The Little Shaman is a spiritual coach & specialist in cluster B personality disorders, with a popular YouTube show and clients worldwide.
What narcissists are hiding. This is something a lot of people wonder about. Some of these things seem to contradict the narcissistic person's actions or persona, but that's exactly the point. If you find these things hard to believe, it's just a testament to how good a narcissist's act can really be.
They are having a lot of emotional trouble
People who are pathologically narcissistic generally have a lot of trouble with emotions - their own and the emotions of others. They have trouble reading and recognizing them, they have trouble understanding them, they have trouble naming or defining them... they just have general trouble in this area. Many narcissistic people struggle with emotional regulation and find their emotions scary or overwhelming. Others are so disconnected from them that they may be unaware that they are feeling them or what they mean. Many of the coping mechanisms we see in pathologically narcissistic people can be the result of these emotional troubles, such as projection, gaslighting, idealization, devaluing or discarding others and more.
For example, at the core of the pathologically narcissistic personality is deep-seated shame and this drives an enormous amount of their behavior, often completely unbeknownst to them. This shame wears many masks and can look like many things, including rage, jealousy, envy, paranoia, self-aggrandizement, egotism and more. When dealing with people who are truly narcissistic, it's important to remember that, even though this person may be intelligent, well-spoken and chronologically a grown up, you are likely dealing with someone who is using a maladapted, dysfunctional adult version of the emotional coping and regulation skills of a toddler (or even younger child). This does not excuse their behavior in any way, but it can make it a little easier to understand.
They are not who they pretend to be - ever
At first glance, narcissistic people often present themselves as very different from who they really believe themselves to be. It's not a great act, nor is it capable of withstanding much scrutiny at all, but it can be very misleading if someone is not looking closely. It is often said that narcissistic people tell on themselves, and this is true - but if you don't know what to look for, you might miss it.
For example, the narcissist that is striving to come across as confident and self-assured can be very convincing, but if you pay attention, you will notice there are holes in the performance. Because they are only pretending to be what they think is acceptable or admirable, they don't always get it right. They may be a little too braggadocios, a little too assertive, a little too self-assured. This overacting is very common, regardless of what image they are trying to project. That's because this projected image is an overcompensation for the self-hatred, weakness, insecurity, helplessness or whatever else they feel that they are trying to hide. It isn't genuine. So the helpless victim is a little too helpless or has a few too many hard luck stories, the happy-go-lucky person is a little too happy-go-lucky, the tough guy is a little too tough, the sensitive lover is a little too solicitous. These may in fact be actual facets of their personality, but they often seem overblown and superficial because they are being used as a diversion from other things and in their own way, they are as over-the-top as all of the other facets of the narcissist's personality.
Remember that people who truly have a quality don't have to try so hard to prove it to everyone else, and make note of behavior that contradicts the image. Someone who is happy and confident doesn't need to hurt others when they are upset. They aren't jealous or envious. Someone who is in control and self-assured doesn't need to control others. They don't need to play power games. In general, people who really are whatever narcissists are pretending to be don't act the way narcissists act.
They don't like themselves very much
Contrary to popular belief, narcissists are not overflowing with self-esteem. They are chronically self-focused and they are self-important, but that isn't the same thing. When it comes to how they truly feel about themselves, narcissists are generally at the extreme low end of the spectrum. Thankfully, research is finally starting to reflect what many of us have known for years: pathological, toxic narcissism is not the result of having too much self-esteem or self-worth. It's the result of having virtually none at all, and no ability to create any.
Pathologically narcissistic people are like very young children in this way; they rely on others to reflect who they are back to them because they lack the ability to form a true and stable self-concept on their own. The inability to do this is a pretty serious handicap for a human being and it requires narcissists to use other people's reactions to them as a way to try to create some approximation of self-worth. This primitive survival mechanism is called mirroring, and it is the main function of other people in a narcissist's life. Regardless of the relationship, this is the main purpose of it.
Not only do pathologically narcissistic people have no self-worth to speak of, they are often consumed with self-hatred and shame surrounding who they are. This is what is behind all of their paranoia, jealousy, envy, rage, devaluation, discarding, all of their false selves and more. If you love yourself - if you truly love and accept yourself - you don't need to create a false self to show other people because you would know that who you are is good enough. Once again, make note of behavior that contradicts the image you're being presented with.
It can be hard to believe this, depending on the individual you might be dealing with, but that just shows how good the act really can be; many of them are extremely adept at hiding it. They've had to be. It's how they've survived. And some are so disconnected from their inner landscape and from their feelings that they sincerely may not even realize this is the case. However, if we pay attention to the narcissist and we understand what we are looking at, if we learn to see the misdirection and the misleading for what these really are, it becomes impossible to miss.
They are afraid
When we observe the behavior of pathologically narcissistic people, we start to see something that they would probably rather we didn't: fear. It can be hard to see at first sometimes, depending on how they react to things but to the astute observer it becomes very obvious after a while. Fear is one of the narcissistic person's biggest motivations - even if they don't realize it. Many people believe it's power or control, and that's true on its face, but what is behind the desire for power or control? What makes someone feel they need it so badly? The answer is fear. Fear of being powerless, fear of being out of control, fear of not being able to meet their own needs. Fear for their own survival.
