perspective, the capacity to put ourselves in the shoes of another can be a powerful source of resilience.

I’d love to get questions and feedback in the comments to help clarify all our understanding of the phenomenon of narcissism. Please subscribe below and share widely–the more join the discussion, the better!


American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mentaldisorders (5th ed.).

Further Reading on Narcissism:

To review what the DSM-5 (Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) has to say about personality disorders and/or narcissism, a review copy of the DSM-5 section on Personality Disorders DSM-5 can be found here.

Dear Survivors of Narcissistic Abuse: Own Your Healthy Narcissism!

Bromberg, P. (1983) The Mirror and the Mask—On Narcissism and Psychoanalytic Growth. Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 19:359-387

Bach, S. (1977). On the narcissistic state of consciousness. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 58, 209-233.

Freud, S. (1957). On narcissism: An introduction. In The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XIV (1914-1916): On the History of the Psycho-Analytic Movement, Papers on Metapsychology and Other Works (pp. 67-102).

Deconstructing Narcissism: A Model of Emotional Dynamics of the Narcissistic Personality - Mindsplain (2024)
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