Is Narcissism Actually Anxiety In Disguise?

Earlier this week I was on Instagram, scrolling through psychology hashtags such as #narcissism, trying to discover what people are saying about this topic on social media. Instagram gives a quick taste of what the public has on its mind. That, combined with my natural curiosity about the human experience, pulls me into rather long social media deep dives. “It’s for research,” I tell myself...

Fast-forward to one hour of scrolling through posts, two things became quite apparent to me:

  • Thanks to pop culture psychology, most of us have an idea of what narcissism looks like. If we leave out all the curse words, narcissism is often described by terms such as self-centered, manipulative, controlling, insecure, and toxic
  • We are very quick to identify so-called narcissists in our lives as well as the media i.e. world leaders, celebrities, influencers, etc

Narcissism lately has been quite a popular topic.  I couldn't resist myself and decided to look further into what the trends were on this topic over the past decade. (If you've been reading my other posts, you know that if Google Trends was a paid service, I would be SO broke.)

trends in Narcissism

To cover all my bases, I did a quick search on the following terms:  

  • narcissistic personality disorder
  • narcissistic
  • narcissist
  • narcissism

From a quick overview, it seems like people's searches for "narcissistic personality disorder" has gone up over the past decade.

narcissistic personality disorder trends

For those of you who haven't read much on narcissism, let me break it down real quick.

A narcissistic personality disorder is a condition where the person feels an inflated sense of self. They also have a need for constant attention, admiration and believe they can do no wrong. This leads to troubled professional, personal, and romantic relationships. They tend to believe that they deserve special attention, and feel disappointed when this is not done for them.

I bet we all know of someone who fits the above description. Before you write them off, however, think about this - behind all that confidence and self-praise, lies a person who has deep-rooted self-esteem issues and is terrified of being vulnerable in front of others. And this is what prompted this post because low self-esteem and anxiety are connected.

These were some of the top hits on the topic of narcissism on the web:

10 tips on How to deal with a Narcissist

11 Signs You are Dating a Narcissist

Are you a narcissist? Take this test

While most of this is valid and useful information, I was more so interested in societal responses towards narcissists. The common theme that all these posts had was the disapproval of any narcissistic behavior.

In my experience, nothing is ever clear-cut, and it's always worth examining our own assumptions.

Narcissism is not black and white

There may be more nuance to narcissism than what you have been reading on the internet.

Research findings pass through several channels before they get to social media. Moreover, health care professionals have been recognizing narcissism long before it hit the ''pop culture psychology'' section.

Narcissism is a multidimensional concept, it consists of both maladaptive as well as adaptive domains.

Maladaptive Narcissism

Maladaptive narcissistic traits are considered to be those related to a deep sense of entitlement. They are predictive of the person's tendency to exploit other people for self-serving needs. These traits are characterized by:

exploitative behaviour

exhibitionism (full of themselves)

aggressive behaviors


Maladaptive narcissistic qualities have been further broken down into grandiose and vulnerable narcissism.

Grandiose narcissism is linked to aggression and entitlement, whereas those who display vulnerable narcissism may feel inadequate, insecure, and experience depression and anxiety.

Adaptive Narcissism

Adaptive narcissistic traits are considered to be associated with positive traits such as leadership skills and a sense of authority. These traits help the individual excel in their social and professional paths. These traits are characterized by:


Leadership qualities

Asserting dominance within competitive environments

promoting a positive self-image

Adaptive narcissism is an often overlooked form of narcissism because most of us value these as positive traits. Unlike maladaptive narcissism, adaptive narcissism tends not to be linked to depression, anxiety, and stress.

What is the link between narcissism and anxiety?

Here are the 3 ways that anxiety and maladaptive narcissism overlap:

1. People who exhibit narcissistic traits and those who experience social anxiety are both frightened of being criticized or embarrassed in public

2. They both constantly seek social approval as well as the attention and validation of others

3. They are preoccupied with the fear that they are imperfect and will not meet up to the standards of a grandiose self-image

Those with narcissistic traits may struggle to manage their anxiety due to their constant need for external validation. To hide this truth, people with narcissistic traits place themselves a step above their peers, colleagues, and friends.  

It’s also possible that difficulty managing anxiety shows up as secondary emotions - anger and exploitative behaviour- the very traits that prompt self-help posts on social media and can cause harm to others. 

There seems to be enough similarities between narcissism and anxiety to wonder whether narcissism is a coping mechanism for anxiety, perhaps social anxiety in particular. 

It's also important to recognize that there is a scary and threatening side to narcissism. Narcissistic abuse affects people psychologically and emotionally. These ideas are not meant to minimize that reality.

Instead, I hope this post helped you appreciate how elements of the human experience overlap and interact with each other. And provide you with some new perspective on that person you were thinking about the whole time while reading this.

If you would like to hear more about a topic, leave a comment below or flip me an email.