They also fear the huge amounts of deep-seated pathological shame they are usually carrying around. This is often mistaken for remorse (by the narcissist and those around them), but it isn't. Remorse is for other people and is usually connected to empathy. Shame is for the self and is not connected to empathy in any way; it's all about them. It also usually has nothing to do with anything they've actually done. It may seem connected, but only tangentially; the thing they've been called out for is not the real focus, nor is the hurt they caused other people. Being called out for triggers the shame of being thought of as a bad person who does bad things. It is another example of how horrible they are. This thought process does not really address or even acknowledge the wrong they've done to the other person, though this can be difficult to see at first. Their focus is on them, and it stays there. The shame experienced by truly narcissistic people is generally of tidal wave proportions and with no coping mechanisms to deal with it except various manifestations of avoidance and denial, they live in fear of being unable to outrun it one day.
Many narcissists are often afraid of other people, too. They fear trusting anyone or caring about people, and they fear allowing others to care about them. These "good" feelings inevitably trigger "bad" ones, and they are unable to deal with the emotional fallout and confusion that follows. They enjoy someone acting as if they care, but if someone says they care, they must be lying. If someone really does care, there must be something wrong with them. This seems to be experienced by narcissists as feelings for - and opinions about - the other person, rather than as the self-hatred it actually is, and it is reacted to the same way. The other person is treated as the source of the confusion, and they are blamed for it. Inside, the narcissist cannot understand or take ownership of their feelings and looks around for ways others are causing them to feel the way they do.
Narcissists don't really understand how the world works, how other people operate and most importantly, how they themselves operate. So many are simply walking around imitating what they see others do to get their needs met and often making a big mess of things because they don't truly get it. They can't trust others, they can't trust themselves and they have nothing real to base anything on because of the instability of their identities. This is scary.
They know something is wrong
Part of the reason they are afraid and one of the biggest things they are hiding is the fact that they are sure they are different than others. Not just different, in fact; bad. One of the reasons the narcissist creates the false persona is because they are convinced that they are so unlovable and disgusting that they have to pretend to be someone else in order to be accepted on any level. Many people think this is true, that what they are hiding is their "evil" or abusive side, but that isn't actually the case. The evil, abusive side is the 2nd level of protection for what they are actually hiding: the weak, helpless, infantile core of unlovable, disgusting, horrible filth they believe themselves to be.
Truly narcissistic people are the most self-loathing people on the planet, whether they act like it or not. The false persona exists for the same reason the abusive side exists: both of these are reactions to needing to hide and protect who they really believe themselves to be. The false persona is the smiling greeter, inviting you in to the house and the abusive side is the 85lb attack dog in front of the doors you are not allowed to go in. Both of these things are real in their own way and both are also fake in their own way; all of the sides you see are actual parts of who they could have actually been if their identity were not fractured the way it is. But they are not stable. What's behind those guarded doors is as close to the real truth as you can get with a pathological narcissist. And the majority of the time, it's inaccessible - even to them. That attack dog doesn't just attack outsiders who try to get in those doors. It attacks the narcissist, too. That's one of the reasons they are so miserable.
They are very unhappy people
As you can see from this list, narcissistic people have a shot at being the most unhappy people on the planet. It's not a surprise. They are terrified, self-loathing people who have only rigid, maladaptive coping mechanisms to deal with the really serious problems they are facing. Consequently, they become stuck in mindsets that are harmful, self-sabotaging, damaging or unrealistic but don't realize it. Because they are so afraid and so avoidant and because it's a pathology, they do not realize these things and continue to believe others are simply spoiling it for them somehow - either for no reason or because the narcissist's self-hatred causes them to believe that everyone else hates them as well. This usually triggers massive anger, depression and resentment on top of their already-existing dysregulated or completely disowned emotions.
None of this is a recipe for happiness. Pathologically narcissistic people are in a constant state of survival mode and because of the rigidity of their beliefs and inability to adapt, most have lost any true capacity for happiness, if they ever had it all. They seem to view themselves as helpless boats adrift on the sea of life, unable to do anything but react to what they perceive is being done to them. Even when they seem to be taking action, investigation usually shows us that they are actually reacting to their own emotions or beliefs, which they often interpret as things other people have done to them. Anyone would be unhappy with that mindset and the rigidity of pathological narcissistic traits makes it extremely difficult for this to change. The arrested emotional development that we usually see in this kind of personality makes it hard for them to even see any of this - let alone change it, and the maladaptive coping mechanisms cause them to perceive harmful intentions in people who try to help.
So there you have it. These are some of the biggest things Dr. Jekyll is hiding. The important thing to remember is that by understanding what you are dealing with, you can better understand the reality of the situation, which is that it is not your fault, nor is it your responsibility to fix. More than that, you don't have the ability to fix it. If someone has a life-threatening illness but they refuse to go to the doctor, you can't do anything about their decision. You can't do anything except decide how (and if) you want to move forward with the relationship. That is what understanding things helps you to do: make informed decisions. That is how you empower yourself.