Existential Isolation and Narcissism

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Existential isolation and narcissism, while distinct in their core definitions, intersect in compelling ways that shed light on the human psyche and our intrinsic need for connection. Existential isolation delves deep into our experiences of aloneness, not just in the physical realm but at an emotional and cognitive level. It encapsulates the profound sensation of detachment from others, sometimes even amidst seemingly fulfilling relationships. As Yalom (1980) aptly highlighted, it represents an abyss between oneself and the world, a gap that often remains even when we are surrounded by cherished bonds.

Narcissism, in contrast, presents itself as an overt preoccupation with one’s own desires and ambitions. As outlined by Campbell & Miller (2011), it encompasses an elevated sense of self-worth, entitlement, and a palpable lack of empathy. Moreover, individuals with narcissistic tendencies often seek validation and admiration from their peers (Morf & Rhodewalt, 2001).

Given our innate desire as humans to belong and connect, it’s no surprise that these two states can intertwine. Individuals grappling with the overwhelming weight of existential isolation might veer towards narcissistic tendencies as a means to bridge that chasm of disconnect. Conversely, those immersed in narcissistic behaviours may find themselves isolated due to their inability to see beyond their own needs.

This essay will explore the intricate dance between existential isolation and narcissism, arguing that their interplay is a multifaceted dynamic where the presence of one can exacerbate the other. Through both existential and psychological lenses, we aim to unpack the origins and outcomes of these states, culminating in a discussion on how existential therapy might offer a beacon of hope and resolution.

The concept of Existential Isolation

Existential isolation, as a concept, has been intricately dissected across time, drawing from both philosophical musings and empirical research. As elucidated by Yalom (1980), isolation isn’t a monolithic experience; it has nuances. He categorizes it into three distinct types: interpersonal, intrapersonal, and existential. While interpersonal isolation emerges from an absence of social interactions, intrapersonal isolation delves into the fragmentation within oneself. Yet, existential isolation stands apart, manifesting as a profound feeling of solitude in one’s experiences, governed by a belief that they’re unique and incomprehensible to others.

Heidegger’s (1962) philosophical proposition paints human existence as being “cast into the world” — a condition of ‘thrownness.’ We, as humans, find ourselves in a realm not of our crafting, left to grapple with the realities of mortality and finitude. This realisation, Heidegger argues, can cultivate a deep-seated sense of existential isolation. For him, this state of aloneness is not a mere consequence but an inherent feature of our existence. By coming to terms with our own ‘thrownness,’ we gain insights into our standing in the universe and our ties with fellow beings.

Sartre (2003), weaving a somewhat divergent tapestry, postulates that our very freedom, the core of human nature, can be isolating. Each choice we make, unaided and solitary, carries weight and consequences. This intrinsic freedom, paired with our inability to ever truly plunge into another’s psyche, creates a barrier. Sartre terms this the “facticity” of our subjectivity, a chasm that can instigate feelings of detachment and estrangement. Yet, Sartre believed in redemption; despite this inherent isolation, one can still find purpose by embracing their freedom and living authentically.

In a more empirical vein, recent studies, such as the one by Pinel, Long, Murdoch, and Helm (2017), underscore the subjective nature of existential isolation. They postulate that its intensity and frequency vary across individuals. Notably, certain personality constructs, like narcissism, can influence the ways in which one experiences this profound solitude.

An existential look at narcissism

At the heart of existentialism lies the belief that humans inherently carve their own purpose and significance. This autonomy, while empowering, also breeds existential angst, demanding choices without any cosmic compass. Herein, narcissism can become a refuge, amplifying self-worth to dodge this existential distress (Heidegger, 1962; May, 1958; Sartre, 2003).

Martin Heidegger (1962) emphasised the importance of individuals confronting their existence and owning their actions for life’s meaning. Discussing “Dasein” or one’s state of being in the world, he underscored how narcissism lets one bypass this confrontation, being entrapped by self-image. Heidegger articulates that “Dasein always understands itself in terms of its existence – in terms of a possibility of itself: to be itself, or not itself” (Heidegger, p. 33, 1962). This, to me, reflects the journey of recognizing one’s existence, emphasising self-engagement. In contrast, narcissism impedes authenticity and real understanding of life’s purpose.

Sartre’s philosophy offers more clarity. He discusses “bad faith” as a realm where people, through self-deceit, elude their inherent freedom’s responsibilities. Here, narcissism materializes as a “bad faith” avatar, letting individuals cloak themselves in an idealized image, shying away from genuine existential engagements.

While existential thinkers may recognise narcissism as a human tendency—perhaps an offshoot of our pursuit for meaning—it’s not uniformly deemed commendable (Shaw, 2000; van Deurzen-Smith, 2000; Yalom, 1980). Considering the interweaving of narcissism across facets of our existence—be it biological, psychological, or cultural realms (van Deurzen-Smith, 2000)—it is undeniably central to our worldly existence. However, it’s worth noting that humans can, at times, exhibit traits like entitlement, exploitation, or lack of empathy.

To decipher the human existential puzzle, as van Deurzen-Smith (2000) posits, it’s imperative to traverse physical, personal, social, and spiritual life facets, analyzing their intersections. Given the ubiquity of narcissism, it undoubtedly warrants exploration across these existential dimensions.

The connection between existential isolation and narcissism

Navigating the human journey, we face an existential quandary: while we are birthed into and depart from the world in solitude, our innermost desires seek connection. This profound dissonance often drives some to prioritise self-validation, sometimes at others’ expense or by attempting immersion within a collective.

