When Grandiosity and Vulnerability Collide: Implicit and Explicit Self-Esteem in Patients with Narcissistic Personality Disorder

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Implicit self-esteem, Explicit self-esteem, Fragile self-esteem, Damaged self-esteem, Discrepancies, Narcissistic personality disorder

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Background and Objectvies: Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is characterized by reports of grandiosity including exaggerated illusions of superiority and entitlement (DSM-IV-TR, APA, 2000). Based on clinical theories (e.g., Kernberg, 1975), many researchers argue that high explicit self-esteem in narcissists masks underlying implicit vulnerability (low implicit self-esteem). Conversely, based on social learning theories (i.e., Millon, 1981), people with NPD are characterized by implicit grandiosity (high implicit self-esteem). We test these competing hypotheses in patients diagnosed with NPD.

Methods: The present study examined implicit self-esteem (using an Implicit Association Test) and explicit self-esteem (using a self-report questionnaire) in patients with NPD in comparison to non-clinical and clinical, non-NPD (Borderline Personality Disorder, BPD) control groups.

Results: Patients with NPD scored lower on explicit self-esteem than non-clinical controls. In comparison to patients with BPD, NPD patients scored higher on explicit and implicit self-esteem. Moreover, within the group of NPD patients, damaged self-esteem (i.e., low explicit, high implicit) was associated with higher narcissistic psychopathology.

Limitations: In both clinical groups we included participants seeking psychiatric treatment, which might influence explicit self-esteem. Longitudinal studies are needed to further assess self-esteem stability in NPD patients in comparison to the control groups.

Conclusions: Our findings are indicative of vulnerable facets in patients with NPD (i.e., low explicit self-esteem). Furthermore, damaged self-esteem is connected to specific psychopathology within the NPD group. Implications for research on NPD are discussed.

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Citation / Publisher Attribution

Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, v. 44, issue 1, p. 37-47