The Failed Narcissist
When narcissists can really use some help.
Posted January 18, 2023 | Reviewed by Tyler Woods
- Many failed narcissists struggle with unregulated self-esteem and desperately need external validation.
- You don't have to have a narcissistic personality to share traits that can hurt you.
- Failure in the narcissistic venture can sometimes be used for healing.
Have some compassion.
When we use the word “narcissist,” the term is often met with disdain. Maybe that’s because folks with this personality disorder often disdain others and folks respond in turn.
Yet, I’d like to put forward a call for informed compassion. Yes, people with narcissistic disorders can manipulate, over-react, and rage when disappointed. They can be charming as long as it serves their goals. People in their wake can be hurt.
When Narcissists fail, it is a critical moment for them and those in their vicinity. The failed narcissist deserves attention both because we want to keep a distance from people like this, and, ironically, because it may be an opportunity for real growth.
The core issue is self-esteem.
Vulnerable Self Esteem
Narcissists can dysregulate and demand dysregulation from others in order to feel better. In other words, when a narcissist is unhappy, they know how to spread it—and feel some relief in doing so.
Yet, don’t kid yourself. There’s real suffering here. The narcissist is internally unstable. Struggling with the same issues of meaning and self-esteem that many of us confront, they react by puffing up, accumulating money, influence, things, looking for vain reassurance, or attacking when frustrated.
So much energy. So much hurt. So much internal angst. A paradoxically vulnerable self-esteem in a person that claims to be so special. So little awareness.
When Failure Strikes
This brings us to the failed narcissist. Some narcissists fail—and this particular fall from grace really hurts. Even those without the disorder, just folks with some narcissistic traits, can fall under the guise of the failed narcissist.
You don’t want to be around a failing narcissist. Too much pain. Bitterness. Too much blaming.
Here is how it works. We all have an idealized version of ourselves. An ego ideal. A sense of what we really want in this world if everything falls our way. This is inherently OK. Something to strive for but not always achieved.
Each and every one of us have different kinds of goals. For most people they're relatively modest. Love. A stable job. Good friends. A healthy family. Or some equivalent.
A person is not necessarily a narcissist if they have an ideal of some great accomplishment. Ambition is a perfectly fine thing. We call it healthy narcissism; the honorable investment in one’s effectiveness internally or externally.
People with narcissistic disorders or traits understand ambition; the ego ideal of some grand accomplishment. Money. Looks. The center of the attention experience. Fame. Notoriety. Influence. It is psychologically intoxicating.
While regular ambitious folks take the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune in stride, those with narcissistic traits are unable to do so.
Some people do attain greatness in one way or another. For regular people it may come about by some internally driven talent: a savvy businessman, a skilled musician, a savant in mathematics, a talented clothing designer—the unusual politician, driven to make a difference as a core value.
By and large, healthy people shy away from over-identifying with adulation. It’s nice. But they are where they are because they love what they do. If it falls apart, it was a good ride; not everything works out all the time.
Some narcissists attain these things, while at the same time living an internally anxious existence. They need to hold onto what they have, not for internal reasons, but because of the desperate need for external validation.
They over-identify with the image rather than the role.
Most of humanity fails to reach the grand, important, moneyed, or influential roles that they might have hoped for. Ambition, after all, is just one aspect of life, and probably not of key importance.
The vast majority of us fall short of some grand greatness and own it as part of the life journey. In fact, I personally believe that real greatness is internal and not external. Something difficult for narcissists to understand.
The failed narcissist on the other hand, is filled with bile; a preoccupation that things are unfair. They ridicule a world that has denied them, not because of some vision of a better society, but because of some deep personal hurt and disappointment.
Folks with narcissistic issues have a significant problem. Their self-esteem is powerfully linked to external factors like success, money, looks or influence.
When things don’t work out, failed narcissists don’t have ready internal resources to soothe themselves. Instead, they attack, sensing their internal injury can be fixed by solving the “injustice” on the outside. It’s not a very successful equation.
Since the disappointment comes from a desperateness of managing self-esteem, there is no easy solution.
For a failing narcissist, it all boils down to externalization. It takes a healthy self-esteem to look at your part in things not working out; or that life throws us unfair challenges. If one’s disappointments are exclusively on the outside, what else does the failed narcissist have but rage?
Don’t get me wrong, often there is a legitimate thing to be upset about. But that happens in life to many: a marriage that falls apart, a business partner who scams us, an honor that goes to another person that feels wrong. The injuries of life are endless.
Responses to Hurt
If you carry some of these symptoms, you are not necessarily a narcissist.
You simply may be bitter. Angry. Victimized. Perhaps you were treated unfairly. I am truly sorry and wish you healing.
Sometimes, that healing is righting a wrong, like standing up to an impossible ex or taking a political position. There are times when we need to take on the outside world.
Yet, healing is almost always internal as well, accepting that so much of life simply doesn’t work out, that life is a work in progress—and still a blessing.
Plus, we now have excellent treatments for the psychic injuries that plague us. Psychotherapy. EMDR. Somatic experiencing. Psychoanalysis. Internal family systems. And more.
You can heal. Sometimes by taking steps in the external world, but always by also working within.
Just know that those on the narcissistic spectrum have the same pain and disappointment that we all do, but for them, it’s magnified by an inability to heal inside, to reach a place of wisdom that understands not everything works out in this journey, to take steps, when appropriate, to change the world, while at the same time working on oneself to gain equanimity and wisdom.
The narcissist is too focused on the outside validation to work through disappointments holistically. They are lost in injury, revenge fantasies, plans to get back at those that did them wrong—while still using others instead of growing. It is an awful place to be.
You may be surprised, but we’re going to end on a positive note, with good news. The failed narcissist can very well be on the first step towards their own healing.
It will take years of good psychotherapy. The goal is to own the instability of one’s self-esteem, to find a healthy love for oneself that’s not based on the validation of others or feeling superior in order to feel good enough. Often, there’s a need to overcome trauma.
Ultimately, a failed narcissist, with the right treatment, can find new vitality in caring about people, not as objects for some project, but as mutually interesting souls on the journey of life.
This therapy requires developing trust in an excellent therapist. These patients must own the disorientation of a wounded self and work through their own injuries while becoming aware of how they’ve hurt others.
This work is redemptive. Difficult. Important.
And that’s hardly a failure at all.