Narcissistic individuals often view their persona through restrictive prisms, emphasising either power, vulnerability, or an incessant thirst for validation. Such a constrained self-perception impedes genuine self-awareness, amplifying feelings of existential detachment. It’s worth noting that while every individual grapples with feelings of existential loneliness, its depth and resonance vary (Referencing Thompson, 2015, and Yalom, 1980, among others).

Distinct dynamics heighten the narcissist’s pronounced sense of isolation:

1. Tactics of Control: Driven by their need for affirmation, narcissists often employ controlling behaviours, leading to trust erosion and subsequent relational alienation.
2. Empathy Gap: A marked deficiency in empathy limits the narcissist’s capacity to resonate with diverse perspectives, accentuating their feelings of seclusion.
3. Endless Validation Chase: A perpetual hunt for affirmation often leaves them feeling hollow, even when surrounded by others, thus barring authentic human connections.
4. Ephemeral Contentment: Any sense of fulfilment they might derive from achievements is typically short-lived, plunging them back into feelings of emptiness.
5. Counterproductive Coping Mechanisms: Often, narcissists lean into avoidance tactics, emotional insularity, and intense self-absorption, only deepening their sense of disconnection.

The intricate dance of existential solitude magnifies narcissistic behaviours. A persistent sense of detachment, compounded by an existential vacuum, fans the flames of their external validation pursuit. The complex interweaving of these dynamics predisposes narcissists to experience a profounder state of existential loneliness than most.

Relevance to the therapy practice

The human journey is interlaced with experiences of existential isolation and narcissistic tendencies. In the realm of existential therapy, these are not mere concepts but rather fundamental experiences, pivotal in shaping a myriad of psychological challenges. Grasping their nuances is instrumental for therapists aiming to deeply fathom their clients’ internal struggles.

Delving into the intricate relationship between existential isolation and narcissism provides a prism through which therapists can discern the root issues that may exacerbate a client’s difficulties. In the heart of existential therapy lies the endeavour to foster genuine human connections and cultivate an enriched self-awareness. By guiding clients towards a path of authenticity and discovering life’s meaningful facets, existential therapists can potentially ameliorate the encompassing cycle of detachment and self-centeredness. Eminent figures in this domain, such as Van Deurzen (2002), Yalom (1980), and May (1958), have underscored the profound impact of such interventions.

Central to existential therapy is the acknowledgement of life’s unavoidable existential truths: mortality, the gravity of freedom, inherent isolation, and the potential void of meaning (Yalom, 1980). Within this framework, narcissism can often emerge as a psychological fortress against these confronting realities. Through therapeutic explorations, individuals can potentially unearth the origins of their narcissistic inclinations.

In the pursuit of addressing existential solitude and narcissistic patterns, the “I-Thou” relationship, as conceptualised by Martin Buber (2008), can be an invaluable tool. This therapeutic method accentuates the reciprocity and genuineness of human interactions. By centring on these principles, therapists can advocate for self-reflection, personal accountability, and the nurturing of empathy. In addressing existential disconnection, recognising the value of mutual human bonds can guide individuals to foster deeper, more rewarding relationships, mitigating feelings of estrangement.

When confronting narcissistic tendencies, the emphasis on authentic and reciprocal relationships can pave the way for introspection, allowing individuals to grasp the ramifications of their self-focused behaviours. This realisation can catalyse a shift from egocentrism towards cultivating connections rooted in authenticity and mutual respect.

It is apparent that existential therapy, anchored in existentialist thought, provides an avenue for those with narcissistic traits to introspectively navigate their self-perception and interpersonal dynamics, thereby unveiling genuine selfhood and crystallising personal values. This therapeutic approach offers a comprehensive lens through which narcissism can be addressed, urging clients to embrace personal agency instead of attributing their challenges solely to external forces.


The intersection between existential isolation and narcissism. is complex and deeply rooted in the tapestry of human existence. While existential isolation emanates from our solitary journey into and out of this world, our experiences within it are tinted by our unique perspectives and life encounters. Parallelly, narcissism, with its hallmarks of grandiosity, diminished empathy, and relentless quest for affirmation, casts a distinct shadow on interpersonal relations.

There’s a compelling interplay between these constructs: for some, the chasm of existential isolation may be bridged by narcissistic tendencies, serving as a protective facade against feelings of profound detachment and void. Conversely, the narcissistic soul may find themselves ensnared in a cycle of loneliness, their self-focus becoming a barrier to genuine human connection.

In the therapeutic landscape, existential therapy emerges as a beacon, offering pathways to navigate and reconcile these challenges. By fostering enduring and genuine relationships, unveiling the roots of narcissistic behaviours, and confronting life’s intrinsic existential realities, this therapeutic approach aspires to guide individuals towards a more grounded, connected, and meaningful existence.


Max Karlin is a practising psychologist with a diverse professional background and a trainee existential therapist at the New School of Psychotherapy and Counselling (NSPC – Existential Academy) and Middlesex University, London. Max brings a rich tapestry of experience from his diverse professional journey, spanning over two decades in commerce and business. In addition to the private practice, he consults leaders and specialists across various industries and countries. He is passionate about researching how psychotherapy can contribute to social change and foster a better world. Founder and co-editor of the Journal of Integrative Psychotherapy and Systemic Analysis.



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Max Karlin

Practising psychologist with a diverse professional background and a trainee therapist at the New School of Psychotherapy and Counselling (NSPC – Existential Academy) and Middlesex University, London. Max brings a rich tapestry of experience from his diverse professional journey, spanning over two decades in commerce and business. In addition to the private practice, he consults leaders and specialists across various industries and countries, ranging from small start-ups to large organisations. Max is passionate about researching how psychotherapy can contribute to social change and foster a better world. Founder and co-editor of the Journal of Integrative Psychotherapy and Systemic Analysis.

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