I don't see this mentioned a lot when reading about narcissism. It's not in the diagnostic manual and a lot of writings overlook or omit this. This concept has been crucial to my understanding of how to deal with a narcissist.
Many people assume that a narcissist has an overly inflated self esteem. In fact, that is the origin of the name, narcissism, from the Greek myth of Narcissus who was so in love with himself that, when he caught a glimpse of his reflection in a pond, he was unable to turn away and died from admiring himself.
I do not think this is true. I think narcissists have a very, very low opinion of themselves. I think their true self is profoundly damaged. Sam Vaknin, a self proclaimed narcissist says his true self is completely missing, destroyed. Whether it is damaged beyond repair or missing altogether, I think the narcissist is aware of this "hole in their soul" on some level. It is probably and subconscious awareness as their self awareness seems to be minimal at best. Because this awareness exists only on a subconscious level; 1) you shouldn't try to discuss it with them because they aren't consciously aware of it and 2) anything which threatens to make this a conscious awareness is extremely threatening to them. I think this is why you get the profound rage and insane behavior when you contradict or criticize them. They perceive that you see the crack in their facade and rush to defend it, wildly and sometimes dangerously, but without any self awareness. I think this is why they are so intolerant of being wrong.
Why is this important to know? Because this false self, this facade is what you are actually interacting with. The true self may have had empathy, compassion, and fully functioning emotions. The false self has little or no feelings. Someone has said that narcissists only experience anger and fear. I think this may be true, they definitely display those emotions. By contrast, they demonstrate no empathy and no remorse.
So how does this affect how you interact with them? First, you have to realize: they have no empathy and no remorse. None. Zilch. Zero. So what do you appeal to? You don't. I wasted huge periods of my life trying to appeal to narcissists. Trying to get them to see or care that they were hurting me, someone they claimed to love. They couldn't. They wouldn't. They didn't. I tried to get them to feel remorse for their bad behavior or their mistreatment. They never, ever did. They simply don't have it to give. And it's absolutely crucial for your sanity that you get this. There is nothing there to appeal to. You are wasting your time and your energy. Your hopes, your expectations, your wishes that they will change or realize what they are doing or care are futile. They are not based on reality. So wake up, realizing who you are talking to and what you are talking to and change your expectations. You're only setting yourself up to be hurt and frustrated.
So what does interacting with a false self look like? And how should you change your tactics? When you are interacting with a narcissist, you have to remember that you are interacting with a facade of a human being, not an actual, fully actualized, authentic, feeling person. The false self of the narcissist reads you and fakes a reaction or a response to what you are doing. They have learned to fake it. They have learned to emulate what other people say or do. They spend a lot of energy reading you in order to fake the correct response to you. And they have varying degrees of success.
If you want to see this demonstrated, try to discuss something with them which requires empathy.
I had just had surgery and was in a great deal of pain. When I expressed my distress to the narcissist in my life the reaction I got was - nothing. Absolutely nothing. Not a word, not a facial expression - nothing. They just looked at me with a completely blank look and walked off. They felt nothing and this was reflected in their behavior. I saw the crack in their facade.
When I told my narcissistic coworker that a young, 17 year old girl we worked with had died, the response I got was canned and artificial. Something like, "huh, that is too bad" and she went back to what she was doing. We knew and worked with this young girl. And this narcissist was a mother of two. I, on the other hand, had no children. Despite the fact that I had never had children I could not imagine what the mother of that young girl was going through to lose a child, and lose them so young. Yet my friend, the mother of two, felt nothing. Nor did she come back later with any indication that she had any sympathy. Our company had a lot of donations from the family which had to be processed, the family came out to visit the site, there was a funeral, lots of other employees were talking about it. It wasn't that the narcissist was initially overwhelmed or stunned. She never changed her behavior. She felt nothing, and it showed.
I think the false self is also why they lash out in rage or get completely delusional in their arguments. When you do something which exposes this false self, like criticizing them, calling them on their bad behavior or pointing out the truth of a situation - they feel threatened because you are seeing that very damaged "hole in their soul" - and they lash out blindly and forcefully.