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38 The Open Psychology Journal, 2015, 8, 38-43
1874-3501/15 2015 Bentham Open
Narcissism and Defending Self-Esteem. An Exploratory Study based on
Guido Veronese1,*, Rossella Procaccia2, Giovanni M. Ruggiero3, Sandra Sassaroli3 and
1Department of Human Sciences, University of Milano-Bicocca, Italy
2University e-Campus, Novedrate (LC), Italy
3Studi Cognitivi, Psychotherapy School, Milano, Italy
Abstract: The present qualitative study aims at investigating the role of socio-relational variables in the construction of
threats to self-esteem, grandiosity, and relaxation in a non-clinical sample of 35 young university students. The work
provides fresh experimental evidence of the structural analogy observed in clinical settings between constructions of
threat to self-esteem and grandiose fantasies. We hypothesize that the relational dimension would be more strongly
present than either biological or psychological dimensions.The results show that descriptions of relaxation differ
significantly from their characterizations of the other two domains. Specifically we found greater continuity and narrative
connection between the aspects of threat and grandiosity, while the domain of relaxation showed a more “isolated”
Keywords: Grandiose fantasies, threat to self-esteem, non-pathological narcissism, self-characterzation, qualitative methods.
As defined by DSM IV-TR , the distinctive traits of
patients with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD)
include grandiose fantasies of power, success and/or
superiority; a feeling of entitlement; and an inability to
appreciate the successes and good qualities of others .
Horowitz  suggested that grandiose states are actually a
defensive manoeuvre with the function of mitigating feelings
of low self-esteem and masking a deep-lying sense of
inferiority and shame. Through their grandiose fantasies,
narcissists attempt to protect themselves from criticism and
humiliation, both of which they experience as intolerable [4-
13]. All narcissistic subjects perceive themselves at some
level to be excluded, despised and ostracized [2, 14, 15].
Veronese and colleaugues  reported empirical
evidence of an interconnection between grandiose fantasies
and fantasies of threats to self-esteem in a study with a non-
clinical sample; in contrast, evoking relaxing scenarios has
been found to distract subjects from narcissistic contents
The current study was underpinned by a systemic-
constructionist perspective, which attributes a primary role to
intersubjectivity and social (particularly familial) relations in
the origin, development and maintenance of the self and
*Address correspondence to this author at the Department of Human
Siences, Univesity of Milano-Bicocca, Piazza dell‟Ateneo Nuovo 1, 20126,
Milano, Italy; Tel: +39 2 64484800; Fax: +39(0)264484863;
identity, whether typical or atypical. In this approach, the
relational context is viewed as “complex”, including in
addition to “traditional” dyadic relationships, interactions
among three or more participants [18-23].
The aim of the study was to conduct a qualitative
exploration of how narcissistic defensive structures may
contribute to increased risk of loss of self-esteem in non-
pathological individuals. Specifically, we examined the
construct system of a sample of university students, with a
view to advancing understanding of non-pathological
narcissistic mechanisms and informing theoretical reflection
on analogous traits of pathological narcissism [6, 24].
One of the peculiar traits of narcissism, whether in the
context of a healthy and balanced personal identity  or of
a pathological personality type [2, 6] is a marked difficulty in
building and maintaining significant “warm” relationships
with others. Narcissistic individuals‟ preoccupation with
rank and their continuous monitoring of relationships
perceived as threatening prevents them from committing to
warm relationships or forming strong relational bonds. This
also explains why one of the key challenges in
psychotherapy with persons affected by NPD is building a
satisfactory therapeutic alliance between patient and
therapist. The primary outcome of this difficulty in
establishing relationships is the tendency to exploit
relationships to achieve the narcissist‟s own ends in cases of
non-pathological narcissism, and a self-perpetuating cycle of
rupture and repair of the psychotherapist-patient therapeutic
alliance in the case of pathological narcissism . Both in
Narcissism and Defending Self-Esteem The Open Psychology Journal, 2015, Volume 8 39
the case of NPD and in that of non-pathological narcissistic
traits, a fear of relationships perceived as threatening appears
to have a crucial influence on the construct systems of
individuals. Nonetheless, few studies reported in the
literature have explored the narcissistic personality from a
relational perspective or attempted to explain the relational
characteristics of the narcissistic personality [24, 27, 28]. It
would almost appear that the relational domain is treated as a
superordinate category mediated by individual variables of
the psychological, emotional and behavioural kinds [7-9].
Given the theoretical background just outlined, our
research aim was to investigate the role of socio-relational
variables in the construction of threats to self-esteem,
grandiosity, and relaxation. Specifically, we hypothesized
that the relational dimension would be more strongly present
than either biological or psychological dimensions.
A further aim was to provide fresh experimental
evidence, in a non-clinical sample of young university
students, of the structural analogy observed in clinical
settings between constructions of threat to self-esteem and
grandiose fantasies; we also hypothesized that participants‟
descriptions of relaxation would differ significantly from
their characterizations of the other two domains. Specifically
we expected that there would be greater continuity and
narrative connection between the aspects of threat and
grandiosity, and that the domain of relaxation would present
a more “isolated” pattern.
Thus, we set out to use qualitative analysis of self-
characterizations , to verify whether, and to what extent,
relational aspects prevail over psychological and biological
aspects in the defence strategies that individuals normally
activate to protect themselves from threats to their self-
esteem. In our view, threats themselves are also more
relational in nature than psychological and biological. Thus,
structural similarities between the threatening and
“protective grandiose” contents of the self in individuals‟
self-characterizations would suggest the hypothesis that a
coping strategy of using grandiose fantasies to protect the
self from threats to self-esteem is ineffective and
counterproductive. We therefore also set out to explore via
the self-characterization task whether, as suggested in the
literature, relaxation strategies may not represent a valid
alternative to the use of the grandiose self in coping with
threats to self-esteem.
Instrument and administration procedure
A purposive convenience sample of 35 university
students (average age 22.5; sd 3.2) was asked to write a self-
characterization . In order to protect participants‟
anonymity and privacy, they were asked to identify
themselves with a nickname that did not reveal their true
identity. They were given as much time as necessary, in
practice between 25 and 45 minutes, to compose their self-
The specific instructions provided were as follows:
“First of all, please choose a nickname for yourself (for
example your initials followed by your date of birth).
Write your nickname on each of the sheets that you are
given. Try to choose an “original” nickname to prevent
you from being confused with another respondent.
Now, please write a character sketch of yourself, just as if
you were the main character in a play. Write it as it might
be written by a friend who knew you very intimately,
perhaps better than anybody else. Be careful to use the
third person. For example, begin by saying “ X
(= nickname) is …”.
The task was administered to all participants at one
The self-characterization texts were subjected to content
analysis. We used the software for textual analysis Atlas-Ti
to define the relationships between semantic nodes
ascribable to our three preordained families (or clusters) of
threat, grandiosity and relaxation and to a further three
families of codes predefined on the basis of the bio-psycho-
social model . Thus nine families of codes were created
in all: the families of biological, psychological and relational
codes (dimensions), distributed across three macro-families
or domains: threat, grandiosity and relaxation.
Atlas-Ti is a software for the coding and analysis of texts.
The analytical procedure involves importing the text, reading
it closely, and then selecting words, phrases or paragraphs
(quotations) to link to a series of conceptual categories
(codes). The data may subsequently be exported to statistical
packages such as Spss for the purposes of quantitative
investigation. One of the advantages of Atlas-Ti is that
aggregate codes, individual codes or citations may be easily
retrieved in real time. This function is useful both during the
analysis phase and for the purposes of calling up fragments
of text for inclusion in the research report. As well as
allowing analysis to be conducted rapidly and flexibly, the
programme is suited to the treatment and manipulation of
large quantities of data. In the present study, after a first
“free” coding stage carried out by a researcher whose brief
was to stay as closely as possible to the text, the initial codes
were classified and relabelled (e.g., “strong self-esteem”;
etc..) via inter-judge discussion, and then grouped into three
clusters: the first cluster contained all the fragments of text
ascribable to a semantic universe of threat to self-esteem,
namely descriptions, adjectives or nouns that could be
perceived as undermining a positive self-image (e.g., “feels
inadequate”, etc.); the second cluster was related to the
semantic universe of “grandiosity”, that is to say, all
descriptions that could be read as attempts to defend the self
from threat by defining it positively, in terms of self-
efficacy, relational success, etc.; the third cluster was made
up of nouns, adjectives and descriptive phrases that reflected
an attempt on the part of the respondent to relax without
invoking either positive or negative definitions of self (e.g.,
“winds down while painting”). The coders then subdivided
each of the three clusters of threat, grandiosity and relaxation
into three dimensions: the first grouped together descriptions
focusing on the body and physiological states (biological
dimension), the second contained references to inner and
psycho-emotional experience (psychological dimension),
while the third contained fragments of text describing
40 The Open Psychology Journal, 2015, Volume 8 Tani et al.
respondents‟ social and relational lives (relational
dimension). Finally the coders defined a series of logical-
semantic connections (such as code A is related to B, A is
part of B, A causes B, A is a property of B, etc.) among the
codes from the three bio-psycho-social dimensions and the
three domains of self-description (self under threat,
grandiose self and “relaxing” to distance the self from
The self-characterizations reflected a tendency for
individuals to describe themselves predominantly in
psychological and relational terms (see Table 1). The
tendency to describe the self in terms of the bodily
dimension was far more limited (see Fig. 1). The relational
dimension was slightly more prominent than the
psychological dimension in terms of number of occurrences
(quotations) and frequency of codes. References to the
biological dimension were far less numerous and frequent.
The frequency of psychological and relational codes in the
threatening and grandiose domains was almost equal,
whereas these domains contained drastically fewer
references to the biological dimension.
The domains of threat and grandiosity were characterized
by highly similar semantic structures. In both cases, the
semantic network of the psychological dimension revolved
around the “node” of “self-esteem” (see Figs. 2 & 3), and
that of the socio-relational dimension around nodes
concerning significant relationships and themes of social
belonging and loneliness.
In contrast, the domain of relaxation was characterized
by a completely different semantic structure and self-
descriptive modes to the other two domains: the prevalent
meanings were those related to the sphere of religion and
self-liberating practices, which allowed respondents to
“detach” from the issues of belonging and self-esteem. Thus
this dimension appeared to be totally independent of those of
threat and grandiosity. The attempts to relax described in the
self-characterizations were never relational in nature (see
Fig. 3) .
Thus, in general, the threatening and grandiose
descriptions formed similar semantic networks, as though
personal identity were in constant and unstable equilibrium
between a threatened self and a grandiose form of
narcissistic defence. It appears that the more individuals try
to defend themselves from threats to their identity by raising
the shield of narcissistic grandiosity, the more the self feels
threatened by the failure of this strategy of “positive self-
description”. Subjects become trapped in a vicious cycle that
does not allow them to distance themselves from the
continuous battle between their need to define themselves
positively and humiliating attacks on their self-esteem [7-9].
Table 1. Frequency of biological, psychological and relational codes in the domains of grandiosity, relaxation and threat.
Fig. (1). Graphic representation of grandiose traits, threat and relaxation in the biological dimension.
Narcissism and Defending Self-Esteem The Open Psychology Journal, 2015, Volume 8 41
Fig. (2). Graphic representation of grandiose traits, threat and relaxation in the psychological dimension.
42 The Open Psychology Journal, 2015, Volume 8 Tani et al.
Fig. (3). Graphic representation of grandiose traits, threat and relaxation in the relational dimension.
The results appear to confirm our hypothesis regarding
the key importance of the socio-relational dimension in
relation to threat and grandiosity. This dimension also plays
a key role in the domain of relaxation, although in this
context bodily and physiological contents are equally present
At the clinical-interpretative level it would appear that
the “public” (whether made up of one or more other persons)
is of vital importance, both in situations of threats to self-
esteem and in grandiosity [33, 14, 15]. In contrast, when
subjects wish to relax they focus on fantasies that involve the
physical-bodily and psychological dimensions rather than the
With regard to triadic/polyadic interactions, our results
confirm that triadic contexts do not feature in people‟s
“common sense” schemas : subjects tend to think of
interactions predominantly in dyadic terms. However it is
interesting to note that the highest frequency of
triadic/polyadic interactions occurs in relation to threats to
In sum, our findings provide further evidence for the
structural similarities between the domains of grandiosity
and threats to self-esteem hypothesized in the literature [3,
35, 36]. In contrast, relaxation appears to follow a pattern of
its own. This suggests that narcissists‟ attempts to protect
their self-esteem via grandiose manoeuvres only reinforce
the very sense of threat and feelings of inadequacy from
which they are desperately trying to protect themselves. A
more effective distancing strategy could be to progressively
train themselves to focus on whatever they find relaxing. It is
most likely that narcissists seek “refuge” in grandiose
fantasizing because they have difficulty protecting
themselves from threats to their self-esteem by drawing on
strategies that help them to relax .
Naturally some limitations of the present work should be
noted. Firstly, while our findings provide useful guidance for
insecure about physical
has strong self-esteem
prepared to be self-critical
likes to do their best
adjusts to situations
Narcissism and Defending Self-Esteem The Open Psychology Journal, 2015, Volume 8 43
the formulation of hypotheses to be extended to patient
populations, they may not be reliably generalized in that the
data was drawn from a non-clinical sample. The
low numerosity of the sample, and the uneven gender
distribution and young age of the participants, also prevents
us from viewing the results as definitive. Nevertheless, it
must be noted that in the qualitative research samples must
be large enough to provide a set of data to explain the
phenomenon we want to study, but at the same time if the
sample is too large data becomes redundant and superfluous.
Summing up in this study the authors followed the principle
of saturation ; that is when new data are not able to add
any further explanation on the research‟s questions under
CONFLICT OF INTEREST
The authors confirm that this article content has no
conflicts of interest.
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Received: October 25, 2014 Revised: January 30, 2015 Accepted: February 02, 2014
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